Stop for a minute. Think about when you were a kid, skiing with your friends. Back then, skiing was mostly about fun, but it was also about competition. You’d race each other to the bottom, challenge each other to bigger airs and generally push each other in the best possible ways. Still, at the end of the day, it really wasn’t about who got to the bottom first or who hit the biggest kicker or about winning at all. It was about fun.
As a former collegiate ski racer, I know first hand that competition is fun. Hell, Ted Ligety, knows it to. “It’s a pretty cool feeling,” said Ligety after he won his third gold medal at the World Alpine Championships. And I’m sure it was.
But as a former racer and as the organizer of a 4* Freeride World Qualifying event associated with the Freeride Word Tour, let me tell you that for the most part competition isn’t fun. It’s about winning. And winning is serious stuff.
Enter the Swatch Skiers Cup. I’ve now been privileged enough to have witnessed two of these events, one in Chile at Valle Nevado, and the most recent installment in Zermatt, Switzerland. And the Skiers Cup is a lot different than any other top-tier event I’ve seen.
First there’s the format. The brainchild of Kaj Zackrisson and Sverre Lillequist, the Swatch Cup borrows the team format of golf’s Ryder’s Cup, pitting top skiers against each other in head to head battles. The winning skier gets a single point for his team, and at the end of the event--which features a big-mountain day and backcountry slopestyle day--the team with the most points wins.
While the format of the Swatch Skiers Cup is unusual, it is also a stroke of genius. The team versus team structure of the competition allows athletes to take risks, knowing that a their team can still pull out a victory even if they fall or otherwise fail to win a point for the home side. In other words, if you’re an athlete invited to participate in the Swatch Cup, suddenly you no longer have to worry about anything much other than being creative and having fun.
Make no mistake about it, the athletes who competed in Zermatt this February were having fun. Instead of playing it safe during the backcountry slopestyle day, many competitors attempted huge airs with fakie landings. The deep snow made those landings impossible to stomp, but they kept at it, and laughed the entire time.
It’s hard to imagine those circumstances at, say, Winter X or when skiers show up for the inaugural halfpipe event at the Olympics. After all, there’s too much at stake. But at the Swatch Cup, there’s only one point at stake for each run, and you’ve got the rest of your team to back you up, so why not go for it?
In the aftermath, when Team Europe had crushed Team Americas by a score of 11 to 21. There wasn’t much bitterness on the losing side. In fact, everyone from both teams went off to lunch at one of those amazing European huts perched high on the side of a mountain, where they ate pasta and drank weissbier and laughed about the day.
The Swatch Cup feels different because it is. And while I never did get the chance to buttonhole any of top guns from Swatch who were in attendance at this year’s event to ask them why the hell they were throwing big money at a “competition” that’s more akin to an expression session among friends than a “real” competition, I have a feeling that the DNA of that brand vibes perfectly with what went down at Zermatt. After all, there used to be a time when Swiss watches were serious business: exacting tools that helped bankers and congressmen get to high-powered meetings in a most prompt—and Swiss—manner. Swatch, on the other hand, made watches—and deadlines—fun.
I can only hope that Swatch keeps supporting this event and that the athletes who compete for the Swatch Cup keep doing it in the same spirit that I enjoyed in Zermatt. After all, he who has the most fun wins.