Rock stars in Europe, unknowns here
COPPER MOUNTAIN – With the sun still rising and the slopeside crowds yet to stir, a reporter asks a number of U.S. Ski Team members for an interview after their early morning training runs. They oblige with smiles.That same reporter asks Austrian superstar Hermann Maier for some of his time. Maier grumbles and turns to the large bodyguard-looking fellow next to him. That man holds up the peace sign. “You can ask him two questions,” he says, glaring.The unwelcome response is not half as much due to Maier’s personality as it is a reflection of the night-and-day atmospheres surrounding ski racing’s top level in the United States compared to Europe.In Europe, where every World Cup stop except for two on the men’s and women’s circuits takes place, skiers of all nationalities are idolized. Fans adore them and recognize them everywhere they go. Crowds as large as 100,000 flock to watch them ski. Heck, their status gets them out of speeding tickets.In the States, the same racers exist in anonymity. Crowds in the hundreds, if they’re lucky, show up for their races – which, with the elimination of the Park City World Cup stop this year, have dwindled to one weekend each for the men and women.’Different world’When Maier bristles at an interview request, it’s because that’s all he sees where he’s from – everyone wants a piece of “The Herminator.” Thursday, even though he stood at the base of a popular resort for half an hour, he got just two requests for interviews and signed five autographs.”It’s a different world over here,” Frisco local and veteran World Cup speed skier Jake Fiala said. “Hermann Maier can’t train on a hill in Austria without there being hundreds of people watching him. Here he can walk around Copper and nobody would even know who he was.”
Maier – ski racing’s biggest name – likes it that way.”Here you can concentrate a lot more,” he said. “At home it’s more like I’m a rock star. It’s too much.”Thursday morning, eight World Cup squads trained at Copper, everyone from Americans and Austrians to Russians and Italians. They boarded the lifts while it was still dark, and left their ski gear in piles at the base until they were finished – no security needed.At the Birds of Prey World Cup races in Beaver Creek, set for Dec. 2-5, the racers will complete their runs and pass through the media corral, then they often mingle with the crowd. On the opposite side of the Atlantic, at the Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzbuehel, Austria – the biggest and baddest race in the world, attracting six-digit crowds – the atmosphere gets so crazy that the winner must use a trap door in the snow, literally, and walk through a tunnel to get to the podium. He’d have no chance otherwise.American Daron Rahlves took that walk in January 2003, through the “Strasse der Siegre” (champion’s tunnel), when he won the Hahnenkamm. He was the first U.S. racer in 44 years to do so, and hit legendary status almost instantly because of it. To commemorate his victory, Rahlves’ name was painted on a gondola at the Kitzbuehel resort.His fame isn’t reserved only for Kitzbuehel, either; almost everywhere he goes in Europe, Rahlves is known. Yet in America, with a few exceptions, he remains just another blond-haired California boy.”People on the plane (Americans) ask me what I do,” said Rahlves, considered the world’s top speed skier now that Stephan Eberharter has retired. “I tell them I ski. They’re like, ‘Well, what do you do for work?’ I’m like, ‘I race for the U.S. national team and I have all these different sponsors.’ They’re like, ‘Really, you can do that?'”Oh yes, it can be done. To the tune of around $5 million a year if you’re Maier, in fact, and slightly less if you’re American Bode Miller. Rahlves said he made seven figures himself last season.Much of this comes from sponsorship money, but World Cup prize purses aren’t small, either. Though it pales in comparison to richer international ball sports like golf and tennis, a win at Hahnenkamm is worth $150,000 – for a single run a little more than a minute long.
Not just the menLike their male counterparts, women’s World Cup racers experience the popularity disparity between Europe and the U.S., too. Nine-year U.S. Ski Team veteran Caroline Lalive, 25, lives in Steamboat, has a pretty face and is one of the top American female racers, with four World Cup podiums under her belt. Yet even in “Ski Town USA,” she said she gets recognized “generally not at all” by those she doesn’t know personally.This changes once she gets overseas. Lalive said she’s gotten out of multiple speeding tickets in Europe because of her status as a World Cup racer. “They know I’m on the U.S. Ski Team, and I explain that I ski faster than I drive,” she said, smirking. “They’re usually really cool about it. I wish that worked in the States.”Italian tech skier Claudia Morandene echoed Lalive, though she noted that the girls still aren’t even close to as famous in Europe compared to the guys.Why the disparity?Racers attribute the World Cup’s recognition differences between Europe and America to a number of factors, including tradition, cost of skiing as a recreational sport and the breakthrough of the freeride movement in the States.In Europe, Rahlves said, “It’s a way of life.” Kids ski for free just about everywhere, and they never seem to lose their passion for the sport. Here, on the other hand, “It’s more of a destination sport. It’s all about tourism.”It wasn’t always that way, Rahlves added, noting the park and pipe freestyle scene hasn’t helped things by taking away potential racers – and racing fans.Maier, in particular, singled out American skiing’s higher cost as the major reason racers don’t enjoy the same status here that they do in foreign lands. “Skiing here is very, very expensive,” he said. “We don’t want it to be the same as here. Skiing is for everyone.”
Ski racing has never been the primetime TV draw in America like it is in Europe, where World Cup races are broadcast live. But this year, Americans will have an opportunity more timely than ever to see Miller, Lalive and the rest of the World Cuppers in action. The Outdoor Life Network (OLN) will broadcast the races on same-day tape delay, and re-air them the next night.Rahlves called OLN to help the network plan its coverage, and thinks this could be a major step in the right direction for increasing interest in the U.S. Still, he maintains that a lot more can be done. And it starts, he said, with the U.S. Ski Team itself.Speaking of the way the national team markets its product, Rahlves said, “I think it totally sucks. The Ski Team does not put the effort in there as much as they should. If you don’t expose it, it’s not going to get big. Things could be much bigger and better.”98 to 0.1Regardless of how much the OLN coverage helps, ski racing in America still has eons to go before even approaching its status in Europe.Maier, with his linebacker jaw and telephone-pole legs, is perhaps the best example of this disparity. In all of Europe, across an entire continent, he is like Michael Jordan in Chicago. Here, he’s just a scary-looking guy who orders coffee with an accent.”I’d say 98 percent of the people in Europe recognize me,” he said. “Here, it’s like zero-point-one-percent.”Lalive went even further.Asked what she’d think if she got recognized in an American city, Lalive said she’d be “astonished.””If they thought I was famous,” she said, “I’d think they were thinking I was somebody else.”Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or at email@example.com.
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