Andrea Fischbacher of Austria won the womens SG today. Heretofore, the Austrians have been getting their asses kicked in this Olympics, which, back in Austria, has approximately the same societal impact as losing the Vietnam War had on Americans.
I’m not exaggerating.
I’m sure Fischbacher’s gold was celebrated back in Austria, but even if Austria goes 1-2-3 in all of the remaining events, the Austrian media are going to crucify the team for their performance in Pissler. Ski racing is that important to the country.
Here in the US, virtually everyone with the slightest interest in professional sports is a fan of one or more of the following: NFL football, MLB baseball, NBA basketball, and NASCAR. In addition, a significant percentage of the US population goes borneo over college football (BCS anyone?) or college hoops (March Madness). In Austria, there’s none of that. It’s alpine ski racing, alpine ski racing, alpine ski racing. All ski racing, all winter. OK, they watch soccer in the summer.
The thing about the Americans is we win 100% of our own “world” championships because we do not invite anybody else. “World Series”, my ass. When’s the last time you saw the Barcelona Dragons beat up on The Dallas Cowboys to win the Super Bowl? I’m surprised the NFL doesn’t call it the Intergalactic Bowl, regardless of the fact that no other countries – let alone other galaxies – are invited.
Austria does not have that luxury. In ski racing, they are the gold standard, and every team on the planet is out to beat them first and foremost.
The ÖSV (“Austria Ski Team” as they call themselves) is the best-managed, best-organized, best-performing, wealthiest, best-sponsored alpine team on the planet. Most years, they win more than all the other teams put together. They’re kind of like the Dallas Cowboys or the NY Yankees, in that they do not always win, but historically they win more than everybody else added together. When they don’t win, they put their heads down and come back at you twice as hard the next time.
The Austrians also host three of the biggest events on the World Cup: the season opener on the Rettenbach glacier in Sölden, the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel (also the biggest winter sporting event in Europe) and the Nachtslalom in Schladming.
All the teams respect the Austrians. All the teams fear the Austrians. All the teams think about the Austrians before they concern themselves with anybody else.
Right now the Swiss have a very good team. They’re on equal terms with the Austrians, who are in somewhat of a slump. But for almost 20 years, the Swiss couldn’t get arrested. That NEVER would have happened to Austria. They have a mediocre season from time to time. But most seasons, the AUTs dominate.
Austria has two of the top “technical” skiers on the World Cup, Benjamin Raich and Reinfried Herbst. Raich won the overall World Cup crystal globe in 2006 and won both the SL and GS in Torino. Herbst has been the hottest SL skier on the World Cup this year. Herbst had Kitzbühel all but won and blew it a few gates from the finish, but then convincingly won Schladming two days later. The pressure on those two guys to perform in the upcoming GS and SL events is crushing. If the US hadn’t won any medals whatsoever so far in this Olympics, the majority of the country would not know and would not care, as they’re mostly watching the Lakers, the Celtics and the Heat (as I am tonight), perhaps the Black Hawks or the Flyers, or else University of Kentucky or UCLA. But trust me on this….when Herbst and Raich take to the slopes, virtually every TV set in Austria will be tuned to the ski racing on ÖRF.
Why are the AUTs so good? It was explained to me by an Austrian friend. In the US, virtually every kid grows up with free sporting facilities either down the street or at their school, or both. Virtually all American kids, no matter how rich or poor, have either tennis courts, a baseball field, hoops courts, or an athletics field available nearby, facilities they can use either for free or for a nominal fee. Our long-suffering parents dump us off at tennis practice or baseball practice to get rid of us after school. In Austria, there’s none of that. Baseball is non-existent, and sports like tennis and basketball are played only at expensive private clubs. But something like 70% of Austrians live within a 20 minute drive of a ski hill. It may not be much – maybe one or two old rope tows, but virtually all have junior programs, so it is a cultural custom that Austrian parents dump their kids off at the local ski hill after school the way American parents take their kids to baseball practice and Canadian parents schlepp their kids to hockey practice.
Speaking of Canadians, where have they been this Olympics? I feel bad for them. They are one of the best-coached, best-managed teams on the World Cup, and Eric Guay’s two fifths are all the CANs have to show so far for an Olympics on home turf. Hopefully Canada will win the hockey, because that will kick off a huge national celebration, and the sub-par performance of the ski team will be forgotten.