Today was my last day as part of the World Cup. No, not soccer, the alpine/downhill ski racing world cup.
For certain parts of Europe (Austria and Switzerland mostly) this is like the Super Bowl amalgamated with the PGA tour. The Alpine World Cup circuit takes place mostly in the Alps, the only exceptions being Lake Louise in Banff, and Beaver Creek in good ole Colorado.
For about two weeks, the Vail Valley area is taken over by Europeans and ski racers instead of week-end warriors from Denver and upper-middle class families from Dallas and Mexico City.
I was lucky enough to volunteer (it all came together at the very last second), and even better, I became part of the “Talon Crew”, the horde of ski junkies that build the race course and maintain it through the duration of the races. This is a surprisingly complex, and labour-inducing task. Let me explain why.
Alpine ski racing has four main events: the Downhill, which has the longest course and the highest speeds. This event is about guts, fury and power. The next is the Super-G which is quite similar to the Downhill, except is a little shorter and features more turns. Next comes the Giant Slalom, which is shorter still, and feature even more turns. The slowest and shorts of the races is Slalom; this race is about discipline, technical expertise, and finesse.
Ideally, the race course should have the surface of an ice rink, except splayed out on the side of a mountain. If at first this seems contrived and artificial, the real reason is that the harder, ice-y surface of the race course is in a certain sense safer. The reasoning behind this is that soft, fluffy snow cannot hold the physical forces at work at ninety miles an hour. Modern ski racing developed as a positive feedback loop between increasing racing speeds and the ability of people to build courses to handle the increased pressures. Technology in the form of plastics for ski boots and ski design and shape have kept pace too.
The result is surprisingly labour-intensive projects whenever there are high-level ski races. All loose or fresh snow must be raked, shovelled, or plowed with skis off the course. To arrest the kinetic forces of a crashing ski racer, a labyrinth of protective nets must be erected; like those you see at golf driving ranges, except in as many as five layers of nets. During the race, the course is constantly repaired; entire crew will be tasked with spraying the blue lines so the racers can maintain a sense of speed and distance.
For these championships, nearly twenty-five hundred people volunteered for a period of close to three weeks. Sometimes the work can be gruelling. And shovelling snow in a snowstorm on the side of a mountain in winter can feel as useless and contradictory as building a sand-castle with the tide coming in fast.
Indeed, I had a taste of what the ancient Egyptians must have felt building the pyramids: a huge labour project with no practical or realistic benefits. And like the ancients, we were paid in bread and beer.
I got lucky with my work crew. They were Europeans: mostly Swiss, Austrians, Germans. A few Norwegians. This means that they were excited to be there. The way a normal American male would be to stand on the field during the Superbowl. They were there to volunteer, yes, but also to watch the races and to see first hand their racing heroes and heroines. To be honest, few Americans know anything about ski racing. Even most of the Talon Crew would be hard pressed to name more then three or four American Ski Team personalities, much less recognize them on the street or on the slope.
The Europeans, however, could. They recognised the old greats, the ageing legends. They hobnobbed with the European ski racers and coaches. Watching the racers prepare for a race, they stood in silent respect (though could not resist taking some pictures and video). There was Thomas, the leader of our crew from Switzerland. Tall, urbane; yellow POC helmet. He seemed to have the money to simply fly around the world volunteering for ski races. There was Stein and Yarson (?) from Norway; they both looked like Robert Redford in Downhill Racer. Stein hinted that he was a seasoned ski racer. I felt embarrassed that I did not recognise him.
There was a Swiss couple, a surly burgher from Austria (who refused to teach me German swear words), some young Germans who were making a real to America out of the whole thing. These were Mattais (traded his Talon Crew jacket for a Germany Ski Team jacket, the lucky dog) and Kathrine (Austrian; spent hours explaining the difference between Austria and Germany) and Timo (who had a funny Swabian accent and was a terrible skier).
We were rutschcommando. The slip crew. Our job was to side slip or snow plow with our skies snow off the course, or to slide out ruts in the course. This is the aristocracy of the ski race volunteer world. You make many laps and are thus quite mobile. You receive large amounts of downtime. It is assumed that you are strong skiers because slipping a course that is literally made of ice can be an intimidating prospect. And when there is a race, there you are with a front row seat to the races in their full glory.
Perhaps most interesting was watching the national stereotypes play out. The Italian racers where flamboyant; they created a space of awareness about them. They preened themselves and joked with each other and us. Meanwhile, the Austrians had a over-serious calisthetics warm up program for their racers, the entire time, being deadly serious and involving stretchy purple ropes. The French coaches were arrogant. The Canadians where surprisingly successful at the races and where at the same time ignored. The Americans were the centre of the US press despite a mediocre showing.
I was intrigued with the teams from the lesser or unknown skiing nations. India. Georgia. Iceland. Chile. Kazakistan. Clearly success at ski racing takes a highly fortuitous combination of geography, money, and interested supporters. Watching Team India ski, I felt like I could make the India ski team. One wonders if these nations will ever field a team to compete with what seems to be the Big Five of ski racing: Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and the USA (and honourable mention to Norway and France).
The world of ski racing is incredibly small. It is incredibly monied. I slipped part of the race course with a fourteen year old girl who has put her high school education on hold to basically train full time for ski racing. She travels the world to New Zealand, Canada, Argentina and Austria and is constantly homesick. How many people can afford to send their child traveling the world? And that, I think, is the secret to World Cup success: the financial backing to literally raise hundreds of ski racers from their earliest years.
Both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies where modelled off of the Olympics. Lots of children and mediocre fireworks. A parade of nations that exceeded the number of nations actually participating. As far as know, Burkina Faso does not have a ski racing team.
All in all, it was a great experience. I made a kaleidoscope of new friends, and felt like I got to hang out with the skiing deities. It was very international. It was a celebration of speed and snow. Memories were made. And much swag was acquired.