Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ski Cross: The Sport that Short Attention Spans Built

Are Americans utter philistines when it comes to entertainment? Consider the story that European football, er, soccer fans like to tell about how Americans lobbied to increase the size of the goals to make for higher scoring games. The rest of the world liked the game the way it was.

Or how about the popularity of NASCAR, with its endless left turns, over Formula One with its higher-tech engines and more complicated courses.

Downhill skiing has been slowly losing popularity in America over the last couple decades. Part of it is the rise of snowboarding, part of it has to do with how expensive winter sports can be (equipment, lift tickets, etc.). But a big part of it must be how difficult it is to become an expert.

In an article in the sports section of today's New York Times, we're introduced to ski cross, a sport that will be in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, one that many hope will help revitalize skiing for Americans. But is this sport, which is the equivalent of roller derby on skis, taking all of the subtlety and technical skill out of skiing in order to appeal to the American short attention span?

Take American skier Daron Rahlves, one of the best racers of his generation. He's won the Alpine World Cup a dozen times. He retired three years ago as a traditional racer, but at his peak, he was recognized all over Europe as a celebrity. And yet in America, no one really knew who he was.

Below is a video -- the only one I could find of Rahlves' racing -- that shows his famous crash at Adelboden in the 2006 Olympics. He walked away, but was out for two weeks with injuries (a relatively short time). In traditional ski racing, crashes like this are a frightening danger, a byproduct of the sport.

In the next video, we have ski cross. Here, like in roller derby, crashes are the point. Now that Rahlves has begun ski cross, he is suddenly an American celebrity. “Everywhere I went for a while — the post office, the hardware store, wherever — someone stopped me to talk about the X Games,” Rahlves told the Times. “They had seen it live, on prime-time TV. Ski cross is not some renegade sport any longer.”

The Times produced that video a year ago; Rahlves has since won ski cross at the X-Games.

Below is another ski cross video -- one that shows the sort of chain reaction crashes that make the sport exciting to watch. In this sequence, American Casey Puckett was leading a ski cross event in Grindelwald, Switzerland last March, but gets hit from behind in a smash-up that takes out three of the four competitors. Puckett is the one lying motionless at the end of the video. He was unconscious, and suffered a concussion and a season-ending shoulder injury.

We have a way of simplifying things in America, of finding the heart of something and simmering it down so that little else is left. Racing cars in a highspeed oval. Getting to the bottom of a snowy hill as fast as possible with bumps and other skiers as obstacles. Where an F1 course might weave through a city's streets, the NASCAR oval track is built for racing. Likewise, the ski cross course: it isn't using the natural features of a mountainside, but taking it and molding it with jumps, bumps and drop-offs for the racers.

Ski racing is jumping the shark, trying a crazy stunt to save the sport. It's not the existence of ski cross as a sport that should sadden skiers -- it looks fun and it's fun to watch -- it's the normalization of it. It's an underground sport gone mainstream, and once it hits the Olympics, it's all over. When over-caffeinated attention-deficit pastimes and their creators become the tastemakers, the rest of the mainstream suffers. The scalpel is replaced by the amputation saw.

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