The question most asked of any American ski racer is, "Why are the Austrians so good?" It is usually asked in a semi-mournful tone that implies such dominance is a bad thing, and suggests the Americans should aspire to knock Austria from its perch atop the competitive ski world.
Well, don't count on it. No disrespect to the Americans or any other national team, but the Austrians aren't going anywhere. Instead of bemoaning that fact, we as skiers should be relieved there is still some place where skiing can be more than recreation-where it is a passion, a profession and a way of life.
At the 1999 World Alpine Championships in Vail, Colo., Austria dominated, sweeping the medals in several events. But nearly as impressive as the competition results was the show of Austrians who came to watch. This included a 60-piece band from Innsbruck, a parade of medal winners from the past 30 years, fan clubs for individual racers and a fully stocked hospitality house that pumped out schnapps and schnitzel around the clock.
Skiing is Austria's mania, and it's also big business. National team racers get preferential tax treatment and the top ones insure themselves with Lloyd's of London. If injuries cut their careers short, racers often receive a huge insurance settlement because a skiing career in Austria is a potential gold mine. Meanwhile, in the U.S., parents need to protect their children with an insurance policy in case they do try to make ski racing a career. Even when American racers strike it big in the Olympics, our culture doesn't really know what to do with them. It's every man for himself. Even a gold medal isn't enough to ensure mainstream recognition-or a steady flow of income. In the nooks and crannies of the Alps, however, the yellow brick road for ski champions is well marked. The prototypical Austrian ski star turns fame and fortune into a hometown business, often a lucrative ski school or a resort hotel decorated with trophies and pictures. Every Austrian valley has its Golden Child...Patrick Ortlieb in Lech, Toni Sailer in Kitzbühel, Hans Hinterseer in Saalbach, Anita Wachter in Montafon, Leonard Stock in Zillertal, Hermann Maier in Flachau, Karl Schranz in St. Anton.
With the blueprint for post-career success in place, it's little wonder the Austrian athletes have an unmatched intensity on the course. But surprisingly, with more at stake, they also have a relaxed, even fatalistic perspective. That's the enigma of these people who seem to put skiing ahead of all else. Accompanying the Austrians' apparent tunnel vision is the reality check that there are no guarantees and that they always need to have a plan B. So in addition to being ski racers, they are police officers, bricklayers, cosmetologists, hoteliers and the like. These occupational insurance policies are not viewed as a diversion to their competitive life, but as a liberating safety net.
The U.S. Ski Team periodically asserts that it needs to employ an all-American staff, that we need to do things our way. The team's board members, administrators and coaches have coalesced to produce impressive-looking programs, flow-charts and five-year plans, all leading to unimpressive results. The business of athletics, alas, is ineffective without the touch of magic that turns hard work and desire into success. One thing most successful American ski racers do have in common is an Austrian coach somewhere in their past, a wise Yoda-like figure who can inspire athletes toward the elusive "force."
These Austrian coaches are in touch with the motivation that drives the American spirit. The best of them know how to push hard seemingly without exerting pressure, and to make themselves perfectly understood despite speech patterns that can also be Yoda-esque. They take ski racing very seriously-as an art and a career-and can therefore persuade athletes to push themselves to the edge without ever asking why. Yet they still remember that skiing is only oone aspect of life.
In the end, it is the fans who are the best barometer of how a country regards a sport, and the typical Austrian knows more about ski racing than the average red-blooded American male knows about football. ORF, the Austrian television network, reported that the men's and women's downhills from last season's World Championships received the highest ratings of any show ever broadcast in Austria. A full 90 percent of the television viewership (2.25 million households) tuned in to watch the Hermanator win on Saturday and the Austrian women sweep the medals on Sunday.
They tuned in for competition coverage and to the live broadcasts of the scene on Vail's Bridge Street, where the packed Austria Haus was set up next to Pepi Grammshamer's lodge. It helped that their team was pasting the competition, but it wasn't all about nationalistic chest-thumping. Austrian fans come from the "What have you done for me lately?" school of allegiance. The fans are savvy enough to know that to make it onto the Milka billboard-the European equivalent of the Wheaties box-you have to be a legend. Even then, after a few bad races, they'll drop you like a hot leberknodel. Brutal? Yes, but that level of interest forces everyone involved with the sport to stay on top of their game at all times.
Take an Austrian out of Austria and his enthusiasm, often bordering on obsession, never dims. That icon of ski culture-the tanned, handsome, fun-loving Austrian ski instructor-is alive and well, and he knows a thing or two about enjoying life. Many of them left Austria decades ago and brought their passion to our ski culture. In fact, their presence lends authenticity to American ski towns. Like the Austrian coaches, their charm and vitality remind us how the ski life is supposed to be lived.
Two such Austrians from my hometown of Squaw Valley, Calif., are Hans Standteiner and Sigi Munding. Many years ago, I remember being on the hill with Hans when he tuned into European sports broadcasts on his shortwave radio and reported that Tamara McKinney, our hometown hero, had nabbed her first World Cup win.
Hans and Sigi, both ski racing junkies, need a fix of at least one World Cup in the States per year, and there was no way they would miss the pilgrimage to the World Championships in Vail. Sigi had just been in Kitzbühel to watch the Hahnenkamm and was spotted wearing an Uncle Sam baseball hat and chanting, "USA...USA" for the benefit of "his" hometown California boy, Daron Rahlves.
As they headed into Vail, Hans recalled that scene and asked, "Well Sigi, what are you going to be here?" At the moment they were making their way up Bridge Street amid the wandering lederhosen-clad marching band, watching another round of beer steins pass inside the windows of Austria Haus. "Here?" mused Sigi, taking in the scene, "I am Tyrolean!"