vail 

Loving the Aliens How 1,600 Austrians, 20,000 cases of Carlsberg and 50 million TV ski racing fans turned Vail’s 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships into a two week reprieve for North American ski racing... and what that means for Whistler’s World Cup hopes By Andy Stonehouse They came, they skied, and they drank copious amounts of Carlsberg beer: the lost tribes of the Earth did indeed turn out for Vail’s 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships, turning nay-sayers into believers and providing a much-needed kick in the pants for the economy of a once-prosperous Colorado ski village. Well, sort of. From Feb. 1 to 14, fans of the world’s finest ski athletes filled the streets of the community and crammed themselves into a football arena-sized finish stadium to watch events which saw not a single North American crack the top three in a fortnight of action. And while it would be nice to say that an event on the scale of Vail ’99 — part international festival, part World Cup-styled ski series and all party — might prove to effectively jump-start the heart of downhill racing in North America, the two weeks didn’t quite do the trick. But it was certainly a beginning, and the lessons learned by Vail ’99 organizers could go a long way in helping Whistler make a successful bid for the return of that all-important televised World Cup action. In a season notably devoid of American favourites like Picabo Street or any of those once-flashy Canadian racers (all of whom seem to now hold talking head jobs for ESPN), the entire two weeks in Vail really boiled down to one thing: a European TV event conveniently airlifted into America’s most pseudo-European ski resort. And perhaps that’s all that the community could really hope for. After two weeks of non-stop entertainment, crowded restaurants and bars and a weekend ski race that drew 20,000 fans (and Arnold Schwartzenegger) to nearby Beaver Creek, the fact that our continent’s talent drew no precious metal during the races seemed immaterial. What was important was the opportunity to successfully use a North American backdrop for a biannual event which takes on Olympic-sized proportions in Europe, attracting even more viewers than America’s Super Bowl. It would have been wonderful for hot-shot American youngsters like Chad Fleischer to bring home the gold in front of a hometown audience, but at the 1999 World Championships, the dominant force came from Austria, with 13 medals over two weeks. And who cares if the American hosts couldn’t actually tell Austria apart from Australia — for ski racing fans sitting in front of the television at home across the Atlantic, a European sweep of the events only served to draw more attention to the coverage. Two weeks of blue skies and friendly reception to a populace of German and Norwegian-speaking visitors also meant they might actually come back as ski tourists when all is said and done. Ten years after Vail hosted the last American appearance of the World Championships, hopes and aspirations were certainly mixed. Vail ’89 had been a successful event, but the crowds that were promised to swell the village like some sort of ski racing Mardi Gras had mostly failed to materialize. In fact, with the exception of the poor Spanish prince who managed to get himself decapitated while gunning the men’s downhill course after a race, the 1989 World Championships elicited few lasting local memories. In 1999, with an air of ecoterrorist-sponsored paranoia colouring the months leading up to the Vail races, things seemed like they could be more interesting than just two weeks of downhill action. Would a secret cell of the Earth Liberation Front pull another $15 million (US) arson stunt, aimed at the not-so-easily-sympathizable Vail Resorts? Would martial law have to be imposed to quell the rioting crowds of Jagermeister-fuelled European ski racing hooligans? Colorado law enforcement authorities expected (and probably half hoped for) the worst, but by the end of the two week festival, the police found themselves mostly twiddling their thumbs. Nothing burned, nothing vandalized, and except for the guy who made off with 23 cases of Carlsberg from the media tent, the two weeks were about as quiet as quiet could be for the cops. The long arm of the law, unfettered by real crime, did manage to turn the entire 14-day period into a vision of America under extremely close police supervision. More than 60 extra Colorado State Patrol troopers (the ones in those funny hats) were stationed in the Vail Valley over the World Championships, paid by the state legislature, and in the absence of fire bombings and ’72 Olympics-styled hostage takings, they spent 14 days stopping every licensed motorist in a 30 mile radius, over and over and over again. A spokesman claimed that most of the 1,400 stops were simply to offer directions to lost travellers. Whatever the case, the two weeks produced only a dozen DUI arrests, so perhaps the constant presence of John Law did what it was supposed to. For crowds used to the typical European ski race partying conditions — 24-hour-a-day drinking in the streets — Colorado’s nearly-British Columbian liquor laws served to be a substantial bummer. But sequestered in their host hotels, or crammed into the standing-room-only conditions at the cafe-cum-TV studio Austria House, the Euros let loose with characteristic abandon. And they weren’t shy about showing their support for their athletes when they hit the streets and the spectator stands. The best times at Vail ’99 were afternoons and evenings spent in the public picks and award ceremonies held in Vail Village, with thousands of spectators, noisy fan clubs and TV crews standing shoulder to shoulder to cheer on the winners. A beer in one hand (some public drinking was allowed, provided you got that all-important 21-and-over wristband ID) and a noisemaker in the other, the events created a casual atmosphere that left you half-convinced