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Road to the Olympic Games: Alpine alarm bells

Hosted by veteran broadcasters Scott Russell and Andi Petrillo, Road to the Olympic Games chronicles athletes' journeys on and off the field of play. Here's what to look for on this weekend's show on CBC Television and CBCSports.ca.

The FIS World Cup alpine ski racing season is in full swing, but just as it shifts into high gear, it's about to take its leave of North America.

The men's speed races have been cancelled at Lake Louise, Alta., and Beaver Creek, Colo., leaving only the women to compete on this continent's snow in the early season.

  • Watch: Men's downhill from France — Saturday at  2 p.m. ET (CBC TV, CBCSports.ca)
  • Commentators: Scott Russell, Kitzbuehel champion Todd Brooker

They were a big hit in the technical races at Killington, Vt., last weekend, and all signs point to successful events for the female speed demons at Lake Louise this weekend (CBCSports.ca is live streaming all three races, beginning with Friday's downhill at 2:15 p.m. ET)

But there are warnings that ski racing is faced with renewing itself and confronting a rapidly changing sports landscape.

Simply put, the alpine alarm bells are ringing.

In the absence of Lindsey Vonn, who has severely broken her arm, there is a distinct lack of North American stars. 

While Mikaela Shiffrin, the young American slalom specialist, has a solid following, there are few others and next to no Canadians who could be classified as household names. Dustin Cook, who was beginning to win consistently, lost all of last season due to injury. To a lesser extent the same is true of Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, the sport's biggest name, who crashed spectacularly at last year's edition of the famed Kitzbuehel downhill.

"Having so many stars sidelined with injuries so much of the time makes it difficult to market the sport," says Max Gartner, a former high-performance director and CEO of Alpine Canada who now operates a sports management company. "There needs to be more thought and energy put into keeping people healthy. Races like last year's Kitzbuehel are beyond acceptable. They will also keep parents from putting their kids into the sport."    

Aging Canadian men's team

Erik Guay, the most prolific racer in the country's World Cup history, is still a factor but he leads an aging men's team, and with the retirement of Larisa Yurkiw, the women's side relies heavily on veterans Marie-Michele Gagnon and Erin Mielzynski to produce.

  • Watch: Women's downhill from Lake Louise — Saturday at 5 p.m. ET (CBC TV, CBCSports.ca)
  • Commentators: Scott Russell, Olympic champion Kerrin Lee-Gartner

In addition, the fears of climate change are becoming felt in alpine skiing, perhaps more than any other sport.  As the frequency of cancelled races due to a lack of snow multiplies in North America, Europe and increasingly the new frontier of Asia, a consistent and loyal audience becomes frustrated with a lack of predictability. 

Will there be a race or won't there?

Alpine skiing, which has often capitalized on the spectacular nature of the "athlete versus the mountain" challenge is also under siege from a litany of interpretive sports which are encroaching upon its territory.  Snowboarding and freestyle skiing have both seen tremendous growth in terms of participation rates, as well as high-performance platforms.  The number of Olympic medals up for grabs in these kinds of sports now exceeds ski racing.

It is becoming evident that the age-old downhill time trial which involves a high-speed dash against the clock, is wearing thin with the next generation of snow enthusiasts.

"It seems that young athletes like the unstructured nature of the new sports compared to the very structured nature of alpine skiing," muses Gartner. "And the cost of alpine skiing in the development phase is also very high as is the demand on time when competing with education.  The fact is new sports are attracting young kids to take them up, and the pool for alpine athletes is shrinking."

No clear solution

So what's the solution for a sport which fears a decline in popularity?

Perhaps it's a renaissance which will make the events more attractive to potential participants and spectators. 

More head-to-head racing in accessible locations such as urban centres in prime time hours could be a part of the fix. This has been employed with great success by the big air competitions which are sweeping both snowboarding and free skiing. To a lesser extent alpine has had success with parallel slalom competitions in city centre locations like Munich and Moscow.

"It will take some leadership at the FIS level to quicker adapt to changes brought on by new technology. TV coverage of ski races has not changed much in years. Compare that to the changes in the F1 [car racing] product," Gartner says. "The downhill format needs to change.  My suggestion is to have qualifying like F1 on Friday. There would be a limited field on race day. Stage more two-run downhill races on shorter courses. The last person in the gate decides the race. TV audiences don't want to watch a race for two hours with many racers coming down after the race has already been decided."

While the alterations to format that Gartner advocates are sweeping, he believes they are necessary if his sport is to survive a marketplace which is becoming hyper-competitive as a multitude of winter athletic endeavours chase eyeballs and sponsorship dollars in the new age.

"Few race organizations make money and TV audiences are shrinking in most countries beyond [ski power] Austria," he notes. "It might be time to install a leader that is empowered to make these kinds of changes and market the product globally."

Perhaps only then will one of the pillar sports of the Olympic Winter Games answer the wakeup call it is undeniably hearing on every mountain top this season.

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