A non-skier’s guide to the Hahnenkammrennen

When I left the UK many years ago, skiing was already popular among my friends and colleagues and I had been once or twice (memories of coach trips leaving at silly o’clock, getting merry on the ferry, a first time on snow in Aviemore, and a disparate emphasis on the après-ski over the skiing), but never had really got bitten by the bug. Back then, in a far simpler pre-digital and pre-satellite TV age, coverage was through the BBC’s Grandstand programme and Ski Sunday, and often only 30 minutes of highlights, apart from during the Winter Olympics. British involvement in those days was somewhat token, with the Bell brothers (Graham and Martin) occasionally finishing in the Top 20 at World Cup races. Konrad Bartelski’s 2nd place in Val Gardena was mentioned regularly, at least until the slalom last year in Kitzbühel, when Dave Ryding equalled it, having been 1st after the opening run.

Konrad Bartelski – Val Gardena in 1981

Had I been born in Austria, the chances were that I would have learned to ski at a very tender age. I last went skiing about six years ago, when my knees decided that they had had enough of it. In the mid-90s I used to go quite often, with similarly care-free friends, and we’d pile into a friend’s car, with skis on the roof rack and would head off for the weekend to the slopes. That was how skiing should be – no frills (we would sometimes leave Vienna at 5am and get on the slopes, drink nearly all night and sober up on the slopes the next day before driving back to Vienna and collapsing back at home exhausted). Since meeting my wife, the ski trips became more skiing-oriented, and were fun for other reasons than over-exuberant hijinx.

As middle age ensued, those with growing families also became more tempered with their skiing (a family ski week is a serious splurge unless you have cheap accommodation) and new cars were chosen by their suitability for a ski box on the roof to ensure that luggage was not so restricted. Unless the bug has bitten you when you are young, if you are not Austrian, then it might never bite you. I enjoyed going skiing, even if I was probably a mobile chicane on the piste, and never dared to back my abilities off piste. Consequently, I never really got into watching ski racing, put off to a certain extent by the seemingly endless coverage.

This weekend the World Cup skiing circus returns to Kitzbühel and the coverage in news and sports programmes on our beloved ORF (tongue firmly in cheek) has already started in earnest. Tonight (Wednesday) the talk was about whether the course will be the full length Streif or an emasculation of it. The documentary “Streif – One Hell of a Ride” is on prime-time television too. Ahead of the Olympics, which for non-skiing fans are mercifully about seven time zones away and therefore the coverage will be on during the night, and so the two classics (Wengen and Kitzbühel) are the business part of the season and of course all of Austria hopes for an Austrian winner in any of the races. The Kitzbühel event consists of a Super Giant Slalom on the Friday, the Blue Riband Downhill on Saturday and the Slalom on Sunday.

Austria’s rich, beautiful, well-heeled, and most likely Karl-Heinz Grasser too will be out in force, splurging indecent amounts as the village becomes the place to be seen. It is like a skiing version of the Opernball (the coverage is just as interminable) and ORF wheels out all its big guns for its coverage. Just as my father used to always mark the FA Cup Final in the Radio Times in May, the TV guide in a Beisl I go to in the seventeenth district also has the coverage marked in highlighter. It is a money spinner in an otherwise relatively quiet January, and owner Toni tells me with a big grin that all the regulars have reserved their tables with the big screen being down for the duration of the coverage. For the hitherto blissfully unaware, the coverage starts at 9:30am and goes on until just after 7:00 pm, albeit punctuated by the Women’s Downhill in Cortina D’Ampezzo and some ski jumping.

So what is it that makes the Hahnenkammrennen in Kitzbühel such compulsive viewing for the Austrians? Part of it is the fact that is that it is one of the few truly international events that Austria holds year-in-year-out, and it gets bigger billing than the Four Hills Ski Jumping (something that doesn’t seem to appeal to me either). The glitz and glamour of Kitzbühel also gives the ORF’s “high society” reporters a chance to get in on the act. However, even the Hahnenkammrennen is not always blessed by the gods, with the race cancelled in 2005 and 2007 due to rain and snow, and the course frequently shortened – in 2015 the race distance was halved, meaning that the run lasted less than a minute.

Maybe in terms of coverage the cake is over-egged. Two programmes to build the tension “Der Countdown” either side of the coverage from Italy. And then 2 hours of race coverage “Das Rennen”, before the post-race analysis “Die Analyse”. A veritable triple whammy, and not just because the definite articles being masculine, feminine and neuter. After more skiing coverage (this time it is skijumping and Nordic combination) there is more analysis (or maybe a repeat, if ORF are convinced that no-one will be watching, who either a) cares or b) is not drunk, if they have not left the comfort of their Beisl of choice) and the medals ceremony (30 minutes…) and finally 10 minutes about “The Stars” which sadly dwells more of the high society variety than the celestial variety. Sunday on ORF1 is another 10am-6pm wall of winter sport, this time in slalom, although even the prospect of Dave Ryding performing well can’t persuade me to plan my Sunday around it all (it’s nothing personal, and I wish him good luck!).

Ski Sunday Theme Tune – Pop Looks Bach

Sometimes you just wish that David Vine were still around to wrap the whole thing up in 30 minutes though, including two renditions of the Ski Sunday theme tune (Pop Looks Bach). The ideal broadcast would be an equal mixture of Schadenfreude at racers falling, but hopefully not injuring themselves, derring do of plucky outsiders from nations not blessed with mountains and only the tiniest soupcon of analysis. I’m a man of simple pleasures, and at the end of the day don’t need a microscopic dissection of technical flaws, and depending how the ÖSV’s charges get on either a eulogy or a post-mortem. But all this gives the impression that all of Austria actually cares about what happens on Saturday, this is not the case. There won’t be a power surge during the advert breaks, or like there was in Nagano in 1998 when Austrians got up early to watch Hermann Maier wiping out. Granted for many men with a friendly Beisl nearby, there is the chance to watch it over a Schnitzel, a Krugerl (or four) and to chew the fat with other hen-pecked husbands using the ski coverage as an excuse to seek sanctuary in a Wirtshaus. Oh and by the way, there is a ski race.

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