Winterstart! From unconventional roots to Iconic venue.

By Ken Read Published On: November 21st, 2022 in Ski Racing

The Lake Louise World Cup

It’s been more than a great run; it’s been awesome.

As the world gathers in Lake Louise, it may be the final visit of the “White Circus” to the Canadian Rockies. However, the cherished event and its 42-year run originated most unconventionally. The inaugural Lake Louise World Cup ‘make-up’ race changed the course of Olympic history.

The event has served as a valuable pathway to the podium for generations of Canadian and American speed event skiers. Additionally, it has played a significant role in the careers of many of the stars of alpine ski racing.

The “Winterstart World Cup at Lake Louise” played a vital role in the evolution of World Cup competition in North America. “The Lake” joined Vail as the first annual World Cup stops outside Europe. Both sites proved valuable when, in the early ’90s, the tour shifted from spring races to early winter events.

The Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Alberta proved reliable for delivering great racetracks in the early season. Additionally, they nurtured a bustling early-season training industry built on reliable conditions beyond the competition slopes.

From today’s vantage point, it is hard to imagine a World Cup Tour without annual visits to North America. Yet in the 1970s, the “White Circus” was only a decade old and still forming into the premier winter circuit. Primarily volunteers ran the events. The FIS built the calendar through negotiation, political trade-offs, and a few historic venues. Snowmaking had not yet influenced the reliability of competition venues.

So how did a band of volunteers from western Canada, with little international experience, build an event that became one of the most influential stops on the World Cup?

Olympic, in spirit

The Lake Louise speed venue is named the “Olympic Downhill,” but the sweeping, high-speed slope that snakes down the southwest face of Whitehorn Mountain has never hosted an Olympic event.

Designed by the legendary Willy Schaeffler in the early 1960s for the 1968 Banff Olympic bid, sixty years later, the current track closely follows his original proposal. It is a testament to his vision for an incredible speed venue.

Through the early years before 1980, Lake Louise frequently hosted the Canadian Championships and a handful of FIS events.

A convergence of circumstance and chance opened the door

Chamonix was the venue for the final World Cup downhill of the 1980 season. However, valley fog blanketed the lower slopes of the Arlberg Downhill of Les Houches on race day. With only seven (yes, only 7) downhills calendared in this Olympic year and the discipline title still undecided, World Cup Subcommittee Chair Serge Lang issued a call for a ‘make-up’ race to be squeezed into the final weeks of the season.

Initial responses came from two resorts. The favorite was Bad Kleinkirchheim, known as the “home track” of superstar Franz Klammer. The second site, viewed as unlikely, offered an untested speed venue in Canada. Conventional wisdom suggested that the speed tour would make another trip back to Europe.

Serge always had a sense for ways to grow the World Cup

Circumstances aligned to boost the underdog. Calgary had just launched a bid to host the 1988 Olympic Winter Games. Realizing the city’s low profile compared to the Italian luxury resort and former Olympic host Cortina and the Swedish National Training Centre in Falun, Sweden, bid Chair Frank King immediately expressed strong support for the Lake Louise make-up race. Two long-time sponsors of Canadian skiing – Molson and Alcan – stepped up to back the bid. And the controversial cancellation of a downhill calendared for Whistler in March 1979 lent sympathy towards a Canadian bid.

Boosting the bid was the fact that Canada had never hosted a World Cup downhill or major international speed event. Additionally, the Crazy Canucks had emerged as a speed event powerhouse.

Peter Andrews, Canada’s World Cup subcommittee member, led a courageous lobbying effort. Andrews had developed a close relationship with Lang and lobbied extensively on the benefits this could bring. His efforts worked. Serge Lange agreed to the Lake Louise World Cup. Lang knew it was an opportunity to build a World Cup presence in Canada and North America.

The underdog, Lake Louise, won the prize.

It takes a village Photo Credit Lisa Thomson

Click the top of images to enlarge

Immediately, a Canadian Championship race organizing committee pivoted into hosting a World Cup with four weeks’ notice. The organizers needed to secure every hotel room and arrange the TV broadcast. And to make it more challenging, the organizers only had a few sponsors. Additionally, the slope had no snowmaking capacity. The organizers had limited major event experience and limited safety equipment. And they had less than 30 days to put it all together. 

The intrepid band of volunteers, made up mostly of ski racing parents, rolled up their sleeves and the community came together—race Chair Bill Wearmouth handmade “A” nets in his basement. The Chateau Lake Louise closed for renovations, then opened rooms to house volunteers. 

The gondola base terminal was converted to space for the ski technicians. Sponsors stepped up to cover costs. Whistler shipped in additional safety nets. CBC agreed to broadcast the event using the latest and greatest fiber-optic cable technology. However, that required them to string the revolutionary cable from the top to the bottom of the downhill.

A pivotal moment arrived when Peter Baumgartner, FIS technical delegate assigned for the event, met with the race organizers. The retired Swiss general, well known for his precision and firm manner, declared at the end of this first meeting, “We will hold this race.” This was the spark that drove the band of volunteers into overdrive.

