COVER

LIFE ON THE FAST TRACK

DANIELLE KEEFLER March 23 1987
COVER

LIFE ON THE FAST TRACK

DANIELLE KEEFLER March 23 1987

LIFE ON THE FAST TRACK

Life at the top of the mountain is sweet for Pirmin Zurbriggen. With an impressive string of 11 victories this season, the 24year-old Swiss national is clearly the best skier on the men’s World Cup skiing circuit—an accomplishment that has placed him in an elite group of 10 skiers who earn more than $390,000 a year. That lucrative return has allowed Zurbriggen to invest heavily in real estate—and to enjoy such trappings of success as a new MercedesBenz limousine. Indeed, his fame and growing riches have inspired his rivals. Robert Boyd, a Whistler, B.C., resident and one of the top Canadians on the men’s circuit, said that Zurbriggen’s example “makes me want to push that much more to get to the top.”

To that end, Boyd stays in top condition year-round to prepare for World

Cup competition—30 races held during a four-month season with events in 12 countries, including Argentina, France and Japan. But this year Zurbriggen’s accomplishments have given him a commanding lead. Even before his fifth-place finish in the season’s final downhill race at Alberta’s Mount Allan site on March 14—won by Switzerland’s Peter Miiller—Zurbriggen, who finished 11th, already had enough points to win the World Cup downhill, super giant slalom and overall titles.

Mobile: Despite money provided by equipment manufacturers and corporations—and in some cases governments—Zurbriggen and other World Cup skiers still retain amateur standing under the rules governing Olympic eligibility. Indeed, many competitors now appear to be little more than mobile billboards, zooming down slopes at

speeds of up to 128 km/h in brightly colored racing suits imprinted with suppliers’ logos.

Pressure: World-class skiing began the transformation to a big-money pursuit in the mid-1960s when the Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS), the Swiss-based sports governing body, convinced the International Olympic Committee that top-level alpine skiing was a full-time occupation requiring financial support. In Canada, the National Alpine Ski Team, which receives a third of its budget from Sport Canada, spent almost $1.5 million in 1986 funding the 17 men and 13 women on the national team—an amount that included monthly salaries of up to $650 for the best skiers. In addition, manufacturers of skis, boots and bindings reward members of national teams around the world who use their products with annual payments based on the skiers’ rankings. Those payments can range from $32,000 for a World Cup title to $1,500 for a lOOth-place ranking. Declared Switzerland’s Maria Walliser, the year’s top-ranked woman skier: “There is pressure to do well. When I ski well, I can win money. When I don’t, there is less.”

Contracts with ski suppliers call for Swiss team members to receive bonus payments of $8,500 for winning a World Cup race, $6,400 for finishing second and $4,250 for placing third. In

exchange, suppliers hope to benefit from their association with successful racers. Declared Jan Larsson, racing director for the French ski manufacturer Rossignol: “It gives us a name to sell our products in our markets around the world.” Earlier this year Swiss skiers Vreni Schneider and Erika Hess prominently displayed their Rossignol skis as they accepted gold medals at the World Championship competition in Crans-Montana, Switzerland. Typically, after placing second in the downhill race at Nakiska on Mount Allan on March 8, Canada’s Laurie Graham did interviews while sporting Blizzard skis on her shoulder, Solomon wraps on her skis and, on her ski toque, a McDonald’s golden arch symbol and a Husky Oil patch.

Logos: The commercialization of world-class skiing received a further boost two years ago. To appease top racers who had threatened to form their own professional circuit, the FIS permitted skiers to sign contracts with personal sponsors—and place the company’s logo on their helmets. Declared FIS secretary general GianFranco Kasper: “Skiers know that everyone around them makes money with them. So it’s quite normal that they ask for their share.” Indeed, circuit insiders say that Swiss conglomerate TAG-Heuer S.A. pays 1985 World Cup champion Marc Girardelli almost $104,000 a year to wear its logo on his headband. Among the firm’s products:

watches and racing car engines.

But skiers’ personal sponsors do not pay them directly. Instead, some national ski associations receive up to 50 per cent of the money earned through such contracts and use those funds to support racing programs. Then the association channels the balance—along with fees and bonuses from manufacturers—into trust funds that skiers can draw from when their careers end. Declared former Canadian skiing great Ken Read: “The word ‘amateur’ is dead. But the world of ski racing has managed to control commercialization.”

Credit: Men are the biggest money earners on the international circuit, with veteran skier Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden making almost $1 million yearly by endorsing commercial products. But Graham accepts the reward gap between male and female competitors. Declared the 26-year-old Graham, who earned about $150,000 last year after winning three World Cup events: “TV started covering the men’s races and now they cover the women’s events. And that’s what makes the money increase—TV and the sponsors.”

At the same time, world-class skiing has evolved into a highly specialized sport. Zurbriggen, for one, excels in downhill, giant slalom and super giant slalom. But most skiers on the circuit rarely win medals in more than one event. In all races, however, the competitors have been tuned to a high

pitch by team staff ranging from coaches to conditioning experts. And in evenly matched competition, the team technician’s choice of skis and waxes alone can provide the crucial edge needed to win.

Indeed, Luxembourg’s Girardelli gave partial credit for his first-ever gold medal at the World Championships in Switzerland on Feb. 1 to Egyptian masseur Mohammed Khalifa, who flew in from Austria after Girardelli dislocated his left shoulder during a training run.

The competition to become king or queen of the mountain is a highspeed pursuit where a split-second error can result in crushing injuries. A fall at Austria’s difficult Kitzbuhel run in January left Canadian skier Todd Brooker with torn knee ligaments, a broken nose and a concussion and prompted the 28-yearold resident of Paris, Ont., to announce the end of his 10-year career earlier this month. And

last week Liisa Savijarvi, 23, of Bracebridge, Ont., injured her spine and right knee when she crashed on a downhill training run in Vail, Colo.

Commitments: All racers share the risk of injury and most follow a spare, nomadic existence during the season, shuttling between airports and race sites and living out of hotel rooms they share with other competitors. Rigorous training schedules curtail their social lives. After a day spent practising, many skiers spend the evening studying their techniques—and their rivals’ performance—on videotapes.

And the world’s best skiers say that there are few opportunities to relax when the season ends. Instead, they must embark on personal appearances designed to publicize their suppliers and corporate sponsors—and then begin summer training. Girardelli says that he had only one week away from skiing commitments last year. “It’s not just performing on the slopes,” he said. “You have no free time.” For his part, Zurbriggen said that he tries to escape to his isolated home village of Saas-Almagell, in the south of Switzerland. But those oases of tranquillity are rare events for the stars of a sport so closely linked to big business. And, despite their amateur standing, the best alpine skiers have discovered the value of being on top of the heap.

DANIELLE KEEFLER in Toronto with correspondents’ reports