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Ski Resort Life

History of the World Cup

One August in the Andes, a ski writer, inspired by the world’s top bike race, changed ski competition forever.

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The World Cup is a series of competitions enabling racers, freestylers and snowboarders to accumulate points as the winter progresses. The season starts in November, and when the circuit ends in March, the athletes with the most points are declared the world’s best.

Today a half-dozen separate World Cup titles, involving hundreds of individual competitions, are awarded in alpine skiing, freestyle, cross-country, jumping, snowboarding and nordic combined.

But 54 years ago, soccer was the only sport to have a World Cup. Serge Lang, the dean of Europe’s ski writers, was determined that skiing should be the second. Lang understood the appeal of the season-long format. In the summer, the Swiss-born journalist covered the Tour de France, a succession of races—or stages—progressing to a final outcome. During the winter of 1966, he got the inspiration to try to apply the system to skiing.

Lang’s brainstorm happened to come in the year—the only one ever, as it turned out—when the International Ski Federation (FIS) staged its biennial World Alpine Ski Championships in August. The resort of Portillo, Chile, perched in the Andes near the Argentine border at nearly 9,000 feet, had only a single hotel. Its rooms were mostly filled with racers and coaches. Many of the officials who might have opposed Lang’s idea couldn’t come.

“In the hotel,” recalled Lang, who died in 2005, “everything was confined to the dining room, the bar and the basement nightclub.” Here the veteran ski writer huddled with the top ski politicos of Austria, France and America, including U.S. Ski Team director Bob Beattie. Sipping pisco sours and espressos, the men “sat day in, day out discussing the new season-long, annual competition,” hammering out the details. Finally, they presented the formula to FIS President Marc Hodler, who approved.

In the first season, 1966–67, the World Cup point formula rewarded skill in all three alpine disciplines—downhill, GS and slalom. If a skier placed well in a race, his or her points replaced a previous lesser result. It was like draw poker, where the player discards a low card in the hope of replacing it with a better one. The closer a racer came to attaining the maximum of 75 points in a slalom, for example, the more he was forced to turn to downhill and GS to earn additional points.

The goal was to reward the best allaround skier, not the specialist. Jean-Claude Killy won with the maximum achievable points, 225. Today’s competitors simply accumulate points over the course of a full season, with first place in a single race counting for 100 points, so it’s impossible to compare results from Killy’s era to those of the present.

Most competitors and coaches believe that the World Cup formula is a better measure of skiing superiority than the more famous Olympics or World Championships. The World Cup measures performance over almost four months, and it celebrates the skier who’s able to win in more than one discipline. Two-time overall winner Bode Miller is the ideal World Cup champion, winning across all of today’s disciplines: downhill, slalom, GS, super G and combined.

Beginning with jumping in 1980, and including snowboarding in 1995, the other snowsports have adopted the World Cup format. Today, the World Cup is so in the grasp of the FIS and its member federations that the public has mostly forgotten it was a creation of the press.

John Fry is the author of The Story of Modern Skiing, about the changes that have revolutionized the sport.