When the so-called White Circus first landed in Lake Louise, Alta., and the Crazy Canucks were a dominant force on the World Cup alpine circuit, more than 20,000 fans flocked to watch the inaugural downhill race in 1980.
But this weekend, as the fastest men on two planks compete in the downhill and the super giant slalom, perhaps 4,000 to 5,000 people will be at the resort in Banff National Park. When the women's circuit arrives next week for a trio of speed races, maybe 2,000 to 3,000 spectators will be on hand.
Even those numbers exaggerate the race-day fan base. Despite the chance to watch (no tickets required) top-level professional athletes compete, usually only a few hundred diehards hunker down in the bleachers to wave flags and clang cowbells. In comparison, at Kitzbuehel, Austria, up to 100,000 fans pay serious coin to soak up the excitement.
According to Dave Hawkins, chairman of the Lake Louise Winterstart World Cup, which scrubbed training Friday due to poor visibility, the five races here attract a worldwide television audience of 180 million, but of that, only 1.2 million are Canadian and 2.5 million are in the United States. The rest are in Europe.
"It's not like hockey here," Hawkins said. "You look at ski racing in Europe and it's like hockey. It's part of the culture. I think we need to get more exposure here."
But the International Ski Federation (FIS), which governs the sport, was recently handed – and rejected – a gift that would have raised the profile of alpine skiing in North America. Officials turned down a request from female American superstar Lindsey Vonn to race against the men at Lake Louise, ruling that "one gender is not entitled to participate in races of the other" and that "exceptions will not be made to the FIS rules."
Vonn and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association have said they plan to continue the fight, and Alpine Canada is also lobbying behind the scenes. The Canadians would love to see Vonn take on the men in Lake Louise, which has been unofficially christened Lake Lindsey. She has stood on the podium 17 times here.
But she is undeniably the strongest woman on the circuit, and on her way to becoming the most decorated female ski racer of all time. She has 97 World Cup podiums – 53 wins – as well as five world-championship podiums. She has won the overall World Cup four times and is a two-time Olympic medalist.
"It was such an opportunity for the sport to get real profile specifically here in North America, where we desperately need it," Max Gartner, president of Alpine Canada, said. "The rule's the rule and I think that's not the kind of attitude we need to have to promote the sport."
Speaking to the media in Aspen on Friday night, Vonn said of her fight to ski with the men, "it's not over yet. There's still next year."
Vonn, 28, recently hospitalized for "some infection in my tummy," said she will compete in one of the two races this weekend. Vonn will take part in the giant slalom Saturday and then skip the slalom Sunday to conserve energy.
European skiers even complained during the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver of the sparse crowds lining the Olympic courses. The roller-coaster success of the Canadian skiers – a team plagued by injury – hasn't helped win over a new generation of fans.
Gartner said he has been holding discussions with Red Bull, Vonn's sponsor, to hold a special race at Lake Louise, outside the confines of FIS.
"We're still hopeful that that will happen one day, and that it happens here in Lake Louise," Gartner said.
Skiers have mixed views on the notion.
Vancouver's Manuel Osborne-Paradis would happily race against her at a separate special event, but not on the World Cup circuit.
"This is our livelihood, and start numbers mean a whole lot, and coming to a race and just making a mockery of it isn't really the right approach," Osborne-Paradis said.
Italian racer Peter Fill, who has a downhill win at Lake Louise among his nine World Cup podiums, isn't sure that allowing Vonn to race is the solution, especially since she "has no chance" against the men. He said the real problem with attracting fans who have never been to a race is that TV coverage doesn't do his sport justice.
"On the television, you cannot see really what we do," Fill said. "You cannot see the speed and the difficulty of the race. I don't know what we could do to have more people at the race. FIS needs to work more."
Calgary's John Kucera said if the FIS approved the spectacle, it would generate the same sort of interest as when Annika Sorenstam golfed against the men, which even he watched out of curiosity. While the men's course is longer and designed to be icier with bigger jumps, he said it's nothing Vonn couldn't handle.
"I don't know if it'll ever happen just because of the way FIS is," Kucera added. "It's a bit of a dated organization in some of their policies."
Brian Stemmle, former Canadian ski racer and now analyst for Rogers Sportsnet, is more pointed. FIS is hurting the sport's growth in North America because of its limits on sponsorships, the logos the athletes can wear, and "staunch European rules" that date back to the founding of the World Cup 45 years ago, he said. He's not convinced FIS will ever be persuaded to let Vonn race.
"Out of the dozens of reasons and rules they could have hidden behind, it was appalling to me that they chose gender," Stemmle said, "It's not 1967. It's 2012. I would be furious if I was a woman and heard that reason. I'm furious and I'm a man."
Efforts are under way to try to raise the sport's profile around Lake Louise. A festival has been added. The ski resort also offers free skiing for kids under 12 with the purchase of adult lift tickets on race days. Charlie Locke, who owns the resort, would love to see Vonn race against the men, calling it a "huge boon" to the sport.
As far as FIS is concerned, the Vonn issue is settled, but it's still a hot potato for race organizers here.
"I'm going to decline to comment on that," said Hawkins, the chairman of the Lake Louise Winterstart World Cup, as he whisked Gunter Hujara, men's chief race director, to the mountain. "Especially when I have the man in charge sitting beside me."
With files from The Associated Press