SINCE 2008, when it was announced that Schladming in Austria would host this year’s Alpine World Ski Championships, the town has changed almost beyond recognition.
I can still remember when the chunk of prime real estate at the bottom of the downhill race course was taken up by a large, unglamorous car park. When you pulled up at the gates, a posse of elderly, ruddy-cheeked attendants in matching ski jackets would micro-manage every stage of the short journey to your parking place with a disarming mixture of Styrian cheerfulness and Teutonic precision. “Left here... Right here... Forward a bit... A little more... A little more... A little more... A little more... OK stop!” BIG SMILE! Space shuttles have been launched with less attention to detail.
Now, in anticipation of becoming the centre of the skiing universe, a gargantuan multi-storey car park has been constructed nearby (little green lights on the floor show you where to go) and the spot where the old car park once stood has been transformed into what must surely be the most futuristic-looking ski stadium in the world.
With a capacity of 30,000, and boasting a dramatic “Skygate” above the finish line – a huge steel arch supporting a filming platform and commentary box – it looks like something out of Star Wars. Other improvements include a new media centre, a new railway station and a sci-fi makeover for the gondola base station, now known as “Planet Planai”. Total amount invested in the infrastructure of the town and its environs: E400 million, give or take a few cents.
On Monday, around 650 of the best downhill skiers in the world will arrive in Schladming, along with an estimated 45,000 fans, for a fortnight of Downhill, Super G, Slalom and Giant Slalom. One slight disappointment: the great American downhiller Bode Miller recently announced that he would be sitting out the rest of this year’s events to allow an injured knee to recover in time for the Winter Olympics in 2014. Still, the locals won’t be too upset: they have their own hero to cheer on in the shape of current World Giant Slalom champ and overall World Cup holder Marcel Hirscher, who hails from just up the road in Annaberg. Leading the World Cup rankings at time of going to press, and with a vocal home crowd roaring him on, Hirscher must surely have his eye on a spot on the (newly constructed) podium.
Then again, nobody’s taking anything for granted. Riding the gondola to the top of the downhill course on the last day it was still open to the public before being prepped for the competition, I got chatting to a local ski fan who told me that, although Hirscher was in with a chance, “the whole of Austria is very nervous – we know that, in skiing, anything can happen.” For a country that takes its skiing as seriously as the Brazilians take their football, a Hirscher win would be cause for an almighty party; but to see a Swiss or an Italian snatch victory would be almost too much to bear.
However things pan out on the competitive front, though, the World Championships already represent a huge victory for Schladming – not just in terms of investment in infrastructure, but also in terms of exposure. For two weeks, the world will be watching, and thousands of ski holidays could potentially be booked if people like what they see. As you’d expect, the event organisers have gone to great lengths to ensure this will be a fan-friendly, media-friendly, and environmentally-friendly affair. There’s even an impressive cultural programme, with art exhibitions in the town hall and the local church, concerts and readings on the 2700m high Daschstein Glacier on the other side of the valley and screenings of vintage ski films in the town’s cute little 1950s cinema.
It’s hard to find fault with any of this – indeed, Schladming 2013 is shaping up to be a model of how a small town (population 4,500) can put on a world-class sporting event. And yet, as silly as this sounds, I miss the cheery old dudes in the car park, with their matching ski jackets and their specific instructions; and I worry a bit about the down-home soul of this brilliant old ski town – that it might have got a little lost somewhere in amongst all the space-age buildings, and all the millions of euros that brought them here. Hopefully the next couple of weeks will prove me wrong.