On Sunday I stood in the press corral at Beaver Creek with veteran reporter Hank McKee of Ski Racing magazine watching the World Cup men’s giant slalom. Bode, who won the downhill with a spectacularly risky run on Friday, skied wildly off-kilter in the first run of the GS and did not make the top 30. Ligety, the reigning GS World Champion, had the fastest first run, but ended up in second place after a flawless, flowing second run by the young Austrian Marcel Hirscher.
These two, and indeed most of the 63 starters, skied the steep, rhythmically tricky Birds of Prey course as if they were dancing: Fred Astaire with long, flexy knives on their feet. They achieved that rare thing of taking a physical/athletic challenge, something that is so difficult as to defy comprehension by mere mortals, and, with the help of their hourglass-shaped sticks – Atomics, Heads, Rossignols – made it appear graceful, easy.
But all the while we were watching, a dark cloud hovered in the form of the FIS, the Fédération Internationale de Ski, which is threatening to take away the skis that make such phenomenal skiing possible.
Modern carving skiing is a result of a true revolution in ski design. I won’t go into the history here, Mom. Suffice it to say that in the last 20 years manufacturers and designers, including the racers and retired racers who test the new products, have discovered combinations of materials and shapes that have changed, utterly, the way top skiers ski. Now, instead of sliding sideways into a turn, good skiers can ride their edges like engravers’ tools around the gates, leaving in many instances two compass-drawn lines in the snow.
The so-called “shaped” skis that make this possible have filtered down to the amateur market, too. Now, even hackers with a modicum of imagination can slice precision turns, at slow speeds as well as fast, as no forebear ever did.
For 140 years, up until the 1990s, all skis were just slightly curved; they came with a natural turn radius of about 60 meters. That’s a long turn. If you just rode the edge, you’d be screaming by the end of it – unless you broke the edge loose and skidded. Which is what you learned to do back in the day. Every turn required a mix of carving and skidding.
These antiquated sticks are now referred to as “straight” skis. They weren’t exactly straight; they did have some sidecut, but nothing like the curvy, Betty Boop shapes available now. The new skis have built-in turn radii as sharp as eight meters. On the World Cup, fast-twitch slalom turns require the smallest arcs; say, 12 meters. GS turns are in the 20-25 meter range, and Super G and downhill skis have the longest built-in turn shape, in the 33-40 meter range.
Carving has made racing, right down to the youngest J5 kids, exciting to do and thrilling to watch. It gives the skier a marvelous control. And it is fast, much faster than skidding. Carving also generates more force in a turn than does skidding. In a skidded turn, the centrifugal force is dissipated, diffused. In a carved turn, in order to keep from being flung off the merry-go-round, the skier leans to the inside and resists the pull with bone and muscle and connective tissue.
This, apparently, is the problem, as seen by the FIS. Skis have gotten too good. And, at times, and at the tremendous speeds the World Cup athletes are going, the human body, especially the knee, doesn’t hold up to the strain.
So, skiing’s governing body is imposing draconian new rules. Beginning next year, GS skis must be straighter, with a minimum radius of 35 meters, eight more than the current limit. (The changes will affect slalom and downhill skis, too, but less dramatically.)
Ligety, who owns the GS event right now (he’s won the season-long title three of the last four years) is livid. He said in Beaver Creek that the FIS will “ruin” giant slalom. He has accused them of attacking his livelihood.
Bode Miller, who is 34 and perhaps close to retirement anyway, said simply, “If it’s not fun for me, I’m not going to ski. I’ve skied on the new skis, and they’re not very fun to ski on. So, if it’s not fun, then there’s no reason for me to do it.”
Both Americans think the move will set skiing back decades. The required dimensions are, in fact, very close to what Phil and Steve Mahre skied (and skidded) on in the early 1980s.
At Beaver Creek, I heard people say the new rules will not survive, that there’s too much opposition from the athletes. Others, like U.S. Ski Team Vice President of Communications Tom Kelly, told me the FIS is committed; the changes are set in stone. “Bode thinks the FIS shouldn’t regulate equipment. But tennis does it. Golf does it. NASCAR does it.”
Hank McKee, of Ski Racing, may have found the truth of the matter when he said, “It’s the only thing the FIS can do to show they’re concerned about safety.”
More to come . . .