Alpine skiing, in contrast with Nordic/cross-country, is very much a modern sport, with origins in the early twentieth century. The founding father of alpine skiing is British aristocrat Lord Roberts of Kandahar, who donated the trophy for a first race held at Montana, Switzerland, in 1911. While this was a pure—top of hill to bottom of hill—competition, the first slalom-style race took place at Murren, Switzerland, in 1922.
American skiing owes much to Scandinavian immigrants, who brought skis with them in the middle of the nineteenth century as a critical aid in traversing the gold-field territories. John Rooney and Richard Pillsbury, indeed, note that the first American downhill ski race took place in 1854 in the midst of gold-mining country. In a similar fashion they point to America's first ski club, founded in 1867 at La Porte, California, then a West Coast goldfield hub.
Downhill racing in America in the late nineteenth century was intensely competitive and was frequently-buoyed up by "copious amounts of alcohol and large wagers" (Rooney and Pillsbury, p. 121). Technology and science had an impact on the sport. Racers adopted streamlined body positions, early forms of wax were rubbed onto skis to reduce friction, and speeds in excess of sixty miles per hour were reached. Rooney and Pillsbury stress that the diffusion of sport skiing, utilitarian skiing, and recreational skiing was intimately tied up with the rapid expansion of the east-west and north-south railroad: "Loggers soon followed the lumber frontier westward to the northern Rockies and finally the Pacific Northwest, carrying their Scandinavian snow traditions with them" (Rooney and Pillsbury, p. 121).
E. John B. Allen notes that, as with many other aspects of winter sports, alpine skiing is a series of activities hugely impacted by new technologies, manufacturing innovations, and the development/evolution of emerging sport disciplines. So, while the Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS) officially recognized the integrity of downhill and slalom skiing in 1930, subsequent decades have witnessed all manners of radical new ski sports. Among these have been freestyle, speed skiing, and snowboarding. Despite colossal advances made by the United States in the last quarter century, the inescapable fact is that alpine skiing, by culture, legacy, and education, is rooted in Europe. Allen made a telling observation about an American alpine ski instruction manual published in 1935. It had no alternative to using eight foreign words "necessary for understanding a ski lesson" (Allen, p. 915). Quite simply, American skiing—in all its forms—has been contoured and crafted by a European heritage.
The first Olympic alpine skiing contest took place at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936. It was an alpine combined race, with one downhill run and two slalom races. The United States won no medals in either the men's or women's combined. At the 1948 St. Moritz Olympics, alpine skiing was expanded to include downhill, slalom and alpine combined (men), and downhill, slalom and alpine combined (women). While Austria, France, and Switzerland maintained overall domination, the achievements of Gretchen Fraser of Vancouver, Washington, were extraordinary. She won a gold and a silver medal.
Four years later, at the 1952 Oslo Olympics, Andrea Lawrence-Mead, who took gold in both the slalom and the giant slalom, bettered Fraser's superb performance. In both races, her winning margins were significant. They were 1.2 seconds in the slalom and 2.2 seconds in the giant slalom. The nineteen-year-old from Rutland, Vermont, did the unthinkable by finishing fourth despite falling on her first run. In her second run she decimated the opposition with a winning margin of two seconds.
The next winter Olympics to witness American success was Squaw Valley in 1960. Once again it was the women's division. Penny Pitou won two silvers in the downhill and the giant slalom, while Betsy Snite enjoyed similar success in the slalom.
Four years later, at Innsbruck, female successes continued with a giant slalom and slalom bronze from Jean Saubert. One of the real characters of the Games was American William Kidd. Newspaper reporters liked to tag him as a sporting "Billy the Kid." He and fellow team member James Heuga took silver and bronze medals. Some idea of the closely contested terrain that is alpine skiing can be seen in gold and silver medal time differentials. Kidd missed a gold medal by. 14 of a second, with a total race time of 2 minutes, 11 seconds.
The next American bright spot was in 1972 at Sapporo. While there were no male medals, Barbara Cochran won the slalom gold, and Susan Corrock took the bronze in the downhill. Four years later (1976), at Innsbruck, the solitary American medal was Cynthia Nelson's bronze medal in the downhill.
With the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, New York, American hopes and aspirations were high. Phil Mahr was favored to win but lost to Swedish multimedallist Ingemar Stenmark. Mahr's magical moment was to come four years later at Sarajevo, where he defeated his twin brother, Steven, to win the slalom.
In Calgary in 1988, alpine skiing extended its parameters to include a super G and a combined event. With the super G there are elements of downhill and slalom. The event is primarily a race down the mountain, with a series of control gates directing the ski racers safely down the steep slopes at very high speeds. Despite more openings and opportunities, the United States was unable to make any impression on the medal standings.
