The View from the Hahnenkamm

Carnage, revelers, and politics at the world's biggest ski race

In retrospect, it may have been a bad omen that Austrian Otmar Striedinger, the very first racer on the Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzbühel, Austria, this weekend, crashed through the finish line, leaving the crowd’s cheers to suddenly vanish into a gasp.

Striedinger stood up immediately. Snow streaked across his helmet, he raised his firsts in mock triumph. But it was just the start of one of the stranger—and, some say, riskier—races in Hahnenkamm history.

The men feel centrifugal forces that get up to 3.5G on the Hausberg-Kompression, about two-thirds of the way down the course. At the Zielschuss, the fastest point, they get to around 85 mph.

The downhill here is known as one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous, races on the World Cup circuit. “These people are the best racers in the world, but still, it’s stressful to run this thing. It’s scary every time you kick out of the start,” Marco Sullivan said in the finish after his own run on Saturday, looking genuinely relieved to have made it down in one piece. And he should know: Not including training runs, he’s raced the Streif’s downhill course nine times. Even Didier Cuche, the Hahnenkamm’s record five-time winner, has said that, at least his first time, he felt “really scared” staring down the hill.

Here are some of the statistics that scare the world’s top—and most adventurous—athletes so much: Over the course, the racers plunge 805 meters (more than 2,600 feet) of vertical in less than two minutes. After launching out of the start, they go from 0 to 55 mph in 8.5 seconds. The Mausefalle, the steepest point, has a gradient of 85 percent and an 80-meter jump. The men feel centrifugal forces that get up to 3.5G on the Hausberg-Kompression, about two-thirds of the way down the course. At the Zielschuss, the fastest point, they get to around 85 mph.

Sheer ice. Now try carving an edge at 65mph. PHOTO: David Reddick
Sheer ice. Now try carving an edge at 65mph. PHOTO: David Reddick

None of this is secret. To the contrary, it’s all vaunted. There are ways, though, that you can take what’s already a wild run and—whether by building it a certain way, or setting the course just so, or letting it run in particular kinds of weather, or snow conditions, or light—push the racers beyond their limits. Alternatively, when faced with the identical situation, by canceling a race—or stopping it after it’s started—you can frustrate the same racers you think you’re helping, eliminating their opportunity to show their mettle on one of skiing’s most justifiably famous testing grounds.

Hahnenkamm organizers, in the wake of last week’s decisions, are being accused not of one of these issues, but both. The course was risky, perhaps a little more than usual. Racers got injured—not as badly as they have on the Streif in the past, but badly enough to end several seasons prematurely. And, after 30 people, the minimum number for the race to still count, the race was stopped—leaving 27 of the less-experienced athletes, including Italian Mattia Casse, who had clocked the fastest time in the last training run, out of the game. Organizers said it was for their own protection. Not everyone was convinced.

There are ways, though, that you can take what’s already a wild run and—whether by building it a certain way, or setting the course just so, or letting it run in particular kinds of weather, or snow conditions, or light—push the racers beyond their limits.

“The decision was made because they didn’t feel it was safe for the young guys, and that is not a decision to be made by the jury. The jury is to make a decision on whether it is doable or not doable,” said Sasha Rearick, the head coach of the men’s U.S. team. “The jury made a decision that’s really not in their authority at all. They were influenced by outside backers.”

If they thought it was too risky to be considered doable, Rearick added, they should have stopped it earlier—before 30—effectively canceling it entirely.

Some of the athletes, meanwhile, seemed to think the risks of the course had gone too far to begin with.

“One of the toughest Kitzbühels I have ever raced, and unfortunately with a lot of crashes. Sometimes I ask myself if we really have to push things beyond the limit to build on the Streif legend,” Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud, who placed 14th, wrote on Facebook.

