50 years FIS Ski World Cup: Slalom passion at Levi
Who among those visionary initiators involved in the creation of the Alpine World Cup could have imagined at that time that the circuit would later on also regularly include distant regions with much stronger tradition in Nordic Skiing such as Finland, where the highest peaks, Ridnitšohkka, culminates at 1,316 meters? Situated in beautiful Lapland, 170 km north of the Arctic Circle, Levi has truly become a strong pillar of the World Cup circuit in that part of the continent.
Hundreds of resorts located in 25 countries from the Northern and Southern Hemispheres hosted thousands of World Cup races since the first men’s slalom at Berchtesgaden on 5th January 1967 – including Finland for the first time in March 2004. The first slaloms took place only five years after its ski star Kalle Palander stunned the White Circus in clinching gold in slalom at the 1999 Ski World Championships at Vail, Colo., without having ever reached a podium on the World Cup tour in the previous seasons.
Two and half years later, his colleague Tanja Poutiainen scored her maiden World Cup podium in slalom at Sestriere four years after her World Cup debtut – also at Vail, in occasion of the Finals, after grabbing the slalom title at the FIS Junior World Championships.
Both also excelled on the World Cup tour during their career, clinching crystal globes in the technical events and celebrating many wins in prestigious races at Kitzbühel, Schladming, Adelboden or Alta Badia for Palander or Zagreb, Sölden and Levi for Poutiainen who also captured four silver and bronze medals at Olympics and World Ski Championships. Interestingly enough, after accumulating a great amount of top-three places, Tanja was able to enjoy her first World Cup win here at Levi in March 2004!
With the help of Jouni Pallander
Born in Tornio, on the seaside, at the border with Sweden, Kalle would certainly not have become a top alpine ski racing without his dad Jouni who was passionate about it. Watching ski racing for hours on Swedish TV during wintertime, his dad learned some technical base for that discipline by himself – mostly watching skiing legends like Ingemar Stenmark or Alberto Tomba. One day, he persuaded his son that he has the potential to become the next great slalom specialist from north of Europe!
After school, Jouni would take his son by car to the nearest slope situated outside of town – with a vertical drop of 24 meters Kalle could only train about eight gates! – and, later on, to nearby Rovaniemi located a 90-minute drive away. “It was quite tiring, I often slept in the car during those long drives,” remembers Kalle looking back at that time. “He was strongly convinced of my chances to reach the top – and kept pushing me. It was not easy as it didn’t seem to make sense to me at the beginning yet I kept going for it,” he adds.
Finally after struggling and fighting his way through, Kalle won a FIS slalom at Rovaniemi in February 1995 and qualified for the FIS Junior World Championships in March, finishing far away from the favorites ... in downhill. The following year he was third in combined in Switzerland thanks to his promising fourth place in slalom.
A few months later, he entered his first World Cup race at Madonna di Campiglio where he didn’t get through the first leg. Fortunately, Kalle scored his first points two years later in Korea finishing 16th in slalom. He kept on moving up the ladder and scored a few top-10 finishes in January 1999, including a nice sixth place at Kitzbühel before his amazing ‘coup’ at Vail where he beat Norway’s Lasse Kjus by 0.11 thanks to a strong second run.
Yet the outgoing Finn showed strong character afterwards after losing his touch for slalom because of the introduction of the new shorter parabolic skis that were not immediately produced by his former French company. He needed nearly three years to recover his best level after changing his ski supplier. During that time, he had to start in many races with high bib numbers before lastly celebrating his maiden World Cup win at Kitzbühel in January 2003, beating several top specialists such as Rainer Schoenfelder, Ivica Kostelic or Benjamin Raich. This great win was followed by 13 others on the World Cup tour with a total of 30 podiums both in slalom and giant slalom.
He was fighting with Italy’s Giorgio Rocca for a second slalom globe in March 2006 when he badly hurt himself, crashing in giant slalom during the Finals at Are, Sweden. Once more he managed to come back afterwards, winning again the famous giant slalom race at Alta Badia, yet a series of other nagging health issues prevented him to remain as competitive as he was hoping before forcing him to give up World Cup racing from January 2008 November 2010.
A few years ago, Kalle officially retired from the racing scene after skiing down the Levi Black run as a forerunner – a very moving moment for his fans and himself.
A booming resort
Kalle’s successes greatly inspired the Finnish Ski Association and the resort of Levi to fight hard to stage a World Cup event in the middle of the country. It has not been an easy task considering the fact that the highest peak of this small town of nearly 20,000 beds here culminates at 531 meters! Yet the slalom slope mostly surrounded by thousands of spectators and fans has always provided spectacular races. Since the first World Cup races in Levi, the area itself has boomed in a spectacular way, with many recently hotels built in and nearby the center of the resort that offers now a total of 43 alpine ski slopes (17 of which are also illuminated) that can be reached by 27 lifts.
Slalom specialists soon greatly enjoyed traveling to Levi and always hope to see at least once beautiful northern lights shining above the place. The two slalom competitions races on the 'Black Levi Run' are surely more than normal ski races as they also strongly contribute to the legend and the promotion of the World Cup around all snow countries.
The World Cup founders would surely appreciate and enjoy it!
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