you were in St. Anton or Verbier. A significant share of the thanks for happy interactions between the mostly foreign guests and Vail goes to the event’s organizing committee, the Vail Valley Foundation. Their fund-raising efforts totalled in the multi-million dollar range to effectively cushion the blow of the event, jazz up the town and put a friendly face on what is normally a pretty up-tight ski resort. The Foundation’s effort was assisted to no end by an amazing 1,600 volunteers, giving directions, forerunning the race courses or making coffee and photocopies for some 1,600 accredited media attending the events. With a few weeks of post-event perspective providing some clarity on Vail ’99’s successes and excesses, local merchants acknowledge the positive impact of the events — and see the potential for long-term return visits that two weeks of smiling faces and blue Colorado skies built up in visitors. But the Super Bowl (or even a single day of NASCAR racing) Vail ’99 wasn’t, and flat occupancy rates and slow business that have plagued the resort throughout the season have meant a lot of early lay-offs for local workers, seasonal and full-time. An embarrassing 50 inch base of snow at the local mountains has also done little to help keep up with snow-drenched locales in California or back in Whistler. While the World Championships were hoped to give the resort the shot of adrenaline it needed to prosper this season, the reality is a bit different. In order to make ski racing attract the kind of crowds drawn to ball (or puck) sports elsewhere in Canada and the United States, a few fundamental changes are necessary. A Denver ski mom I met on the last day of the races encapsulated the problem pretty concisely. In the United States (as in Canada, no doubt), ski racing has turned into a sporting option rivalling only yachting or equestrian riding for its sheer separation from the normal populace. Her daughter attended a private ski racing and educational academy in Vail, paid out of pocket, further driving a wedge into the division between normal school sports and the idyll of the upper class. And with funding cuts hitting the US teams in the same way that they have ravaged Canadian squads, the talent pool has definitely suffered. What was worse, she noticed, was that the overall buzz — and the amount of TV coverage — stemming from ESPN’s entirely made-for-TV Winter X Games (taped at nearby Crested Butte) far exceeded any domestic interest in the 1999 World Championships, Vail or not. Even sexy but not-really-sanctioned sports like boardercross and big air competitions now seem more likely to grab the attention of Joe Six-Pack. In the absence of home-grown talent, Vail ’99 quickly became an exercise in simply putting up with a couple of weeks of Euro-centrism. Sort of like getting nothing but Swedish TV for two weeks and watching all the time, hoping that they’d show some nudity once in a while but never really understanding what’s going on. And for the most part, the local fans who did come to Vail found that mostly amusing. Even the corporate sponsorships littering the slopes and covering every camera-adjacent surface spoke to an entirely European audience. Milka chocolate, an Austrian confectionery giant owned by America’s Philip Morris company, became the event’s most unavoidable free item, even enlisting scores of locals to dress up in goofy purple cow suits to distribute samples of chocolate. Carlsberg suddenly showed up on the shelves of local bars, assisted in no small part by teams of Aryan-styled promotional reps, some of whom even appeared at concerts that week sporting keg-backpacks for quick samples. Perhaps the most over-the-top example of corporate co-promotion came in the presence of BMW, who set up a two-week ice-driving car clinic on Avon’s Nottingham Lake. Plied with cappuccino, locals lined up to careen around the frozen course behind the wheel of a $50,000 5-Series sedan, their own Outbacks, Expeditions and Grand Cherokees left in the parking lot. A shortage of BMW pins on the last day of free pin trading at the Vail ’99 corporate sponsor tent also threatened to cause a miniature riot. Asked what they liked best about Vail’s second attempt at hosting the World Alpine Ski Championships, representatives of Austria’s St. Anton am Alberg, host of the 2001 events, said they appreciated the simple things: friendly American service, an attractive effort at sprucing up the town and the constant assistance of those 1,600 volunteers. Of course, Vail didn’t have to contend with quite the same litany of problems that have plagued Whistler’s ill-fated attempts at pulling off a successful World Cup event. February in Colorado is notoriously pleasant, and even the few race-threatening dumps of snow that did fall mid-week were quickly attacked by a local Weasel Worker-styled crew of ski club members, Vail staff and volunteers. Making the jump from that tricky-as-hell early December date might be a highly advisable move. But as for making a North American ski racing event an audience-friendly affair, you take the good with the bad. With the bulk of the world’s most devoted fans still firmly planted in Europe, even races like Mammoth Mountain’s annual World Cup races only manage to draw spectator numbers that slightly exceed the number of athletes on hand. Whistler’s World Ski and Snowboard Festival might actually be one of the best examples of a way of happily combining traditional race action with the glossy attractions and side-events needed to bring in the locals. Bottom line — don’t expect miracles. But from the sounds (and smells) of this year’s Whistler visitor success story, maybe tourist-starved Colorado shouldn’t be so quick to supply any hints at all to its neighbours to the north. Be sure to send a bit of that snow our way if you could — we’ve all collectively put in about 15 days on our $1,000 US ski passes and we’d appreciate the help.

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