Tuesday, March 4, 1980

Photo Credit Lisa Thomson

A make-up race was squeezed in on a Tuesday between the end of the Lake Placid Games and the final weeks of the World Cup Tour.

When racer #1, Sepp Ferstl, father of current World Cup star Josef Ferstl, pushed out of the start on the upper slopes of Whitehorn, Canada finally became a full-fledged member of the international ski racing community.

Hosting the “Olympic Downhill” at Lake Louise became a seminal moment for the 1988 Olympic bid. At the time, Calgary was primarily unknown on the international sport stage for hosting international hockey and figure skating events.

Many Canadians’ efforts over multiple years deserve the credit for “winning” the Olympic bid. Their dedication and work won the hearts and minds of IOC members.

However, to FIS President and IOC doyen Marc Hodler, it was the volunteer effort to take on an enormous task in such a short time frame and then deliver an exceptional event. In Marc’s words, this was a critical event to influence decision-makers within the IOC.

Securing a slot on the World Cup calendar

The Lake Louise track returned to its roots for the subsequent two seasons by hosting more Canadian Championship events. However, the 1982-83 winter saw Lake Louise on the official World Cup calendar for the first time. The world had changed. Calgary was now host and in full planning mode for the 1988 Games. 

These were the early days of the World Cup. There were few ‘annual’ or classic venues beyond Val d’Isère, Kitzbühel, Wengen and the Arlberg-Kandahar. The concept at the time was to rotate venues. But financial necessity and experience dictated that annual, high-quality venues were essential to stage successful World Cup races. A longer-term commitment enabled the organizer to constantly improve the venue and make capital investments, including the ever-important safety equipment.

Sled Dogs make a plan with Net Monkeys; it could be done without them Photo: Lisa Thomson

Beginning the 1992-93 season, Canada became the annual host of women’s World Cup races at Lake Louise. The following season, “America’s Opening” also became a tour feature. America’s Opening included tech events for both men and women in Park City, followed by the women’s speed opening at Lake Louise. 

After three years of valiantly trying to make an early season date work at Whistler, beginning in 2001, the men’s speed events were permanently moved to Lake Louise.

Providing leadership in athlete development

The progression for younger athletes to the World Cup is always challenging, especially in gaining experience on the most demanding tracks in the world.

From the 1994-95 season, the Winterstart crew at Lake Louise incorporated Nor-Ams into their program. A deliberate effort to provide valuable experience. The selection of the forerunners for the World Cup is from the younger ranks. Additionally, the forerunners for the Nor-Ams are the 1st and 2nd year FIS competitors. For decades this system has offered development athletes high-level speed event experience. 

Lake Louise became the first World Cup venue to incorporate the continental cup level (Nor-Am) into their program annually. This provided a safe, efficient, high-quality training and competition opportunity. The Canadian and US Ski Team athletes have significantly benefited from the program. More athletes from these two national teams have reached the World Cup podium at Lake Louise than any other venue on tour.

To Chip Knight, Alpine Development Director for the US Ski Team, “There are few high-quality speed venues available to the Nor-Am level athlete in North America, so a venue like Lake Louise is invaluable to give those development team athletes a ‘real’ World Cup experience.”

The willingness to provide development opportunities to the next generation is now incorporated at several World Cup venues. These venues include Kvitfjell, Wengen, Kitzbühel, Garmisch, Cortina and St. Moritz. It’s an efficient use of the extraordinary human and capital investment in the World Cup tracks. It provides a stepping stone for younger athletes aspiring to compete on the senior tour.

For the athletes, who have precious few locations in the world to prepare for a long season of competition, Lake Louise is a welcome opening to the winter: a slightly forgiving track providing the wind in your face and preparation of the legs for the subsequent four months of competition.

Photo Lisa Thomson

Best record hosting WC races of the entire tour

The push to move the North American Tour to late November/early December in 1993 was a bold gesture to address the mercurial planning of the World Cup calendar in the 1980s. The goal was to establish a strong presence in alpine ski racing in Canada and the US through annual events held in classic venues.

Early-season races are always subject to the vagaries of the weather. But the advent of enhanced snowmaking systems and the altitude of Colorado and latitude of Canada provided an extra level of security for the tour.

To John Cassels, retired Race Chair for the Lake Louise World Cup, “We rarely meet the snow control deadline (7 days before the 1st training run). We often scramble to be ready for the 1st day of training, but we’re always ready on race day. The reality for us was that we had earned the respect of the FIS race directors, and if we were not ready at snow control, they gave us a pass and let us move forward to training and race days.”

The evidence bears it out. Lake Louise has the best hosting record of the entire World Cup Tour. Since 1980, only four races have been canceled. All four of the cancelations were due to too much snow.

Because Lake Louise, Killington and Beaver Creek could host successful and exciting world-class speed and tech events in the early time slot – when few other venues in the world can – these resorts were cemented into the calendar and also team planning for pre-season training in November. Politics were out; practicality, efficiency and intelligence shaped a reliable calendar for the FIS race directors.

