I co-run a small academy in South Tyrol and a European Network on coaches’ education, but in this crazy COVID year, our family ended up spending the season in the Rockies, our third season in the U.S. after two on the East Coast a few years back. It has been interesting to work across the two different worlds, not to mention time zones. Comparing experiences, may help explain why alpine ski racing is less popular in the U.S. than it is in Europe. Take Colorado and South Tyrol for instance: They roughly have the same number of ski racers, though the Colorado’s overall population (5 million) is 10 times that of South Tyrol (half million).
Racing cost is a well-known barrier. Considering team fees, race fees, equipment, tuning and so on, the season cost us five or six times what it normally costs us in Italy. However, the cost of living is generally higher in the US; so are wages, therefore it is comparatively fair to say that ski racing is more expensive in the U.S., but not exponentially so.
Ski culture is a more fitting explanation. Alpine skiing was first developed in the Rockies at the same time as in the southern side of the Alps, in the early 1900s. However, in Italy, alpine skiing today is a popular sport. There are options for every budget and a week on snow in the winter is considered as important as the beach in the summer. Champions like Gustav Thoeni, Alberto Tomba, Deborah Compagnoni, and Sofia Goggia certainly contributed to alpine skiing’s popularity. Yet, there is no shortage of inspiring American racers: Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin are, for instance, global ikons. Still, skiing in the U.S. very much remains an elite sport.
The American ski resorts’ economic model makes it hard for the eventual tourist. Day ticket prices are outrageous, and so are lessons. Most resorts are owned by a corporation, which also owns parking lots, hotels, apartments, restaurants on the hill, and often even the shops, creating small local monopolies or oligopolies. Our ski area, the Dolomiti Superski – with some 1500 miles of interconnected slopes – is a cooperative, which pays rent to the farmers owning the fields and distributes profits based on the number of passages. The huts on the slopes where we stop for delicatessen are all independently owned and operated. Ditto for the hotels, the apartments, and so on. The result is that formerly poor areas have developed harmoniously. Thanks to a European Union grant, we were able to show the relation between ski racing, tourism, and sustainable economic development. This virtuous effect does not exist in the US: ski towns are just for the happy few who can afford them, while surrounding areas are often poor and underdeveloped. In other words, while in Italy mountain tourism benefits the local population. In the U.S., it often has the opposite effect.
The other ski culture-related issue revolves around the answer to the following question: Why ski racing? The benefits of practicing outdoors sports are common to many other (cheaper) sports, so we will exclude that variable from our analysis.
In the U.S., the main goal – for coaches and parents alike – is to raise the eventual champion. With few virtuous exceptions, training and racing are geared to that, with an emphasis on quantity, in the assumption that the fittest will survive and will eventually succeed. Shortcuts like shorter, easier skis to turn are used with the goal of giving the parents the medals they long for. There are extreme cases where the LTDA progression is translated into “minimal coaching”: endless lapping with little to no feedback in the assumption that the best will eventually figure it out.
In Italy, we embrace the fact that the champion is eventual: alpine ski racing is a long road filled with hiccups. Thus, while we of course make sure our athletes have what they need to excel – and our constant flow of athletes feeding the national team suggests we are doing that right – our major goal is to make sure all athletes love and stay in the sport. When we first got engaged in EU programs and created the academy, our goal was exactly to find ways to keep them engaged. With innovations in coaching and new training programs for those who want to keep skiing at a less intensive pace (compared to FIS racing), for the third year in a row, we got a whopping 100% retention rate. We consider that our most important victory, celebrated alongside David Castlunger’s golds in both Topolino and Pinocchio, Hannes Zingerle’s victories in Europe Cup, and all our podiums and points up to the World Cup.
When they come to us, American athletes are often stressed, obsessed with FIS points. They believe points in Europe are lower. Indeed, they are, but that is because the general level is higher. Fixated on gates, even when they are too tired to make a turn, our first challenge is to make them understand that the key to lower points is improvement, which comes — in the words of former CU Head Coach Richard Rokos — from a fine balance between quality training and resting. When they arrive in Italy, these athletes often do not even enjoy skiing; training almost non-stop, they hardly ever free-skied just for the fun of it. It always takes a while for them to unwind and finally embrace the joy of skiing and ski racing.
Again, the different ski resorts’ economic model is partially the culprit. In Italy, a goal of all ski racers is to become a ski instructor and eventually go on as a ski coach. The uncertified instructors one finds even in the best resorts in America (such a widespread phenomenon is likely a strategy to keep wages low) are non-existing in Europe, where it takes anything between one and three years of training to become a fully certified instructor and even more to become a coach. The so-called Eurotest (de facto a paced race) makes it extremely hard to get certified without racing experience, which is one of the reasons we strive to keep athletes engaged until they come of age. But one also needs to be able to demonstrate without fault, which is why we put so much emphasis on the foundations and on teaching athletes how to ski technically well, and not only fast. Chances are an excellent skier will eventually also become fast. Becoming a ski instructor is an important achievement, which is celebrated accordingly. Our instructors are well-paid (despite classes being way less expensive than in the U.S.), and tourists take pride in improving their skiing and the skiing of their children.
In other words: In the U.S., an athlete who does not make it to a national or collegiate team has “wasted” years of effort and means. And even those who make it to the U.S. Ski Team, need to pay hefty fees and costs out of pocket to race. In Italy, athletes are generally offered a paid, long-term position with one of the Army’s sports teams (the so-called Gruppi Sportivi), but virtually every athlete’s career ends by acquiring a valuable professional tool. Whether that will become a primary occupation, or just a part-time one while studying or progressing professionally, it does not really matter. What matters is, whether one becomes a champion or not, there is always a win-win in ski racing. That does not exist in the U.S., which is why getting on a podium is all it matters; but in the end, only three athletes can stand on it …
Dr. Federiga Bindi directs ESKI and the Alta Badia Academy and is a USSA coach.