I’m not so keen on the idea of luck. I think good things happen to good people through some kind of sharing scheme; rewards in return for other good things, or a little extra incentive to make good on your own responsibilities to look after people. I’ve been collecting the good deeds of others over the last few weeks, and I’m now in the great position of having to repay them.
So what am I talking about? I’ll get to the point. This weekend, I enjoyed three days of all access VIP treatment at the Alpine Skiing World Championships in Schladming, Steiermark, Austria. What I did to deserve such treatment is still a matter I am trying to unravel. What I did do was buy a 20 euro train ticket on the super expressways the Austrians depreciatingly call ‘trains’. They are in actual fact, luxurious bullets of connected Wi-Fi, excellent coffee and free newspapers.
I left Innsbruck bright and early on Saturday morning with little idea of what I was heading into. Throughout my childhood, I regularly watched the BBC TV show ‘Ski Sunday’, the 45 minutes of skiing coverage that is deemed acceptable in the UK. But through this I’d never got the chance to be one of the crazed cowbell clanging, flag flapping lunatics lining the ‘Strecke’. I put all of my warm clothes into a bag, and headed to the train station. It soon becomes apparent that although it was 5:30am on Saturday morning, I was not the only person making the Austrian pilgrimage to ski racing. The first train only had hints of what was about to hit. Occasional glimpses of cheeks bearing carefully painted white and red stripes. The sight of a schladminger being consumed very early in the morning. By the time I switched trains at Salzburg, the platform was a sea of red and white. People of every walk were crowding onto the extra trains provided to ferry the baying fans onto the slopes of the Planai Mountains. The Journey up the hill in thick snow was accompanied by ever increasing volumes of incomprehensible song and chants, and the opening of the doors onto the platform beckoned a sea of people moving up the mountain.
40,000 people. Each of them paying at least 20 Euros for a ticket to the stadium, most of them paying much more. Every person was holding a a Gratis Austrian flag, handed out by one of the multiple companies hoping to get their logo onto TV for the biggest thing to happen in Austria for a long time.
Let’s do some explaining. The English love football, the welsh rugby. These sports consume the whole country. The Americans are the same with hand-egg. In Austria, it’s skiing. The buses are plastered with ski racers endorsing every imaginable product. The TV runs continuous analysis of the top performers, the ones to watch, the tactics, the lifestyles. The Newspapers report it in the part you can read before finishing your coffee. It’s big. For a country of Eight million, the sole focus on this sport is mind boggling. So, having the World Championships on home soil is a very big deal. When Austria walked away from the London Olympics with no medals, of any kind, there wasn’t a national outrage, because their time is in the winter. Their athletes are held to a different set of standards, and most often, these happen within Austria. The famed Streif in Kitzbühel is normally the pinnacle of the skiing calendar, the chance for an upcoming racer to make it big with a podium place, and potentially gain lots more in sponsorship. Although this year’s Kitzbühel race was still massive, it was seen as the build-up to the World Championships, too.
With the festivities well and truly underway, I took my place on the terraced snow banks at the top of the 40,000 other screaming fans. The snow was coming down pretty heavily, the visibility was close to naught, and the floodlights were fully lit. Although you don’t get to see much ski racing at a ski race, being that close to the racers as they negotiated the last couple turns into the finishing chute were reward enough. Let’s just say that the TV doesn’t do it justice. Although the Austrian team failed to perform, the crowd pleasing Viking Svindal took the crown with some messy looking (who am I to judge?) but powerful skiing. Great way to spend a day.
It was on Brad’s invitation that I came up to Schladming, and it was in the afternoon he was free from his duties as an officialé so we could have some beers. The odd quirk of being involved in the racing is that I knew significantly more about the days events than he did, and managed to bluff my way through a ski racing conversation with hopefully not too much exposure of my complete lack of knowledge. With the town absolutely rammed, we went back to the hotel for our dinner, and enjoyed a magnificent 6 course meal. Thanks FIS!
Sunday morning I was lucky enough to hang a VIP pass around my neck and head to the Höhenhause; a multi-level terrace bar on the edge of the stadium, overlooking all the action. With free food all day (and no, this wasn’t a toast and cereal kind of breakfast) and endless alcohol served to your seat, I could have easily over-indulged, but I had racing to watch, and I’m not the biggest fan of champagne anyway. The sun was shining; the stands were packed again for the women’s downhill. With the reigning World Champ and plenty of other big names, the Austrians were looking to capitalise on the absence of Lindsay Vonn and finally win a medal at the championships, but again it failed to happen. Some weird snow conditions made for entertaining viewing as racer after racer crashed into the nets. The big screen makes the racing look just as tame as on TV, but when you turn and see the skiers flying down the final pitch and into the finish, you realise how difficult the rest of the course must be.
With a hard day of spectating successfully completed, I met up with a Colorado connection to watch the medal ceremonies. Ellen is in charge of the racing at the upcoming 2015 World Championships in Vail, and thus had an ‘in’ with the producers of the TV coverage at the event. We walked into their ‘makeshift’ hospitality building to watch the podium presentations above the sea of faces looking up at us, everyone wondering why we were so special.
I thought that was going to be the highlight of the evening, but it got better when the producer invited us upstairs to the live broadcast studio overlooking the stadium. We walked in a minute or so before they went live on air, and watched as they conducted interviews with the medallists from the women’s downhill I’d spent all day watching. The wonders of modern TV were pretty confusing at first. The host would talk to the French gold medallist in German, she would get an instant translation in her ear, respond in French, which was then translated to German for the TV audience to hear. This also happened for the Italian bronze medallist too. Crazy stuff.
After the shock of that experience, we headed back out into the throngs of crowds dispersing from trying to get a glimpse of their stars, and walked through the beautiful centre of Schladming to the “House of Switzerland”. The big teams use these events for publicity, and obviously the best way to do this is to take a large fancy hotel in the middle of the town, and rebrand it accordingly. The House of Switzerland was serving up Swiss Raclette with Swiss wine, served by Swiss people, and surrounded by everything covered in Switzerland. It was fantastic. I hadn’t eaten proper Raclette since our childhood holidays to visit family in Geneva, and it was every bit as good as I remembered. Let’s just say that I drink a little bit more wine than the last time I ate it. Being back in Europe has reminded me that choosing your own wine is completely unnecessary, and whoever was responsible for choosing this one did a great job.
So, it was 4:30am on Monday morning that I hauled myself out of bed and across Schladming for the 5am train to Salzburg. Changing in Salzburg, I had the most amazing view of the sun rising over the Northern Alps, as we chugged through southern Germany on the way back into the Inn Valley.
This was taken just outside of Traunstein. It’s Beautiful; I’m adding it to my list.