BEAVER CREEK, Col. — Pretty much everywhere besides the Alps, ski racing tends to fly under the radar most of the time.
And then, every four years, an Olympic Games approaches and with the flick of a switch, ski racers once more capture the imagination of anyone who catches a glimpse of the high-speed daredevilry that unfolds across Europe and North America in the winter escapade known as the “white circus.” In an Olympic season, the prospect of the Games and the glory and riches it can deliver tends to hover over every turn and spray of snow. Every result becomes a hint of who is rounding into form and who still has work to do and what might happen come early February when the eyes of the world lock in on this rarefied sport.
The men’s half of that roadshow landed in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains this weekend for the series of races known as Birds of Prey, featuring the usual collection of speed hounds that many sport scientists count among the best all-around winter sports athletes. They are willing to hurl themselves down a nearly two-mile sheet of ice at upward of 80 miles an hour on a couple of fiberglass composite sticks. Through the first three days of racing, they did nothing to dispel that notion, with Aleksander Aamodt Kilde of Norway winning two of the first three races to reassert his claim as the best of the best even though he tore a knee ligament less than a year ago.
A final downhill is scheduled for Sunday afternoon.
Despite his prowess, Kilde, the 2019-20 overall champion, is best known in these parts as the boyfriend of Mikaela Shiffrin, arguably the world’s top female skier who has a chance to add an armload of medals at the Beijing Olympics. She is a beloved local who makes her home one town closer to Vail, just a few ridges away. Though Shiffrin struggled in her downhill race in Lake Louise this weekend, she won her 71st World Cup race, and her 46th in slalom, in Vermont last weekend, and is one of the sport’s biggest stars.
“She’s awesome,” Kilde said of his girlfriend Saturday, after shredding the downhill course to win by two-thirds of a second over Austria’s Matthias Mayer and reading a congratulatory message from Shiffrin. “We are good for each other.”
Looking for hints ahead of Beijing? Kilde and Shiffrin look poised to be the golden couple of the Games. NBC, the Olympic broadcaster in the United States, does love its golden couples.
That these races are happening at all this weekend is something of a miracle. Despite some scattered snowfall last month, the weather has been balmy in the Colorado mountains of late, with chilly nights and mornings giving way to bright, 50-degree afternoons. With the exception of a few runs, the mountains are mostly dull shades of green and brown.
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Technicians spent weeks blowing man-made snow onto the course in a furious battle to build up a suitable base and gain approval from skiing’s international federation inspectors to go ahead. It was touch and go until the final days, and hundreds of workers with picks and shovels have labored long days to maintain the narrower than usual strip of snow for the race.
“Not as much terrain as we are used to,” said Ryan Cochrane-Siegle, America’s top speed skier, who finished sixth in Saturday’s downhill, an encouraging result for someone whose previous season ended with brutal crash and a broken neck.
While the Beijing Games are the short-term elephant on the ski hill, climate change is the long-term one. Ski racing can’t happen without cold temperatures and snow. Shorter winters are increasingly squeezing the beginning and end of the World Cup season and making summer training on high-altitude glaciers ever more precarious.
Gaming the weather became essential strategy this week, with the top racers vying to start early in the schedule before the course started to break down from a combination of sun, warming temperatures and ski edges.
Alpine skiing at the 2022 Olympics will take place in the Yanqing District, where it should be plenty cold but where it snows little and every flake ski racers careen across will be man-made. The skiers actually prefer it that way, because man-made snow provides the kind of hard, densely packed and consistent surface they like and feel safest on.
They are less enthused about traveling to a mountain where they have never competed in a host country with a government that has become increasingly authoritarian. There have been calls for boycotts of the Games and complaints against the International Olympic Committee for its embrace of China’s government, most recently amid Beijing’s reaction to sexual assault allegations made against a top Communist Party leader by the tennis star Peng Shuai.
“It’s a big problem, and I am not afraid to say it,” Kjetil Jansrud of Norway, the 36-year-old veteran and five-time Olympic medalist, said after his 14th-place finish Thursday. “As athletes, we are stuck in the middle.”
A day later, Jansrud had another problem to deal with when he crashed violently coming out of one of the course’s sweeping turns. Jansrud tumbled out of bounds at nearly 60 m.p.h., his skis helicoptering into the netting on one side of the slope.
The American men, who have been snakebit by injuries the past few seasons, have skied clean so far as they try to get back to the standard that the now retired stars like Bode Miller and Ted Ligety set on the World Cup tour the past 15 years.
Travis Ganong, a 33-year-old Californian who tore a major knee ligament a few years ago, registered the most encouraging result, finishing third in Friday’s Super-G race.
“We needed that,” said Steve Nyman, 39, the team’s elder statesman, who is mounting a comeback from his own series of injuries. “You see a guy up there on the podium it fires us all up.”
The Swiss and the Austrians, who generally rule this sport, don’t often need much firing up but they have gotten their fair share the past few days. Marco Odermatt of Switzerland, a fast-rising 24-year-old, won the Super-G Thursday, took second Friday, and looks likely to carry on his country’s Alpine traditions.
And if it is an Olympic year, then it is a safe bet that Meyer, one of the smaller skiers on the tour, will be finding his unique form, skiing in his trademark position like an upside-down U. Meyer was the downhill Olympic champion in 2014 and the Super-G champion in 2018. Meyer finished second in Thursday’s super-G and was sitting in the leader’s seat for a good half-hour Saturday before Kilde knocked him out it.
“I brought my confidence from yesterday,” Kilde said after his second straight win. “A great feeling.”