Q&A with Markus Waldner
The 2016/17 Audi FIS Ski World Cup season is just around the corner and FIS men's Race Director Markus Waldner shared some thoughts about Alpine Skiing and its future.
The season opening will take place in Sölden in less than 3 weeks. Why does the kick-off always take place in Sölden?
Thanks to its high altitude and good weather conditions, the Austrian resort is an ideal place to open the World Cup. In the past, we tried different other glaciers (Tignes and Saas-Fee), but the cancellation rate was very high at these venues due to bad weather conditions. Of course, the Rettenbach Glacier is also suffering because of global warming, but thanks to snow-farming and a last generation snow-making-system, Sölden can ensure consistency. Other important points were the central location and easy access, that facilitates the logistics, and the enthusiasm around the races.
How high is the interest for alpine skiing outside of the core markets Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France and Sweden?
For sure, these four nations are very important to the ski racing world. This is where most athletes come from, where the general interest in alpine skiing is the highest, and where the biggest events on the calendar are held.
However, ski racing is becoming a global sport and besides Slovenia, Germany, the Scandinavian countries and North America, who established themselves as classic Organisers, the Audi FIS Ski World Cup is also expanding to the Far East. Top events were held in Sochi, Korea and Japan for example. The difficulty is that we have to offer a Far-East block in the calendar, we cannot travel so far just for one race. So it’s depending a lot on the Olympic schedule. The idea would be to go back East approx. every 3 years, combined with an Olympic test event, which will be possible again with the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in China.
With a potential of 300 million new ski fans, the ski industry is very interested in having World Cup events in the Far-East. To gain those people as active and devoted ski fans would be a huge step towards sustainability of our sport.
So the pillars of the World Cup are clearly in central Europe, where the value is created, but from a marketing and tourism standpoint, we try to expand to other countries to ensure a viable Ski World Cup also in the future.
Are there too many disciplines? Is Alpine Skiing still attractive and popular?
Many discussions have been started regarding the number of disciplines. Some of our disciplines developed in a way that is no longer very attractive for normal TV viewers, but only for hard-core ski fans who know the technical details. So to activate and involve a wider audience, we need to have an easy and understandable product. The parallel races are a good example, as the head-to-head format is very exciting and easy to understand. It may be a good way to attract the younger generation – figures show that most viewers are 45 years old – so they can enjoy Alpine Skiing as well. In the long term we’ll need to change something in our calendar, and we’re already working on it. No revolution, but steady evolution towards a better World Cup.
How does this evolution take place concretely?
When we develop a discipline, we first need to consider the sports aspect - any rule change has to be fair and respect the athletes - then we consider attractiveness for viewers. The tendency right now is to go towards compact formats, where the tension is build up in an exciting way. Some formats have already been tested in Continental Cup races and may appear on the World Cup calendar soon. Of course, the Classic venues like Wengen or Kitzbuehel will keep the original principle, where the winner is the “fastest from the top to the bottom of the mountain”, but maybe other events will consider new options.
Furthermore, a new live data collection project will be launched at the World Championships in St. Moritz. The athletes of the speed disciplines will wear a transponder, that delivers live information about acceleration, air time, etc. This technology was already used in other sports, and now our timing and data provider Swiss Timing implemented it in alpine skiing, to enhance the spectators’ experience. It’s a great step forward, with a lot of potential for the future.
A lot of work is also done on the race tracks. What are those adaptations for?
The public wants to see a show with spectacular courses, so we need to constantly work on the track to offer something interesting for the spectators. But all those changes have to be within the limits of safety, that’s the highest priority. More speed wouldn’t be a safe solution, so we work with the terrain and build more rolls and jumps that force the racer to come out of his position and fight to stay on the right line. Those images are very impressive on TV and not necessarily dangerous. But of course, the limit between safety and show is a thin one. The sport needs both, but we need to be careful to find the right balance.
Are races like the Hahnenkamm Downhill in 2016 off balance?
No. Alpine skiing is not dangerous, but taking risks is a part of our sport, especially in downhill. We’ll never have 100% safe courses, and there will always be crashes, no matter how many fences we set. But in the end it’s up to the athletes to evaluate the situation and decide if he’s ready to take the risk or not.
Last year in Kitzbuehel, the situation was always under control and the Hausbergkante was good enough to race. But of course, with changing light conditions the athlete has to adapt. Racers like Gisin (5th with bib 27), Kriechmayr (7th with bib 30) showed that the course was “raceable” until the end of the competition. We certainly don’t like to have crashes and injured athletes, the goal is that the athletes are healthy and cross the finish line, but if the athletes choses to risk it all to win the race, then crashes can happen.
For next year, we took measures to better secure that section, with lights, a special dye that has better contrast and less people on the track that may deteriorate the snow preparation. But it is still an outdoor sport, and even though we do our best to offer a course that’s as safe as possible, the risk will always be there.
A new speed starting order will be introduced this season, in what way will it influence the drama?
It’s gonna be interesting. The main idea was to extend the time in which top athletes appear, to force the spectators to watch the show a little longer. So now, the top 10 athletes are choosing between 1 and 19, while before they were drawn between 16 and 22. The fact that they are choosing also adds drama, as it’s going to be different in every venue based on various factors. This may also enhance interest, as people will wonder why and talk about it.