40 years world Cup – a kaleidoscope of skiing

In 2005 the Alpine Ski World Cup, cooked up by a few skiing pioneers in the Chilean Andes, celebrated its 40 year anniversary. The four decades have been characterized by triumphs and tragedies, beaming winners and dazzling stars.

The World Cup, created by some progressive ski freaks, changed the world of skiing. The journalist Serge Lang, who worked for the French newspaper “L’Equipe”, Honoré Bonnet and Bob Beattie, team coaches of the French and American teams, and later Austria’s “Sportwart” Sepp Sulzberger conspired during the long nights of the summer World Championships at Portillo in 1966.

At that time “L’Equipe” had invited the best skiers to a “challenge”, a competition analogous to bicycling, but taken notice of by hardly anybody (except Serge Lang), and the trophy to be won, a ski set with brilliants, was not even appreciated by the winners Marielle Goitschel and Karl Schranz.

While on Portilllo’s altitude of 3000 m the athletes were killing time by throwing cakes and ash trays, the Gang of Four (as Serge Lang called his creative team), of which only Bob Beattie is still alive, were hatching their project day and night. When the draft was more or less finished, they presented it to FIS president Marc Hodler. Unexpectedly and undiplomatically the ski boss reacted fast and announced to the press on August 11, 1966: “Gentlemen, we have a World Cup”. On January 5, 1967 already the first “World Cup” race took place at Berchtesgaden. Most newspapers wrote “World Cup” in inverted commas, as they were not yet fully convinced by the idea.

Heini Messner was the winner of the first World Cup race. In the second run he came back from rank 10 to win the slalom. Only two athletes, Pierre Bourgeat in 1998/99 in Park City (14th to 1st) and Benjamin Raich in the same season in Schladming (23rd to 1st) repeated this amazing feat. In order to enhance the World Cup status the races were clocked in thousands of a second for the first time.

Jean-Claude Killy was the first overall winner. He was the best promoter for the new competition, when he said: “For me the World Cup is more important than World Championships or Olympic Games.” He won the crystal globe with 225 points, the maximum result possible. A year later he clinched three Olympic gold medals, still saying the same. That was music to the ears of Serge Lang, the “father” of the World Cup.

In the meantime also the FIS supported the World Cup. During the 1967 Congress in Beirut it was officially acknowledged. For the overall competition only the three best results per discipline were taken into account. Co-founder Honoré Bonnet prophesied with wise foresight: “We will never find the perfect formula. Even in ten or twenty years there will be discussions about the best way of counting the points”. Indeed, the recurrent modifications of the formula proved to be the only steady factor of the World Cup for a long time.

There were races with “half” points, “inflationary points”, void points, double points and so on. Many modifications were imposed to the FIS and the World Cup committee from outside. Some of them turned out to be boomerangs for the initiators. When, for example, the French succeeded in taking into account five instead of three races per discipline in order to favor their star skiers Jean-Noël Augert, Patrick Russel, Alain Penz etc. it was Italy’s Gustav Thöni, a racer winning points with the regularity of a metronome, who profited the most from the modification.

When the season was divided up in three periods in order to give downhiller Franz Klammer a chance against the technicians, the Austrian star fell in the Megève race, of all races, which was one of the decisive competitions. When the rules finally tried to put an end to the extreme specialization, there were no all-rounders left such as Killy or Schranz. And when one returned to the original formula with only three races in order to enhance the suspense, the overall standing was decided in January already etc., etc.

Despite all criticisms the World Cup grew to a global event with excellent sport and thrilling races. The World Cup made stars and stars made the World Cup – to the benefit and popularization of ski racing altogether, which, by the way, took another step forward by introducing race directors and a professional management at the beginning of the nineties.

As a result of the continual development a new discipline was launched, the Super-G, which pre-premiered 1981 in La Villa (with a kind of mogul section built in) and was definitively introduced in Val d’Isère a year later (with five Swiss skiers sweeping the first five ranks). As of the 2004/2005 season a super combination of Downhill and Slalom as a competition of its own is listed in the calendar. It is intended to strengthen the trend towards the all-round skier, which had been the idea of the World Cup in the first place.

1973, six years after its foundation, the “White Circus” paid the first visit to Japan. In 1985 the World Cup returned to the Andes (Las Lenas in Argentina), the place of its origins. In 1989 (Australia) and 1990 (New Zealand) the fifth continent, too, hosted World Cup races for the first time. In the four decades of its existence, 168 sites in 22 countries and four continents organized nearly 2500 races.

The list of overall winners includes 40 names, 22 women and 18 men. The largest collection of crystal globes is owned by Annemarie Moser-Pröll, namely six. Five were won by Marc Girardelli, four by Gustav Thöni, Pirmin Zurbriggen and Hermann Maier. In all the years, the World Cup committee had only three presidents: Marc Hodler in combination with his FIS presidency up to 1973, then the autocratic Serge Lang, and from 1986 on until today the Italian Erich Demetz, one of the co-founders of the World Cup races at Gröden.                                  

Richard Hegglin