An unprecedented challenge from the world’s top female skier to race against the men in Canada has prompted this country’s alpine elite to both laud her gumption and the potential publicity it brings, but at the same time cite an avalanche of reasons why Lindsey Vonn shouldn’t compete.
The 28-year-old U.S. superstar has already sent a letter to the International Ski Federation, which governs the sport, outlining her dream of racing the men's downhill in Lake Louise, Alta., next month. But the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association hasn’t sent a “proper request,” FIS said, in order for officials to debate the merits – both promotional and technical – when they meet next week.
But the Canadian Cowboys – as well as women of the alpine speed squad – point out that pitting her against the guys in a World Cup downhill race on Nov. 24 could give her an unfair advantage when she races against the women on essentially the same course the next week. And if she does race, some say she should launch out of the gate in the dreaded last position, which erases any shot at a decent time on a chopped-up course against the men. Still, racers and other alpine supporters here say it would be an amazing publicity coup for a little-watched sport in North America.
But there are significant hurdles for Vonn to follow in the trails blazed in tennis by Billie Jean King or in golf by Annika Sorenstam. This isn’t Manon Rhéaume becoming the first woman to play in an NHL exhibition game or Hayley Wickenheiser making the cut to play professional hockey with men in Finland. Perhaps underneath it all, the boys of the White Circus are a little bit scared of being “chicked.”
“That’s a verb used in ski racing – chicked – to chick someone,” explained Canadian alpine racer Larisa Yurkiw.
Yurkiw was the talk of the Swiss glacier when she beat a guy in training over the summer. The 24-year-old from Collingwood, Ont., who has high hopes for Sochi in 2014, won’t identify the humiliated racer, only to say he is not a Canadian, but a “fellow Commonwealther.”
“It was the biggest news of the day,” she recalled.
“It was just training and it didn’t matter,” Yurkiw said. “It didn’t count for anything, but it’s that prestige verb to be able to use.”
Max Gartner, president of Alpine Canada, said he hopes FIS will see Vonn’s request as an opportunity to promote the sport, especially in North America where few people pay attention.
“I hope their approach will be taken that this is great for the sport. Let’s find a way to make it happen,” he said He gives Vonn a 50-50 chance of racing.
Tom Kelly, vice-president of communications for the U.S. team, wouldn’t say where internal discussions stand in terms of approaching FIS, but added: “With Lindsey, we respect her interest in pursuing this new challenge.”
Vonn declined to be interviewed in order to prepare for the season-opening races this weekend in Solden, Austria, but she told a television outlet there last week:
“It’s been a life’s goal for me to one day race with the men, and I think Lake Louise is the best race for me because I know the slope.”
FIS rules prohibit training on a course within a week of the competition.
If Vonn races against the men, she’ll have extra training on what’s considered the easiest course on the circuit – a track where the women are scheduled to race the next weekend. She has said she would not skip the trio of women’s races at Lake Louise – and forgo a boatload of World Cup points – at a hill that has been unofficially christened Lake Lindsey because of her success there. She has stood on the podium at Lake Louise 17 times – winning 11 downhills and super Gs.
Another barrier: she also doesn’t have any World Cup points on the men’s circuit, and isn’t technically qualified to participate.
However, her record on the women’s circuit is one of dominance.
She has 97 World Cup podiums – 53 wins – as well as five world championships podiums, has won the overall World Cup four times and was a two-time Olympic medalist at the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
But racing against the men could also annoy broadcasters, namely NBC, which won’t have its national superstar to showcase when it broadcasts the women’s slalom and giant-slalom races from Aspen, Colo., the same weekend.
Still, FIS could make a “special exemption” to allow her to race.
But as 28-year-old Calgary skier Manuel Osborne-Paradis, who has nine World Cup podiums, pointed out, FIS punishes racers with a lousy start order if they are a minute late to a bid draw.
“Exemptions don’t really exist in FIS,” he said. “There’s a reason why the U.S. ski team hasn’t [applied for] this, and Lindsey went on air and was like ‘I’ll race Lake Louise.’”
It’s good publicity, he said. So, how would she fare?
“Starting last? Fiftieth – maybe worse,” said Osborne-Paradis.
Ken Read, a former Crazy Canuck who represents Canada at FIS and is director of winter sports for Own the Podium, said pitting women against men can already be tested at other events in the ski world. He doubts Vonn will be given the green light – and probably shouldn’t be.
“The World Cup is intended to be the highest level of competition all aimed toward world championships and Olympic competition and as such, are they the right place to be exploring these new avenues?” he said.
Calgary’s Ben Thomsen, 25, who finished second in the downhill race in Sochi last season, said if approved, Vonn should race last in the start order so men aren’t robbed of the good spots they earned. He also confessed that the prospect of getting “beat by a girl” is embarrassing.
“It was always a big moment in your ski-racing career when you’re old enough or good enough to not get beat by the best girl,” he said, “That’s kind of a tipping point – when you no longer get chicked.”
Still, he added he wouldn’t shy away from her: “If she’s ready for the challenge, yah sure, bring it on.”
Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, an article Wednesday about American skier Lindsey Vonn's challenge to race against the men in Canada incorrectly attributed the comment “Starting last? Fiftieth – maybe worse” made by Manuel Osborne-Paradis to Ken Read.