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World Championships preview

Each winter in Alpine ski racing, a winner from the World Cup circuit takes home increased fame and a very nice glass globe for a crowded mantle. There are, of course, also the Olympic Games and its colossal recognition factor every four years. But the title with by far the nicest ring – world champion – is named only every two seasons. Held since 1937, this is a World Championships year and two weeks of contests will be battled on Vail mountain February 1-14.

It’s being called “the last great party of the 20th century” and is considered the Super Bowl of ski racing. With a focus on fun and an attempt to create ski racing fans out of mere bystanders, this prestigious event has only landed on U.S. soil twice previously. In 1950, Aspen played host, while Vail also claimed the championships 10 years ago.

Starting next week, Vail will again entertain racers, coaches, journalists and spectators from over 50 nations. To successfully run 400 athletes through their paces will require 1,600 volunteers in addition to a huge paid staff. The 22 hours of national televised broadcast will come in part from over 1,500 members of the press, while another 250 hours will be aired to eager over-seas viewers. The expected price tag of the entire two weeks tops out at a spendy $23 million.



The Vail Valley expects thousands of guests over the two-week period, out to enjoy fireworks, rodeos, street parties, concerts and, of course, epic ski racing on home turf. The good news for visitors is that only 3 percent of the resort will be reserved for the races, allowing skiers ample acreage to spread out upon.

Set up like an Olympics, but on odd-numbered years, the “Worlds” will play out intense battles for top spots in downhill, super-giant slalom, giant slalom, slalom and the combined. This last features the same racers competing rigorously in first a downhill and then two slalom runs on the same day. Events are staged in both men’s and women’s categories.




Unlike the World Cup league, which doles precious points out to the 30 fastest racers, the World Championships honors only the bronze, silver and gold medal winners. There is little clout for the other finishers, and fourth place can be especially gruesome. The other main difference from the regular race circuit is that each country may only enter four racers per event. For top skiing nations, such as Austria, Germany and Switzerland, an internal struggle has been under way all season, as each racer vies for a coveted position at Vail.

With the recent retirement of Italian superstar, Alberto Tomba, the largest name now belongs to Austria’s Hermann Maier. Stacked on top of a strong first World Cup season is the lasting image of Maier pinwheeling off the Nagano downhill course. While he can be fairly certain of starts in at least three World Championships events, his other teammates are still battling for position.

On the local front, ski racers Jonna Mendes, Wisi Betschart and Daron Rahlves will represent the Tahoe area at the Vail events. Both Mendes,19, and Betschart, 22, are from South Lake Tahoe and Rahlves, 25, calls Truckee home. All compete in the speed contests of super-G and downhill, which are scheduled for the first week of the championships. Betschart will only race downhill at the Vail.

The entire celebration, from meals for the athletes to ample room for storage and tuning hundreds of race skis and special nightly entertainment to adequate parking and shuttle systems, comes as a blend of several agencies. Some of those involved are the town of Vail, the International Ski Federation, several branches of the law enforcement, the United States Ski Association and the Vail Valley Foundation.

This last is an organization that has put on numerous ski races in the Vail area, including its yearly World Cup stop. John Dakin is the foundation director and he’s been caught up with the lengthy planning process since June 1994. He describes the extravaganza, “It’s a lot of work. We’ve tried to streamline the process by using people who had roles in the 1989 Worlds. Luckily, there are many of the same people still around. There are so many agencies involved, I like to describe it as a giant wheel, with all these separate entities like spokes – all meeting eventually at the hub, which will be the Championships.

“What we can offer thats unique from other sites is our western theme. First and foremost, this is a U.S. event; it isn’t Europe where just ski racing is enough. Our focus is on the whole event, where people don’t perhaps know who Hermann Maier is. We’ve also made it affordable for everyone. Ninety percent of the stadium is free for viewers, along with two free street parties and live bands.”

Dakin continues, “Organizing all this is, of course, work, but we’ve done it before. Ignorance is bliss – we didnt know how big the tiger was that we had by the tail back in 1989. Now, we have experience in the fundamentals and we can focus on the fun.”

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