It wasn’t just the downhill, either. The slalom on Sunday saw 40 DNFs out of a pool of 83 starters. The very first athlete on the course, Italy’s Giuliano Razzoli, was also the first out, crashing at the fifth gate and being airlifted out; he received knee surgery Monday. “We should think of the athletes, not only of the show,” he later said to La Gazzetta dello Sport. “In the end, I do not think it was so beautiful, that first run.”

“We’re playing with our health,” Julien Lizeroux, who finished the slalom in 16th place, said to Le Dauphine. “In skiing, the spectacle doesn’t align with the safety of the athletes.”

Broadcasting the Hahnenkamm to the masses in Europe is big business. PHOTO: David Reddick
Broadcasting the Hahnenkamm to the masses in Europe is big business. PHOTO: David Reddick

Kitzbühel, Austria, is an odd place. For one thing, it’s a picturesque, medieval town of some 8,000 residents that, once a year, becomes the focus of major international attention. It’s easy to forget in the U.S., but elsewhere, racing is big business. Roughly 45,000 spectators trek to the Saturday downhill in Kitzbühel each year, but the true stadium is the living room. ORF Austria alone clocks up to 1.6 million viewers for that one race. In 2008, more than 262 million viewers tuned in worldwide. This, of course, also means big money. According to the Kitzbühel Ski Club, which has run the event since the 1930-1931 season, the turnover from the race is some €40 million.

ORF Austria alone clocks up to 1.6 million viewers for that one race. In 2008, more than 262 million viewers tuned in worldwide.

“A wise FIS guy once told me, ‘This isn’t a ski race, it’s a TV show about a ski race,'” said Nathaniel Vinton, a long-time World Cup reporter and author of the book The Fall Line. “The broadcast fees are the economic engine of the sport. I can’t think of any other sport that is quite as vulnerable to weather disruptions.”

That mass appeal creates another oddity of the Hahnenkamm. As a chance to showcase some of Europe’s top sport talents, on the one hand, it’s entertainment for the rich and famous. But the party atmosphere isn’t limited to swanky clubs: You’re as likely to see a teenager vomiting into a trash can, men urinating behind ticket booths, and the butt cheeks of revelers pressed against the press center’s glass siding (check, check, and check) as you are to spot Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bernie Ecclestone, and Jason Statham (also check, check, and check). If you wanted to make a comparison to the gladiatorial games of old, where Vestal Virgins and emperors sat closest to the carnage but it was the masses who afterward reveled in the streets, you wouldn’t be completely off base.

15. Number of lagers consumed per Austrian at the Hahnenkamm. PHOTO: David Reddick
15. Number of lagers consumed per Austrian at the Hahnenkamm. PHOTO: David Reddick

But don’t let that fool you into thinking the Hahnenkamm isn’t anything but incredibly serious. Seen by many as the crowning race of the World Cup downhill circuit, the Hahnenkamm is a veritable pressure cooker. That’s true, of course, for the racers and their coaches, but also for FIS, the national ski associations, the press handlers, and for the Kitzbühel Ski Club.

This season, perhaps, even more so. “This year, it is the biggest race. We don’t have the Olympics, we don’t have World Championships. So this is, maybe, the most important race,” said Italian Peter Fill after clinching the downhill on Saturday.

And here’s the strangest, perhaps most pressure-inducing thing of all: The Hahnenkamm has staked its reputation on having what many consider to be the most challenging downhill course on the World Cup. It’s built its broadcast numbers—and profits—on the thrill of watching racers fly down the hill at the edge of serious danger. And yet no one, least of all those behind the event, wants there to be an actual accident.

As this year showed, you can’t always have it both ways.

“This year, it is the biggest race. We don’t have the Olympics, we don’t have World Championships. So this is, maybe, the most important race,” said Italian Peter Fill after clinching the downhill on Saturday.

The week kicked off, as usual, with the first downhill training run. This year, the training, like the planned racecourse, would go from top to bottom. For safety reasons, the Hahnenkamm course is often altered, usually by being started lower. The last time it was run in its totality was 2013.

