19/07/2020THE LEGEND OF FANES | CHPT. 4
Sometimes, it is almost easier to recognise the greatness of a champion from the sparkling eyes of those who hear the champion’s name rather than from a balanced assessment of his or her achievements.
It’s almost as if a series of chain reactions were set off around any race, any competition. These reactions are triggered by the race course and the athletes, but encompass everything that surrounds them and make the event unforgettable and thrilling also because of the historical moment in which it takes place.
The race is the fuse, but sport is much more.
It is an unforgettable story, always ready to be written.
And when the celestial bodies are in alignment, that’s when a myth is born.
If we want to talk about slalom, it’s impossible not to start with the most iconic and most loved slalom skier of all. A champion who invented new things, who beat almost everyone and gave himself the privilege of never going against his own nature, both on and off the slopes.
He didn’t miss a thing, Alberto Tomba.
And he didn’t make us—his supporters—miss a thing. Thanks to him, we saw the valanga azzurra (the Italian men’s national team) become a global phenomenon and get so popular that it affected even our most ancient secular institutions, such as the Sanremo Music Festival.
The year was 1988. The Winter Olympics were being broadcast live from Calgary, Canada. Epic Olympic Games as regards sports.
Those were the Olympics in which the Finnish Matti Nykaenen, whose hobby was music and whose first album was even certified gold, swept all three gold medals in ski jumping. No one ever manage to do the same. At those same Olympics, four legendary Jamaican sprinters decided to try bobsleigh and they, too, became movie stars.
Italy’s movie star was Alberto. He was only twenty-one years old and his magnetism could keep the entire Italian population glued to the TV. Out in Super-G, triumphant in Giant Slalom—he celebrated after crossing the finishing line first.
At the start gate of the slalom event he was under pressure, since he was the favourite to win.
Meanwhile, however, Italy was equally interested in finding out who would win the 38th Sanremo Music Festival: Toto Cutugno, Matia Bazar or Massimo Ranieri? Italians had to request that the music festival be suspended so that the second run of the champion from Bologna could be broadcast. Tomba had concluded the first run in 3rd place; during the second run, he managed to catch up and win the gold medal in his first Olympic slalom competition. The Sanremo Music Festival was won by Massimo Ranieri’s “Perdere l’amore”, but all the attention was on the slalom race.
Because slalom is and will always be the main event, the highlight, the time for spotlight and red carpet. Tuxedos and poles, this is the menu.
Elegance and technique that mix in two runs during which very few thousandths of a second play a huge role in determining whether you are going to win or be disappointed. To catch up or straddle a gate.
We started with Alberto, who actually got to walk on a red carpet and who brought a revolution on skis as well. He trained in Cortina and had a technically aggressive and ‘arrogant’ style.
A taste of the future.
That style reappeared, a few years later, thanks to another champion—Marcel Hirscher from Austria. Probably, the greatest leading man of all time.
When someone saw Hirscher skiing for the first time, they were always undecided as to how to judge his performance because he had a syncopated, almost hysterical pace. It was an incessant swinging from a gate to the other, with accelerations, jerks and continuous cuts to the ideal lines. Tarantino style, we could say.
Yet that incredible adrenaline junkie always saw the same colour shown on the display, next to his run-time: green.
He recorded one victory after another and bettered his records every season—none of them, perhaps, was as impressive as his 2018 per-race points average: 81, which means ‘a bit better than second’ at every single race. Impressive.
He was a ruler—a true superhero—and was capable of winning 6 Slalom World Cup titles, among the many other things. However, every respectable superhero needs an almost equally great nemesis. In Marcel Hirscher’s movies, the co-star was Henrik Kristoffersen.
A titanic clash and an ideological dispute since the Norwegian, unlike the Austrian, is slender, elegant, graceful. Like a rush, with legs that look like they are independent, not connected to the trunk. He makes it look like the slope is straight even if it is full of turns and edges.
They have fought for first and second place in 28 competitions, mostly slalom races.
But many sports, as everyone knows, are made of hundredths of a second, which in turn are made of thousandths of a second. In very few disciplines thousandths of a second are as important for an athlete’s career as in slalom. Hirscher and Kristoffersen were the soul of the circuit for an entire decade. They needed each other and rewrote the rules of the most glamorous discipline.
Marcel won more but Henrik still has a long road ahead of him to catch up, maybe starting with a gold medal in slalom at the World Championships, which he has not won yet.
On the men’s side, then, many have been the nominees for the Oscars.
From the long-time rivals Thöni and Stenmark to Giorgio Rocca, who won the slalom World Cup title in 2006, the same year in which he fell at his home Olympics. Or Marc Girardelli, who gave up his Austrian passport to become Luxembourgish and take part in the 1985 World Ski Championships in Bormio, which he won.
To the tormented talent of Rok Petrovič from Yugoslavia, an independent-movie type, so to speak, whose life would really be worth metres of film. Brown hair, like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, high cheekbones and slightly pointed chin. He had small, dark eyes and always looked sad. Petrovič lived ten lives in one lifetime.
