As a kid growing up in the pancake-flat Midlands in the mid-1980s, my first experiences of skiing were watching Ski Sunday on the telly. The leading racers of the day were people like Marc Girardelli and Pirmin Zurbriggen, and to me they seemed to lead impossibly glamorous lives,
Hurtling down tree-lined mountainsides in exotic-sounding places like Kitzbühel and Sestriere while being cheered on by armies of cowbell-tinkling fans. As far as my seven or eight year-old brain could work out, these Lycra-clad superhumans occupied the same hyper-real world as Formula 1 drivers, professional footballers and the Thundercats, and I suppose ever since then I’ve always naively assumed that ski racers enjoy the same levels of wealth and privilege as their counterparts in other glitzy sports (if not, perhaps, access to the same array of space-age weaponry that Lion-O and his friends seemed to take for granted).
So it has come as a bit of a shock to my long-held world view, in the last few years, to discover that while a few ski racers at the very top of the tree are indeed phenomenally wealthy, for many athletes in the sport’s upper echelons, just getting from one World Cup event to another is a spirit-sapping financial struggle.
A recent story for Bloomberg News estimated that between 20 and 30 ski racers at next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi will have had to pay their own way there. The report highlighted the case of Canadian downhill skier Larisa Yurkiw, who, in order to be able to compete on a level playing field with, say, American millionaire Lindsey Vonn, now has to spend big chunks of precious training time schlepping around boardrooms negotiating sponsorship deals after the state snowsports body Alpine Canada cut her funding last April.
“It’s been like running my own business,” Yurkiw said. “I go and train in the morning, then put on a dress and heels and head to the office.”
Scotland’s own Dougie Crawford is another ski racer who has had to fund himself to the brink of Olympic qualification.
“Things started to get difficult after 2010 when the old federation [the British Ski and Snowboard Federation] went bankrupt,” he tells me. “Actually, the next couple of years were OK. Last season was the first year that was really tough for alpine and downhill – they completely cut funding for downhill.
“Partly that has to do with the success of the freestyle stuff, the halfpipe, slopestyle etc. They’ve kinda put more eggs in that basket, so the last two seasons they’ve not supported downhill at all, despite it being a blue ribbon event.”
Ah yes – the freestyle stuff. Back when I was watching Girardelli and Zurbriggen on the telly, snowboarding was still so niche it was banned at the majority of ski resorts. “Big air” meant Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards wiping the condensation from his glasses and launching himself off a ski jump. Now, though, events like halfpipe and slopestyle are serious box office, and inevitably they have started to attract funding that might otherwise have gone to support old-fashioned ski racing.
Crawford’s sponsors include Skyscanner, Maximuscle and the ski tourism body ski-scotland. His fiancée Chemmy Alcott, Britain’s number one female ski racer, is also self-financing her bid for the Winter Olympics. The pair held a fundraiser in London last autumn, and Crawford has also held a fundraising ski race at his home club of Bearsden.
“I’m certainly getting close to covering my basic programme costs,” he says, “but it’s not the world-class programme you’d hope for – there’s no ski technician or anything.
“People see the British ski team and they go, ‘Oh, you must be funded, the top guys in all sports are funded,’ but it’s not the case.”
On the one hand, I suppose, all of this makes the Winter Olympics seem like a bit of a fix. Why should we be surprised if the Swiss skiers do well, when all their expenses are covered except for a 3,000 Swiss franc fee to pay for insurance? Then again, everyone loves an underdog story, and what a great story it would be if one of the major ski events was won by a self-funded athlete.