Those of us who dislike downhill skiing—who find it goofy and preposterous, and inferior to every Winter Olympic sport up to and including curling—were paying close attention to the recent Sports Illustrated brouhaha.
Just before the Olympics began, the magazine put the golden girl of skiing, 25-year-old Lindsey Vonn, who took the gold for downhill skiing Wednesday, on its cover. An innocent downhill pose? Oh, no. Academic critics contended SI had maneuvered Vonn into a “ sexualized” position; there was a crack from Keith Olbermann (sympathetic to Vonn) about her “ hindquarter”; Deadspin snarked that “Lindsey Vonn’s buttocks are the first Winter Olympics controversy.” It was a revealing moment. Skiing may claim to be the height of sophistication—the stuff of Chamonix and Gstaad. But at, well, bottom, it is one of the most shameless sports on earth.
At the Lillehammer Olympics, gold medalist Alberto Tomba mused aloud about sleeping with Katarina Witt, Nancy Kerrigan, and Tonya Harding—at the same time.
Even before the Obamas took a ski trip to Pennsylvania this weekend, skiing had been building up a false façade of refinement for decades. Robert Redford’s cocksure hero in Downhill Racer (1969) and Roger Moore’s slaloming Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) made skiers seem suave. In his 1996 essay “A Brief History of Sex and Skiing,” Jonathan Runge pointed to other examples: from the Playboy Club that popped up near a Wisconsin ski area in the 1960s to the “bare-chested Adonis on skis” that adorned the publicity poster for Sun Valley, Idaho, in the 1930s.
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But skiers aren’t suave. They’re horny. Take Bode Miller, who just won a bronze medal in the men’s downhill at Vancouver. Miller is skiing’s Rabelaisian id, a bulging boner racing down the slopes. Before the Torino Olympics in 2006, America’s best hope for Olympic gold boasted to 60 Minutes about skiing drunk and hopped into a hot tub with a female writer from Maxim. When criticized for flaming out in Torino (he failed to win a single medal), Miller quipped that he “got to party and socialize at the Olympic level.” Miller’s big comeback in Vancouver is being chalked up to his ability, at age 32, to finally suppress his inner Bode.
Miller was positively chaste compared to Alberto Tomba, the gold medal-winning Italian skier. At the 1992 Albertville Games, Tomba confessed to reporters, “I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 a.m., but I am getting older.” The Italian lothario then added, “In the Olympic Village here, I will live it up with five women, but only until 3 a.m.” In 1994, in Lillehammer, Tomba was once again fixated on three women: He mused aloud about sleeping with Katarina Witt, Nancy Kerrigan, and Tonya Harding—at the same time.
Since every Olympics must have a ski-sex controversy, Lindsey Vonn followed up the Sports Illustrated cover by donning a bikini for the magazine’s annual swimsuit issue. All of which goes to show that skiing owes less to Redford’s Downhill Racer than it does to Hot Dog…The Movie.
This is skiing: a sporty North Face jacket concealing the creep within. And the problem isn’t just that skiers are oversexed. Every four years, as the likes of Austria and Switzerland and Norway pile up ski medals, skiing shows us a new side of Europe: a chest-thumping, idiotic one.
Consider, again, Alberto Tomba, who, when he crossed the finish line, was often moved to shriek, “I am a beast!” After winning several World Cup races in the 1980s, according to Sports Illustrated, Tomba said humbly, “I really lack the words to compliment myself today.” By 1988, his first Olympic Games, Tomba had declared himself “the new messiah of skiing.” He wouldn’t have lasted a week in the National Football League.
There are noble reasons to oppose skiing you’re not likely to hear on NBC this week. It may sound like a joke that “ stress levels in the black grouse are raised by disturbance from skiers and snowboarders,” as The Guardian summarized a 2007 study. But everything from the energy used in making man-made snow to the careless grooming of slopes can be rotten for the environment. (The Vancouver Olympics has purchased carbon offsets, among other green measures.) This says nothing of skiing’s socioeconomic impact. I don’t go as far as the racial indictment in Annie Gilbert Coleman’s wonderfully titled essay “ The Unbearable Whiteness of Skiing,” but it’s safe to say that skiing will never be an inclusive experience like, say, basketball. Or even golf.
Finally—and most puzzlingly for those of us at the bottom of the mountain—skiing just seems insane. It has killed or maimed beloved celebrities: Natasha Richardson, Sonny Bono, the Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker. The skiing injury report is one of the most depressing parts of the Vancouver Games. Switzerland’s Didier Cuche, a medal favorite in the downhill, finished just sixth Monday after skiing with a broken right thumb. Lindsey Vonn has an injured right shin which she tested out Sunday and Monday, to mostly positive results, and which didn't end up hurting her medal chances.
A ski slope, like the old Astroturf at Veterans Stadium, is the place knees go to die. Maury L. Hull, a biomechanical engineer at the University of California, Davis, has worked in the school’s “knee lab” for more than 20 years, studying a parade of meniscuses and anterior cruciate ligaments torn in pursuit of skiing. As I cringed, he explained to me the “boot-induced ACL tear,” a common injury among ski pros. “What’s happening is very simple: When that boot pushes against the back of the calf, it thrusts the lower leg forward relative to the upper leg—kind of like the shin thrusting forward relative to the thigh, in layman’s terms. That action puts a stress in the anterior cruciate ligament. When the stress gets too high, it ruptures.” Dr. Allen, who is a very jovial man, went on to note, “Usually the way it manifests itself is you hear a pop.”
It takes the skier with an ACL tear about a year to get back on the slopes. If they had any sense, they’d give up skiing for a sport with all of the danger and none of the snobbery. You know, like snowboarding.
Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.