But in training, it wasn’t the top that tripped up racers. It was the Hausbergkante. The section is always notorious. The athletes are flying down its 69 percent gradient at about 65 mph. In the first training run, three racers blew out at the same spot. One of them, Austrian Max Franz, injured his knee and required ankle surgery. On the next training run on Wednesday, Austrian Florian Scheiber went out at the same place, tearing his ACL and meniscus.

It was clear that that single point would make or break a run. And it wasn’t as if the section was impossible to pull off. Injuries, especially knee injuries, are part of any racing career. Meanwhile, the results surprised everyone and seemed to show that, yes, the guys could handle it: the fastest racer was the Italian Casse, who had a starting position of 47th. Of course, the fastest racer in training often isn’t the fastest in the race. Even so, we’ll never know how Casse might have fared—since the race was stopped at 30, he never raced the course.

Festive crowds gather at the finish line to witness the carnage and glory. The Hahnenkamm finish line in 2013. PHOTO: David Reddick
Festive crowds gather at the finish line to witness the carnage and glory. The Hahnenkamm finish line in 2013. PHOTO: David Reddick

Before the downhill, though, came Friday’s super-G and super-combined. It was a spectacular day: blue skies, sunny, cold. The crowds, and the famed Hahnenkamm energy, were starting to pick up. At 9:30 a.m. on the ski-commuter train from Kirchberg to Kitzbühel, a group of middle-aged friends, blowing noisemakers, broke into cheers when we pulled into the station. Austrian music pumped at the base of the Hahnenkamm-bahn, the gondola at the base of the hill. At one of the beer tents, a Kitzbühel local pulled out a plastic jug of vin brulee: Each one holds 10 liters, she told me, and they would finish at least 20 of them today. “But tomorrow we’ll have 40 to 60, and we’ll go through all of that,” she said, laughing.

The super-G was tough and technical, with one guy after another blowing out, unable to make one of its especially tricky turns. In total, a striking 26 of the 89 who started didn’t make it to the bottom.

The super-G, after all, would be just a taste of what’s to come. That was true for atmosphere: The stands were full, and after the race, Austrian girls giggled over shy selfies they took with some of the racers. By the end of the night in town, teenage boys were dancing to the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” that blared from a bar into the street, a middle-aged woman had to be half-carried by her friends to a taxi, and a man in a blue bird costume hunched over greasy fare at McDonald’s.

Same for the course. The super-G was tough and technical, with one guy after another blowing out, unable to make one of its especially tricky turns. In total, a striking 26 of the 89 who started didn’t make it to the bottom. But injury, thankfully, wasn’t present.

For those who made it down, Aksel Lund Svindal surprised no one by clinching gold. The Norwegian was at the top of the World Cup rankings, a striking comeback after he had sat out the 2015 season due to having injured his Achilles tendon. More surprising was Andrew Weibrecht, the American known as “Warhorse,” who finished second. Third was another favorite, Austrian Hannes Reichelt, who won the downhill on the Streif two years ago.

Some of the same guys went on to run slalom in the evening. Those who did the best between both super-G and slalom can claim the super-combined title. That’s when luck started to turn for Svindal, who crashed and tweaked his hamstring in the fall. All three victors were French. That night, as they accepted their awards, “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, played on the Streif.

It snowed the morning of the downhill. After such bluebird conditions for the super-G, this seemed like particularly bad luck. It was also something that had been forecast all week. But the weather in the mountains is, obviously, unpredictable, and making big changes—like choosing to reschedule a race, or flip it with another one, like in 2014 when the Kitzbühel Ski Club ran the slalom on Friday and the super-G Sunday in response to snow conditions—can bring its own problems.

This year, the race was delayed by an hour. The course was also changed, thanks to strong winds on the top at the Mausefalle, beginning 30 meters (about 100 feet) lower than the classic start.

The biggest challenge, though, remained the Hausbergkante. There were the same rolls that had thrown some racers in the training run. But now, there was another element: The super-G the day before, which runs on the same hill, had created some extra dips. And while the terrain was dyed blue, the flat light meant that, coming in at 65 mph, it was still hard for the racers to see.

