The young boy was focused on his homework, under the watchful eye of his grandmother. It wasn’t easy as it was mid-January. Hahnenkamm week in Kitzbühel and the best ski racers in the world were in town. The Austrian lion, Karl Schranz and French rising star Jean Claude Killy. Athletes from Germany, United States, Italy, Switzerland, Canada and many more nations, here to challenge the Streif and Ganslern race tracks. To be able to watch the race from the deck of your home was a thrill. But grandmother made sure he put in his time with his studies at night.
This particular evening, a few special guests arrived. Each acknowledged the youngster as they knew his father well, Ernst Hinterseer – 1960 Olympic Champion in slalom. They then settled into deep discussions in an adjacent room. As they went about their business, the young boy kept focused on his homework.
Hansi Hinterseer has lived ski racing history. That January evening fifty years ago in the Seidlalm was a gathering where the concept of the World Cup was first proposed. Attending were Serge Lang, who founder of the concept and fellow collaborators Honoré Bonnet and Bob Beattie. “I had no idea what they were meeting about” said Hansi. “I was very young, only twelve at the time, but because they knew my father well, they always said hello to me. Pretty ironic that I would be able to benefit from their idea!”
Seven years later, in January 1974, the young boy would not only capture the slalom crown of the Hahnenkamm – just down the hill from his home – but also win the giant slalom crystal globe.
The “concept” was truly revolutionary. Back in the mid-1960’s skiing was enjoying tremendous growth in popularity worldwide. Interest in ski racing was booming. But the international racing circuit was a haphazard collection of three classic races: the Hahnenkamm of Kitzbühel, Wengen’s Lauberhorn and the rotation of the Arlberg-Kandahar between Garmisch, Chamonix, Mégeve, St. Anton and Sestriere. There were more races, including the 3-Tre of Madonna di Campiglio, Val d’Isere’s Criterium de la Premiere Neige and interest outside of Europe, but no system defined where the best should go.
The World Cup concept existed in the football world, but it was held every four years. Serge Lang’s new idea was to create a World Cup Tour that would bring together all the best athletes from every country every year. To establish a clearly defined world-wide circuit with the best venues and all the top athletes. The Alpine Ski World Cup became the first organized annual international tour in all Olympic sports.
Today we take it for granted that a World Cup brings together the best in the world. Ranking systems (the World Cup Start List or WCSL) is based on World Cup results. Qualification to the World Championships or Olympic Winter Games is premised on results in World Cup. The circuit has become quite prescribed, with many venues now described as “classics”. Even the World Cup Race organizers have seconded the name as “Club 5+ Classics”. And with many having participated in the Tour for fifty years, it is fair to allow them into the exclusive club.
Across five decades, the colour, tradition and history of the Alpine World Cup has captured the imagination of the sports world. In 2017, Killington attracted one of the largest crowds ever to watch a ladies World Cup race. The 77th running of the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel drew more than 50,000 spectators for the downhill alone, to take in the thrill of athlete against the mountain. Athletes from more than 25 different nations have earned podiums. An American is poised to surpass the record of most World Cup wins, which has been held by a Swedish superstar.
There are always growing pains, as the World Cup has matured from a brash, innovative idea into a defined concept and big business. It has become very challenging for younger athletes to break into the elite in force, as costs escalate and sponsor opportunities become harder to land in a very busy sports landscape. Organizers face soaring costs to stage events, with enormous infrastructure and safety installation capital. The sport is always facing a balance of respect for tradition which has been the bread and butter of the World Cup for 50 years, against growing pressure to be innovative with new event ideas.
Newer concepts such as the Nations Team Event, a mixed gender dual slalom format that is now part of the Olympic program in 2018, continue to build interest. The World Cup continues to wrestle with the ‘parallel’ or individual dual format, with two concepts: the “City Event” which is a parallel slalom in Stockholm and the “parallel GS” now held annually in Alta Badia. Both present tremendous opportunity to bring alpine ski racing to more intimate venues where spectators can truly appreciate the skills and bravado of the athletes in an easily understood head-to-head format.
But in the face of change, the Alpine Ski World Cup has endured as a revolutionary concept. A Tour where in every competition the best are always taking on the best on the most challenging venues. In each and every World Cup race the winner is World Champion for a day – the best human on the planet. Very few sports consistently offer such a standard. Ski racing remains the primary draw of winter sport. The worldwide TV audiences remain robust. New venues clamor to gain a coveted spot on the calendar.
You want to understand real “extreme sports”? Go no further than the Hahnenkamm at Kitzbühel. Nothing in the winter sporting world compares to the challenge of facing down the Hausberg and Zielschuss of the Streif and plunging into the finish arena, in front of a hill black with spectators and a world-wide audience exceeding 200 million viewers.
This is the cradle of ski sports. Where the Alpine Ski World Cup was founded. Where tradition is respected, innovation is embraced and the culture of alpine ski racing is celebrated every year.