I watched an hour of the Women’s Downhill skiing race at the Alpine World Championships today. It was enjoyable and exciting but exactly why this was so, was not totally clear to me. As I watched, I started listing some of the reasons why it shouldn’t be exciting:
- Aside from Lindsay Vonn, who is American and famous and dates Tiger Woods and who I am largely ambivalent about, I didn’t know anything about any of the ski racers before I started watching. There’s not much of a chance to get to know them either, they are wearing full-body suits, helmets, and goggles that cover most of their faces. They are on camera pretty much only when they are skiing, except for the current first-place skier, who is periodically shown expressing relief or anguish as they stay in first place or are replaced by another skier.
- The difference between first place and tenth is only a few seconds. The course is around one and a half miles long. There’s no way any casual viewer could tell, without the assistance of the announcers and the time differences that are shown periodically through the race, who is winning and who is losing. It’s basically watching the same thing twenty times.
- The entire time I was watching the race, I was torn between wanting the racers to finish safely and the desire to see something truly spectacular, like a big crash. Unless you really know what you’re looking for, a crash is more interesting and compelling to watch then a safe finish. This is a weird line to walk, because it makes me feel bad about myself. I guess the difference between ski racing and football is that when you watch a ski race, you can tell if someone has been injured, whereas in football, even if you can’t tell, someone probably has.
So, why would I keep watching? I guess there were a few reasons for that as well:
- It’s an international competition, so there are built-in reasons to root for one person over another. I reflexively root for the United States. Because it is a snow-based event, I will also root for people from most Scandinavian countries. I root half-for and half-against the Canadians. I root against the traditional powers of skiing, the Austrians, Germans, and Italians.
- Even though you couldn’t actually tell who was winning without the announcers and the clock, you have both those things! It’s exciting to get a check on what place someone is currently in five or six times during the minute and a half down the hill.
- You also get to learn some of the intricacies of how to know who is going faster. Like any racing sport, the person who is slipping through the air, water, snow, sand, etc. with the least disturbance to the material around them, is the one going faster. You can watch how much snow a skier is kicking up on their turns and get a feel for if they are going to win or not. As each successive racer goes down the course, you also get a sense for which line or path down the mountain is better. There are trade-offs — if you take one turn wider, it can get you into the next turn faster, but then you might be in trouble at the following turn. There is a line which is the best, but sometimes a skier is able to take a unique line and make it pay off.
- As with all sports, there is the possibility of seeing unexpected greatness as well as the certainty of . Downhill skiing is such an incredibly demanding athletic achievement, that although you become desensitized to it quickly, it’s worth appreciating each racer who gets to the bottom. I’m pretty sure I would be a) too scared to go down that steep of a mountain, b) would have to stop about ten times on my way down because my legs would be burning, and c) would actually tear ligaments or tendons in my knees if I could even somehow take a turn at that speed. Once in a while, a racer will do something that’s uniquely remarkable to watch. In downhill skiing, I’ve mostly seen this when racers look like they are absolutely going to fall but somehow torque their body around, with all their weight on one leg, going at ninety miles an hour, and avert disaster.
For those of you who are interested in watching some skiing, here’s a full TV schedule of the 2015 Alpine World Championships.
Thanks for reading,