Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Conspiracy Theories

Due to the unseasonably warm weather in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, the 2011 World Cup ski season ended with a whimper instead of a bang. Four out of the 8 races were canceled due to fog and slushy snow. Four of the titles: the women's overall, men's Super-G, women's giant slalom, and men's giant slalom were decided because of the cancelations. International Ski Federation (FIS) rules state that final races that are canceled because of weather cannot be made up. Therefore the skiers who had the lead before the canceled races were declared the winners. The women's overall race was the closest, with Maria Riesch of Germany winning by 3 points over American Lindsey Vonn.

To me the most amusing thing about the World Cup finals are the conspiracy theories. I have been reading various German, Austrian, US, and international websites and the comments that people have posted about the women's final. My favorite is that the FIS and Germans conspired so that Riesch would win the overall title, which Vonn had won the past 3 seasons. It wasn't through the weather because even the FIS and Germans can't control it. So how did they do it? Maria Riesch's coach was the course setter for the slalom race. Yes, that must be it. But wait! Course setters are assigned for each race before the season starts. It just happened that the German coach was the course setter for the final slalom race. The other part of the German/FIS conspiracy was that the same course was used for both parts of the slalom. Normally there are two different courses set by different coaches. But because of the delay of the first run, there was no time to set a new course and have a proper inspection. The second run happened immediately after the first finished instead of after a two to three hour pause. The athletes and coaches accepted this situation. Nobody complained about it until after Riesch was declared the overall winner.

Another part of the German/FIS conspiracy involves the start order for the final slalom race. Riesch drew #2 and Vonn was #16. Earlier starters in slalom races have an advantage because the course deteriorates and gets more rutted with each skier. Those who believe in behind the scenes intrigue have stated that Riesch got the earlier start number because of German/FIS collusion to make her the overall winner. There was nothing of the sort going on. According to FIS rules, start numbers are determined by a skier's ranking in a discipline. In the slalom, the top 15 ranked skiers get numbers 1 to 15, with the top 7 ranked getting numbers 1 to 7. The numbers are given out in a random draw the night before the race. Riesch drew #2 because she is ranked 3rd in slalom. Vonn got #16 because she is ranked out of the top 15; she is ranked 19th in slalom. In that race Riesch ended up 4th and Vonn 13th. The interesting thing about the final race is that the skier who drew #15, Tina Maze of Slovenia, won the race.

The other conspiracy theory involves the race cancelations. That must be another European/FIS conspiracy because most of the FIS leadership is European and also because Vonn's strongest event, the Super-G, was canceled. The slalom, which favored Riesch, was allowed to go on but the giant slalom (which slightly favored Riesch) was canceled. Conspiracy theorists want to believe that the races were canceled to prevent Vonn from going for Annemarie Moser-Proell's record of 5 overall titles in a row. If Vonn had won the overall this year, it would have been 4 in a row for her. If the conspiracy theorists are to be believed, the FIS wanted to keep Moser-Proell's record intact because she's Austrian. If someone had a shot of tying or breaking the record, the FIS would want a European skier to do it. The FIS's "pro-European bias" can't be true because US skier Ted Ligety won the giant slalom title because the final GS race was canceled. The real reason the races were canceled was because of the weather and snow condition. There was a lot of rain, fog, and above freezing temperatures. The snow was okay for a slalom race, which is slower and shorter than the others. The men who did the slalom race said that with the heavy fog they could only see two gates ahead of them. That would have been dangerous for the faster races.

Lindsey Vonn's fans, who are upset about her being second by such a slim margin, wanted the giant slalom race rescheduled. But to be fair to everyone, if one race is rescheduled, then the other canceled races must be too. Some even went so far as to say that the races should be held immediately in another venue. Those people don't realize the logistical planning that goes into a professional ski race: travel arrangements, lodging and meals, recruiting local volunteers, and course preparation.

I also found it ironic that Vonn and her fans were the loudest complainers about the cancelations. The skiers who had mathematical chances of winning individual titles all seemed to be good sports about the cancelations and accepted them. Vonn was happy last season when she won the super combined title by very few points due to a cancelation. She said that it was the nature of skiing that sometimes races need to be canceled in the interest of athlete safety. She also said that sometimes the calls go your way and sometimes they don't, but the athletes need to accept them. Vonn also talked about skier safety during the 2010 Olympics and the recent World Championships. But it seemed like when the FIS went against her wishes, she demanded that the rules about canceled races be changed. Maybe the FIS will change the rules in the off-season and maybe it won't. But the FIS certainly won't change its rules on the final race weekend or to suit a particular skier.

I'm looking forward to next season. In addition to my old favorites, there are a lot of young skiers who are ready to take over the reins from their older competitors: Lara Gut (Switzerland), Anna Fenninger (Austria), Frederika Brignone (Italy), Tessa Worley (France), Lotte Smithest Sejersted (Norway), Nolan Kasper (USA), Beat Feuz (Switzerland), Joachim Puchner (Austria), Adrian Theaux (France), and Reto Schmidiger (Switzerland).

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