In the 1980s, rigid poles were replaced by flex poles, and suddenly everyone—including the most experienced racers—had to change their way of skiing. Rok, who turned 19 in 1985, was the first to do so and managed to win a lot of races leaving everyone speechless.
Someone called him “Stenmark’s nightmare”. In the 1985-86 season, he clinched his first victory in slalom in Sestriere and then won four other slalom events, thus securing the World Cup slalom title. But he didn’t care about the red carpet life at all. He wanted to study philosophy in London, learn English and go scuba diving in his beloved Adriatic. Sad and overwhelmed by a daily routine that he had not chosen, he retired 3 years later and died tragically at sea in 1993. In that period, Dalmatia was in the midst of war and it was not easy to bring his body home for one last farewell.
Slalom has an ancient history, full of champions and legendary anecdotes. There are lots of undisputed stars among the women too.
Let’s start with the very first—Esme Mackinnon.
Born in Scotland, not exactly the best-known country for mountain traditions, Esme Mackinnon was a member of the Ladies’ Ski Club, the first of its kind, and raced under the flag of His Majesty George VI (but the future Queen Elizabeth was already there).
In 1931, at the age of 17, Esme took part in the very first Alpine World Ski Championships in Mürrer, Switzerland, and won both official races—downhill and slalom.
She also won a third race about which we want to tell you.
This was an unofficial competition from Grütschalp to Lauterbrunnen. As Mackinnon approached the finish in Lauterbrunnen, she encountered a funeral procession passing by. The British woman, who had a really elegant style in slalom, stopped to wait, paid her respects and resumed her run after the cortège passed. Fastest time for her and a ‘timeless classic’ for posterity.
Slalom made its first appearance at the Olympics in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. The 1948 Winter Olympics, the V Olympic Winter Games, were held in St. Moritz. On that occasion, Italy won its first gold medal at the Winter Olympics thanks to Nino Bibbia’s victory in skeleton. The first woman to be crowned Olympic champion in Slalom was Gretchen Fraser, from USA. She too had a passion for cinema, but, unlike many other skiers, she appeared on the big screen before becoming a champion. Let’s see in which films she appeared: Thin Ice, a 1937 American comedy/romance film set in Switzerland, and Sun Valley Serenade, a 1941 musical film about a pianist who wanted to adopt a little girl and who instead found an attractive 20-year-old ice skater at home.
The United States won the following edition as well; it was only at Cortina 1956 that Europe took its first Olympic gold in Slalom thanks to Switzerland’s Renée Colliard.
It would be impossible to go into details about all the great female racers who have enjoyed the limelight over the years in this discipline. It would perhaps be necessary to make one film per season—and perhaps it would not be enough—to tell about the feats of Erika Hess, Vreni Schneider or Janica Kostelić, who, with her brother Ivica, helped put Croatia on top of the alpine skiing world.
But there is another ski legend whose life could be the plot of a film or TV series in the future. We’re talking about Mikaela Shiffrin, who has often been seen at ease in front of the camera.
We would need gallons of ink and even a lot of patience to describe her talent, because she still has a long road ahead of her and it would be premature to give a final assessment of her impressive career.
At Sochi 2014, she became the youngest slalom champion in Olympic history, only few weeks shy of her 19th birthday. She is the most successful athlete—male or female—in the history of slalom, a goal she has achieved before turning 25.
She clinched six of the last eight slalom titles, a streak broken only by Petra Vlhová this year, and by Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter, a live wire (for those who know something about art history, the name speaks volumes), who in 2016 took full advantage of an injury of the American. Just to be clear—that year, before getting injured, Mikaela won the slalom opener by 3.07 seconds, thus showing a strength that only unforeseen circumstances can sometimes undermine.
Only theoretically. Because Shiffrin has won 66 World Cup races to date—and the question is not whether she will ever beat the record of 82 victories held by the other American Wonder Woman, Lindsey Vonn, but when.
Soon, we imagine, and Vhlová—together with Italy’s Brignone—is among the few to have the honour and the chance to take up the challenge of trying to slow her down.
Mikaela has the right credentials to get her own star on the ‘alpine skiing walk of fame’, but you can rest assured that she will be in good company.
There’s something electrifying and unparalleled in a slalom run.
The athletes clear the gates bib after bib, the snow conditions change, and the best athletes in the first run start in reversed order in the second one, thus making it technically challenging for everyone.
When you watch a slalom event, you are always on the edge of your seat, just like when you watch a movie.
Looking at the course, you have just one yardstick by which to compare the athletes’ performances—your personal taste for a technique or a racer.
At least until the intermediate time.
At least until the finish line.
Because often, the difference between a good and a bad shot is made by the smallest details, such as the thousandths of a second, and only the most talented people among the talented ones manage to choose the perfect angle and walk gracefully in the limelight of the red carpet.