A legacy of volunteers and workers

Photo Lisa Thomson

Their names became synonymous with the Winterstart, and their reach supported Olympic and World Ski Championship events worldwide. They volunteer their services beyond “The Lake.”  The “Sled Dogs” (volunteers) and “Net Monkeys” (event staff) built their reputation for delivering exceptional events at Lake Louise. Their expertise, however, has been willingly shared from Bormio to Beijing.

Many World Cup venues rely on an army of professional staff. However, Lake Louise Winterstart is notable because it is run by a passionate community that has grown to over 400 dedicated volunteers assisting a small, determined work crew. This is how Canada’s World Cup is managed, built and run.

As of October, as they awaited snowfall, the “Net Monkeys,” the renowned core staff for the World Cup, have been on-site, erecting safety equipment: repairing cables, staging padding, air fences and “B” nets. The magic moment came on October 16, when permits allowed snowmaking with adequate temperatures. The volunteer contingent, known as the “Sled Dogs,” joined in for hill cleanup and staging, working alongside the Net Monkeys to ensure preparations progressed smoothly.

It’s the TV audience …and innovative ideas

Lake Louise is often criticized for its small crowd size. But knowledgeable observers of the World Cup know nearly all events before the Christmas holidays deliver enormous worldwide TV audiences.

This is the organizer’s dilemma: securing the best slopes often requires deep intrusions into a resort’s best skiing. Hosting major events has typically been best in the shoulder seasons, where accommodations are available for all teams and the event entourage. The focus can be to deliver an outstanding track and use the profile to attract attention to the snow sports community.

Lake Louise is always a home run with a global television audience. According to the annual evaluation provided by Nielsen, it exceeds 60 million viewers.

Enthusiasts anxiously anticipate the broadcast of Lake Louise. The audience numbers are enhanced by prime-time weekend time slots in European ski racing viewing markets. Lake Louise has provided a reliable launch of the World Cup to large European TV audiences, able to tune in at 8:00 pm.

There is a unique twist to Lake Louise. Based in Banff National Park, every participant – including athletes, coaches, officials and volunteers – are in hotel rooms. This leaves limited availability for spectators.

Organizers are partnering with key community leaders to explore innovative ways for targeted attendance.

The World Cup Business Forum, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, brings business, political, environmental, aboriginal, and sport leaders together to discuss weighty topics such as climate change, first nations leadership in energy, pipelines and social media impact. This idea grew from the reality that nearly every hotel bed in the Lake Louise townsite is occupied by athletes, coaches, team support, volunteers, staff and officials.

With this limited ability to draw a large crowd to the event, the idea was to create a world-class forum and invite a select community keen to hear from leading business and political leaders while also taking in the excitement of a world-class event in Banff National Park.

Photo Credit Lisa Thomson

A legacy of excellence

The stars of our sport made their mark at “The Lake”: Svindal, Vonn, Kucera, Seizinger and Eberharter. Lake Louise has now hosted more World Cup races than any venue in North America. As the “World Cup Speed Opener,” these races provided the preview for the season.

For now, it’s so long, but perhaps not goodbye

Lake Louise has had an extraordinary run. That first race committee only focused on delivering a quality event. They had no expectations that the first race would become established, mature and grow to become a celebrated part of the tour.

In the words of Peter Obernauer, former Chief of Race for the Hahnenkamm and frequent visitor to Lake Louise, “This is a special place. It’s not Kitzbühel and never will be. It’s different. All the athletes and staff stay at the same amazing hotel. The location is breathtakingly beautiful. No venue can host a downhill at this time of year. It’s not Kitzbühel, but then Kitzbühel could never be Lake Louise. And that is what makes the World Cup Tour so unique.”

Over the years, there have been several hosting gaps at Lake Louise. But in time, the value of a reliable and challenging race track draws the World Cup back to “The Lake”: To the beautiful vista of the morning sun breaking on the upper ridges of the Canadian Rockies, the wildlife shots of deer and lynx, where snow is reliable and the friendly camaraderie of volunteers, officials, spectators and the ski community gather to celebrate the world’s best athletes who dare to test the limits of their speed.


About Ken Read

Tough, Informed, engaged. Athlete centred, committed to good governance.
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2 Responses to Winterstart! From unconventional roots to Iconic venue.

  1. Alex Zagoumenov says:

    Thank you, Ken. This is a very moving article. Having watched the Lake Louise World Cup season opener for years, I thought it would go on forever. The place, the track and the history make the event a must-have. I’m glad my kids and I were able to attend last weekend. And of course, meeting you in person was beyond my wildest expectations. Thank you!

  2. David Shanks says:

    Ken,

    Thanks for this tremendous review and testament to Canadian / Albertan determination.

    Mentioning Peter Andrews brought back some distant Montreal McGill skiing memories.

    With best wishes to you, Linda and family,

    David

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