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Plan to ski early on the weekends of Feb. 8-9 and 15-16. Then find a television set where you can watch NBC’s afternoon highlights of the World Alpine Ski Championships from St. Moritz, Switzerland. No way do I want to miss seeing the slalom races…not just the men’s and women’s slaloms on Feb. 15-16, but also the Alpine Combined slaloms that will be held the weekend before. Bode Miller’s silver medal combined slalom run, remember, was one of the highlights of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
In the slaloms, you’ll see an excellence of skiing absent from the sport for years. Slalom is sparkling again. Racers on the latest parabolic short skis are able to make smaller-radius turns with the kind of carving action formerly possible only in giant slalom. Now that they are again turning around the poles, slalom has gone from ugly duckling to a classic, dance-like sprint. Modern slalom racing bears as much resemblance to Sir Arnold Lunn’s original invention as walking through the woods does to clear-cutting them. When Lunn invented the slalom in 1922, he had in mind a sort of man-made forest. The poles represented trees that racers turned around.
For the next 40 years, slalom was the art of unweighting the body and pivoting the skis around the pole in a skidded turn. The arrival of plastic boots and fiberglass skis in the late 1960s allowed slalom racers to hold an edge better. With angulation, they could get the upper body closer to the inside pole of the gate, shortening the distance traveled.
For beauty of execution, nothing may ever match the special slalom I watched in 1974, the last time the FIS World Championships were held at St. Moritz. I found myself in a huge crowd, watching the second run of Italy’s Gustavo Thoeni. At that point, Thoeni was already halfway to becoming the first racer to win four overall Alpine World Cup titles. He was a shy, silent, undemonstrative guy, but the fire of a champion burned within.
In the first run of the St. Moritz slalom, Thoeni’s slow time appeared to put him out of contention. But whoever set the second run must have had him in mind, as a composer might have in mind a certain tenor when he writes an opera. The way the flags were set magically resonated with Thoeni’s skiing.
What he did was not to race, but to fly through the flags like Peter Pan. His edges never rasped on the hard snow. Rather they bit delicately, lightly as he half-pirouetted in a turn. Sometimes you weren’t aware that his skis touched the snow at all. It was as if the gates weren’t there, just Thoeni executing a beautiful dance down the hill. When he flashed through the finish line, the crowd burst into applause. It was not so much for his second gold medal, but for a ballet on skis, the likes of which no one had ever seen.
For all of the beauty of Thoeni’s run, slalom still had a problem: gate poles. Anchored in ice, a pole was brutally painful when a skier hit it at high speed. And when uprooted, it also took time to reset, delaying the next racer. In 1983, the FIS solved these twin problems by introducing the hinged pole. If you hit it with your shoulder, the pole didn’t come out of the snow, it snapped back into position. Soon, guys strapped on armor plating and headed straight at the flags, knocking them out of the way like pins in a bowling alley. The model of a slalom racer became big, husky Alberto Tomba, whom, ironically, Thoeni coached.
“Slalom became really ugly to watch,” former World Cup champion Phil Mahre recalls. The idea was to bash down poles. Forget about turning around them. There were often more DQs and DNFs than successful two-run completions.
Is the ugly era behind us? Hopefully. “Grace and speed are back,” Mahre says. “The racer just tips the skis up on edge to turn. The velocity of slalom has become incredible.”
Canada’s Jerry Rinaldi, who serves on a FIS committee on alpine courses, agrees. “Racers are skiing around the poles again. With the water-injected snow, the courrse holds up so well that almost anyone, regardless of start number, can win. Slalom has become wonderful to watch.”
Perhaps, this February at St. Moritz, we will again watch a jewel of a run like Gustavo Thoeni’s. Thanks to the renaissance of slalom, it’s possible. Stay tuned!
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