October 22, 2004

The White Circus #1: That's What It's All About: How the FIS alpine skiing World Cup tour got its name

This is the first in a series of regular (I hope) columns about the 2004-2005 FIS Alpine World Cup. Some news, some predictions, and a lot of opinion about my favorite sport -- World Cup ski racing It's the fall of the year, and the American sports fan is caught in a three-way headlock. Baseball is winding down as slowly as possible, taking up the better part of a month with nineteen consecutive playoff games to work its way to its World Series conclusion. The NBA is just getting started. The NFL is half a dozen games into the regular season, with "undefeated" starting to really mean something. And on another continent, half a dozen time zones away, a small group of American athletes are getting ready to start another season on one of the most difficult, most dangerous, and least rewarding sports tours that they could choose to participate in: the 2005 alpine skiing World Cup, also known as the White Circus, which gets underway on October 23rd at the Sölden glacier in Austria. Not surprisingly, the "White Circus" tag originated with a North American: Canadian Ken Read, a speed event specialist and the leader of the "Crazy Canucks" of the early '80s. It could never have come from a European. In the skiing countries of Europe, the World Cup is viewed with the same combination of traditionalist reverence and feeding-frenzy excitement that is reserved for Major League baseball in the United States. It is their game, played in their house; it is the province not only of hardcore fans, but of everyman and everywoman, who can quote you statistics on the World Cup leaders with the easy familiarity of a guy at a lunch counter telling you what Jeter's numbers are looking like. In these countries, to be a World Cup racer is every kid's dream, and if you make it to the Show, you take yourself very seriously indeed. If you actually win races, you're a rock star. People start fan clubs in your name and travel from country to country to watch you race. Even if you couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, someone will be willing to let you cut a rap single. You are wined and dined and mobbed with groupies, your hometown throws a huge parade for you and enshrines you as a hero forever, and your face can be used to sell anything from razor blades to mutual funds. The World Cup is a very big deal indeed -- if you are a European. North Americans look at the thing differently. They are very much a part of the circus, in a sense: they're right in the middle of the action with everyone else, the media commotion and the crazy commercialization, the giant inflatable purple cows in the finish area, the drunken fans lobbing snowballs and worse. They roll into town with the rest of the circus, and when this week's shows are done, they strike their tents and move on with everyone else. They're part of the acts, and in recent years, have been making a more systematic play for the big center ring. They now have endorsement deals and fan clubs of their own. But the fan clubs are based in Europe, and the ads never run in North America. Here, the public sees ski racing once every four years at most, when there are Olympic medals at stake. A North American can win the World Cup, the most prestigious event in ski racing and one of the most difficult achievements in sports, and go almost anywhere in the United States without being recognized. Imagine Tom Brady walking unnoticed down the streets of Boston, and you've got an idea of what this means. The North American racers never get a chance to take themselves too seriously: the ego-deflating indifference of the American public would see to that. And when you can't take yourself too seriously, you can't exactly put your sport on a pedestal either. Hence, I imagine Ken Read looking around himself and concluding that he was a performer -- a tremendously talented one, perhaps, like a great trapeze flyer -- in a spectacle that just wasn't all that consequential. Not great art, not Twyla Tharpe or Alvin Ailey or the New York City Ballet -- just the circus, where even the most physically talented are a little bit of a joke. The White Circus. It is hard to understand why they bother. Unlike the professional athletes back home, members of the US and Canadian ski teams do not get paid for what they do. Their income, if they have any, comes from prize money -- approximately $80,000 is divided among the top ten finishers in a World Cup race. If that sounds like pretty good money, consider that each race has sixty or more entrants, that most World Cup competitors never win a race in their careers, and that many never land in the top ten. The only other sources of income for North American racers are in sponsorships, which usually come in the form of gear rather than cash, and endorsements -- nice when you can get them, but with few exceptions, European companies are not interested in North American racers. None of them die rich, and some of them die young, and many of them get very badly mangled. And yet they do it. Year after year, they fight for the chance to live out of a suitcase and hurt every day, to struggle with an unfamiliar language and customs, to spend Christmas away from their families, sitting with their teammates around a stunted tree decorated with Red Bull cans. And, also, for the chance to fly. Their "shining moment" will never come in a nationwide chorus of acclaim and a tickertape parade. It will come, if it does, in that lonely instant when they know that they have done the thing they love the most as well as anyone has ever done it. It will come in the roaring silence of the big air off the Hundschopf, or crouching in the snow at the finish at St. Moritz. For some, for a few, that moment is enough. That moment is what it's all about. Let the circus begin.

posted by lil_brown_bat to commentary at 12:56 PM - 0 comments

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