Downhill has always been at the cutting edge of alpine ski racing. Bold, brassy and bullish – always pushing the limits of excitement.
From the spectacular recoveries of Toni Sailer on the Tofana in the 1956 Cortina Olympics to Franz Klammers wild ride down Patscherkofl in 1976 to the trio of arresting crashes in the 2016 Hahnenkamm, downhill has always commanded our attention.
At the highest level, it continues to be a thrill to watch. The major events in Wengen, Kitzbuhel and the World Championships or Olympics continue to draw robust crowds and TV audience. There has always been a core of elite athletes who amaze us with their bravado and skill. Many names have dominated the event for more than a decade.
And this should be a warning bell for those of us who care deeply about downhill.
Deeper in our system, at the Junior World Ski Championships, Europa Cup and Nor-Am or at FIS downhill events around the world, there is trouble brewing.
The human and financial resources required to provide safe, well-prepared tracks continues to mount. The number of training runs for athletes at races continues to shrink with the current standard typically 1 or 2 trips down a track before the race. The next generation is starved for downhill experience. It seems precious little time set aside to learn the core skills of gliding, aerodynamics and handling terrain. This narrowing of training and competition volume only widens the jump to the elite ranks of the World Cup.
This spring in the Alpine Youth subcommittee meeting at the 2016 FIS Congress, the seven European ski racing powers that make up the Organization of Alpine Nations (OPA) presented a disturbing summary: the past ten years have seen a 40% decline in the participation of ladies in downhill from their programs.
A quick review of most downhill results posted to the FIS web site confirms this trend worldwide. Race fields for both genders are small and getting smaller. Organizers, faced with such limited race entries, are challenged to secure hill space and find volunteers to stage the events.
Faced with this squeeze, the number of available speed tracks continues to decline. Fewer race courses means more limited opportunity to get training and racing. It’s a vicious circle.
In recent years several steps have been taken to reduce the required hill space and volume of safety material to protect speed tracks. The required minimum vertical drops for FIS and Continental Cup levels has been reduced to 450 metres. Two-run downhills, which have been around for quite some time (since 1977), can be run with 350 metres. ENL downhills can go as low as 300 metres for 2-runs.
But tinkering with verticals has had little effect on reversing the continuing slide in available race tracks and numbers of athletes. We need to rethink how we manage downhill if we want to see a robust future.
National Training Centres that focus on speed such as Zauchensee (Austria), Copper Mountain (USA) or Kvitfjell (Norway) have been a positive development. These centres are critical assets for the sport, but even this is not enough. The base needs to be bolstered through greater access to training for younger athletes of all nations. Training volume needs to be lifted, to give athletes time to develop the fundamental skills. And we need to encourage programs to invest in speed training as a tool to develop the well-rounded alpine ski racer.
There are a number special initiatives underway to encourage broader participation and lift the skill set:
- For several years Wengen has organized a Europa Cup downhill for men prior to the Lauberhorn
- Lake Louise has been a proving ground for Nor-Am ladies and men with a week of downhill following their World Cup.
- The OPA nations have committed to coordinate their race calendars and have a special initiative targeted for ladies training this coming winter.
- New this winter, organizers of the Hahnenkamm-races in Kitzbuhel will be staging the first of what is intended to become a bi-annual Europa Cup on the Streif (now to alternate with their already established Children’s Challenge)
Over the coming weeks we’ll take a closer look at these projects – why they are important and what the organizers hope to accomplish and the impact they are having or hope to have on the future of downhill.
There is a growing realization amongst NSA’s, organizers and venues that it is time to invest in the next generation, to keep downhill vibrant and relevant. Every tangible effort to give better access and more experience will help. But it’s going to take coordinated effort and innovative thinking to give the next generation the solid base necessary to become our downhill champions of the future.
Quo Vadis? Where are we going? We hope, to a bright future.