Just a few minutes in, the seventh racer, Austrian Georg Streitberger, crashed at that spot. His skis widened into a near-split before he made a heroic attempt at a save that instead exerted an undue amount of pressure on his knees and threw him into the course’s netting. The crowd had been, predictably, at its most enthusiastic all week, with 45,000 people roaring at the start. Now, they went silent. The yellow med-evac helicopter rose into the air.

The next crash was Svindal. He also hit a bump in the flat light of the Hausbergkante; he, too, tumbled, crashing with such force that one of his skis completely delaminated while still attached to his boot. He sped into the same netting.

Ten racers later, Austrian favorite Hannes Reichelt, the 2014 downhill winner here, crashed in the same spot. It looked even worse than Streitberger’s tumble. Reichelt rocketed into the netting projectile-style. Volunteers sprinted up the course. Again, the crowd went silent. The moments ticked past.

And then, to huge cheers, Reichelt stood up and walked out of the netting. But he, too, was taken off the hill by helicopter.

The next crash was Svindal. He also hit a bump in the flat light of the Hausbergkante; he, too, tumbled, crashing with such force that one of his skis completely delaminated while still attached to his boot. He sped into the same netting. There was the same silence. The same collective memories of the crashes of years past, of bodies, seasons, and occasionally, careers that were crushed here. Just in the past decade, the roll call of injuries has been daunting. There was U.S. racer Scott Macartney in 2008, who crashed off the Zielsprung jump, broke his helmet, and slid unconscious over the finish line, suffering a serious head injury. There was the Swiss racer Daniel Albrecht in 2009, who fell on his back off a jump, suffered a pulmonary contusion and head injuries and was in an induced coma for three and a half weeks. There was Hans Grugger, 2011, who crashed so hard he had emergency brain surgery and was in a coma for two weeks.

Imagine the cheers of the crowd, then, when Svindal—like Reichelt—was next flashed on the big screen standing. Not only that, but the 6-foot-2-inch, 215-pound Norwegian walked a few steps, weaving his way through some of the spectators in the crowd, bleeding from a cut above his nose.

He was more injured than he looked. Later, news came that he had in fact torn the ACL in his right knee. Same, it turned out, as Streitberger. Reichelt fared better with a bone contusion.

Torn ACLs don’t compare to the horrific accidents of years past. Still, the downhill was only 19 racers in. How ugly would it get when the less experienced guys got on the hill?

It was at that point that Peter Schröcksnadel, president of the Austrian Ski Federation, made a phone call to Markus Waldner, the FIS race director, and told him to call off the rest of the race. “I said it was getting very dangerous, because visibility was getting worse and worse,” says Schröcksnadel.

Instead, the race kept going. But it was called off right at number 30. Thirty is the minimum number required for an official race, but it’s also important because after 30 come the less-tested, younger athletes.

Italian Peter Fill won the race with a beautiful, aggressive run. And although everything can change in a moment on a downhill course, it may be worth noting that at all five of the splits after the third, he was fastest—even against Svindal and Reichelt.

“It was for me the right decision, from 30 on, to finish the race—because then the race counts, and that’s not unfair for the good ones, which are on the podium. But for the rest, it’s too dangerous. The young kids, they take all the risks, and I think that could have been a disaster,” said Schröcksnadel.

The U.S. team’s Rearick thought the reasons were far more political. At that point, he said, the visibility was getting better, not worse. The course was either doable, or it wasn’t—and if it wasn’t, it should have been canceled when Svindal fell.

None of that debate, however, should take away from the downhill winner, Italian Peter Fill. He won the race with a beautiful, aggressive run. And although everything can change in a moment on a downhill course, it may be worth noting that at all five of the splits after the third, he was fastest—even against Svindal and Reichelt.