At Albertville in 1992, the alpine skiing umbrella was further enlarged with the addition of men's and women's freestyle events. This is a combination sport with four components. There is an aerial component, a ballet phase, a competition dash across and over snow/ice bumps known as moguls, and an amalgamation of those three subdisciplines called the combined. The men salvaged one bronze medal by Nelson Carmichael in the freestyle moguls, while the women came through with silver medals for Hilary Lindh in the downhill and Diann Roffe in the giant slalom. The American heroine was Donna Weinbrecht, who won the gold medal in the freestyle moguls.
In 1994, at Lillehammer, where aerial freestyle skiing was added to the list of alpine skiing, the most dramatic headline-making performance came from downhill racer Tommy Moe. The one-time enfant terrible of American alpine sports—repeated marijuana violations in his teenage years—was sternly mentored by his father during a draconian term laboring on the Aleutian Islands. Moe saw the light and buckled down to the demands of U.S.A. squad training. Unquestionably, Moe's gold medal was unexpected. Up until Lillehammer, he had never won a World Cup event. Lillehammer was a blue ribbon experience for Moe as he took the silver medal in the super giant slalom.
While Moe's successes made him America's stellar male skier at Lillehammer, Picabo Street's silver medal in the downhill made her, if just temporarily, the golden girl of American sport. Her quirky name, flashing smile, gregarious chatter, and oddly engaging manner made her an advertiser's dream, and the sort of instant celebrity who lights up a tabloid, or an evening TV talk show.
Among the significant American successes in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, two contrasting personas typified the nature of very different alpine activities and the audiences with which they connect. Jonny Mosely, winner of the freestyle moguls, when asked about his returning home reception at San Francisco Airport, remarked, "Hopefully there will be a big crowd at the airport and they'll shove a beer in my hand, and that'll be it" (Rushin, 1998, p.36). For Picabo Street, Nagano became the defining moment of a storied career. She won a gold medal in the super G and was presented with her gold medal by arguably the greatest alpine skier of all time, France's Jean-Claude Killy. In the downhill she missed a bronze medal by just .17 seconds.
With the 2002 Olympics set on an American landscape (Salt Lake City), there were justifiable hopes of significant American successes in alpine skiing. Preparations for these Olympics were exhaustive and painstaking. Nagano aerial skiing gold medallist Eric Bergoust settled in Utah in 1997 with a home only three miles away from the snowboarding site. Sports Illustrated felt the United States would win gold medals with Bode Miller in the slalom and Eric Bergoust in aerials. In actual fact, Salt Lake City marked a colossal breakthrough in American alpine skiing. For example, on the men's side, the United States took four of the six medals in the half-pipe, including both golds. Picabo Street, watching as American snowboarders received their medals, was quoted as saying, "That's what the Olympics are about: making childhood dreams come true" (Rushin, 2002, p. 55). Street herself, while not able to duplicate her form, power, and speed from Nagano, ended her career by avoiding serious injury, and finished the downhill in sixteenth place.
American Olympic successes were Bode Miller (silver medals in combined and giant slalom), Joe Pack (silver medal in aerials freestyle skiing), Travis Mayer (silver medal in moguls freestyle skiing), Ross Powers (gold medal in snowboarding half-pipe), Danny Kass (silver medal in snowboarding half-pipe), Jarrett Thomas (bronze medal in snowboarding half-pipe), Shannon Bahrke (silver medal in moguls freestyle skiing), and Kelly Clark (gold medal in snowboard half-pipe).
Alpine skiing has lent itself wonderfully well to a wide variety of feature and documentary filmmaking. Robert Redford's Hollywood career was launched in the 1969 Paramount movie Downhill Racer. The story centers on Redford's bid to get onto the U.S. team and, in a dramatic denouement, his bid to medal in the winter Olympics.
The United States National Ski Hall of Fame and Museum is a major repository for archival material on American alpine skiing. Many American champions are members of the Hall of Fame—for example, Gretchen Fraser (1960), Andrea Lawrence-Mead (1958), Bill Kidd (1976), Phil Mahr, and Bill Johnson (1984).
The Contemporary Scene
American skiing has witnessed colossal changes over the past century. Recreational skiing moved away from its European roots of being an expensive sport reserved for a social-cultural elite and seemed headed toward being an everyman's leisure pursuit. Rooney and Pillsbury describe skiing as a favorite pastime with access to "king and commoner alike." They also note the proliferation of up-scale American ski resorts and the development of luxurious ski and winter sport complexes at centers in Colorado, California, Utah, and New England. Nevertheless, the picture is a complex one. Rooney and Pillsbury draw attention to the fact that the number of U.S. ski areas went from 1,400 in 1960 to 524 in 1988. Quite simply, skiing in the United States, while economically available to significant numbers of a well-to-do middle class, has failed to capture the larger public interest, mainly because of the low number of facilities and the high cost of getting started.
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Scott A.G.M. Crawford