A crew does what they can to keep conditions safe on the course. PHOTO: David Reddick
A crew does what they can to keep conditions safe on the course. PHOTO: David Reddick

Still, when you have some of the biggest icons of ski racing go out in the same spot, people will talk. That’s exactly what happened. “Horror on the Hahnenkamm,” one Austrian paper said. “Scandalous,” said another.

Should the downhill have gone ahead at all? Should it have been stopped at 30, or, if it was considered doable for the other athletes, been allowed to run all the way through for the others, too? In 2016, should we even be letting athletes run the kinds of racecourses where the risk of serious injury is very, very real?

They’re questions that pertain to Kitzbühel, as well as the entire world of downhill racing. And, as Vinton points out, there’s no way, in this kind of situation, for the organizers to really win. Lindsey Vonn explicitly blamed her 2013 injury at World Championships on the decision to continue the super-G on a soft course. And yet two years previous, when the last race of those World Championships was cancelled at dawn for poor snow conditions and the overall title went, therefore, to Maria Hoefl-Riesch, Vonn criticized officials for not giving the racers a chance to compete.

“Generally it’s impossible not to wonder if the officials are influenced by the pressure to get a race off and thereby satisfy broadcasters and, by extension, sponsors,” Vinton said. “I think the officials can’t win. Someone is always going to be mad. It’s just tough running a sport where the field of play can deteriorate so fast or be obscured by clouds and snow.”

And the band plays on, at the Hahnenkamm finish line. PHOTO: David Reddick
And the band plays on, at the Hahnenkamm finish line. PHOTO: David Reddick

By 10 p.m. that night, the pretty streets of Kitzbühel were covered in a brown sludge of snow, dirt, and innumerable miniature Jägermeister bottles. There was trash everywhere. Someone had lost a hat on the ground; a few yards later, more surprisingly, a man’s sock. People dosey-do’ed in front of police cars. Someone started playing hackey-sack with a broken bottle. A tall, thin kid next to me drooped like a parenthesis, so drunk he was unable to walk, draped over a friend who, thankfully, somehow steered him to a trash can. In line at The Londoner (where, as far as I could tell, Didier Cuche was not inside this year, spraying people with beer), I learned from an especially friendly middle-aged Englishman who said he comes here yearly to avoid the beer from the tap and keep my eye out for pickpockets.

It was a messy end to a messy week. And it wasn’t even, really, the end. The next day there would be the slalom, the race that saw its own amount of carnage, where those 40 racers went out.

“It’s impossible to keep your skis on the ground.” But, Ted Ligety added, “Guys are making it down.”

“The rolls are sharper, bigger, steeper. More icy. More slippery. Everything is more,” said Marcel Hirscher, who took second place in the slalom and who now, with Svindal out, is slated to take the season overall title.

“You know, normally a big roll has smooth curves to it. This one has sharp angles, which makes it tough,” said Ted Ligety, who was disqualified for missing a gate, of the terrain that took out a lot of the athletes. “It’s impossible to keep your skis on the ground.” But, he added, “Guys are making it down.”

And that’s the thing: Guys made it down. They made it down the Streif’s downhill, no matter how menacing the Hausbergkante, and they made it down the slalom, no matter how tough the terrain. Which may be why even some of the injured athletes are careful not to place blame on anyone but themselves.

But no matter who, ultimately, is responsible—the organizers, the whole profit-making, and pressure-inducing mechanism, or the racers themselves, who know what they’re getting into and race regardless—the accidents cast a shadow on the Streif. As they always do. As, perhaps, they always will, as long as racing remains as high stakes as it is.

“I think yesterday was really sad,” said the slalom victor, Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen, talking of his teammate Svindal’s injury. “When you see a crash like that—I know it’s really spectacular and maybe that’s why Kitzbühel is Kitzbühel.

“But that’s really sad.”

The Hahnenkamm is known to be the most daunting of all downhills on the World Cup circuit. PHOTO: David Reddick
The Hahnenkamm is known to be the most daunting of all downhills on the World Cup circuit. PHOTO: David Reddick