#1: FIS Weekend Preview: Alpine, Freestyle Ski Schedules Kick Off, Offering First Opportunity for Athletes to Earn Points Towards Olympic Qualification:
Hello, and welcome to Top Five Fridays, the October 22, 2021 edition! This week, we have a triple header of Olympic headlines, as well as one quick bit of industry news. To get the ball rolling, we’ll start by covering a couple of events with Olympic qualification implications going down this weekend. For our readership, we suspect the highlight of these two events is the first FIS World Cup race of the season, scheduled to take place this Saturday and Sunday in Soelden, Austria. There, the men’s and women’s division will both compete in a Giant Slalom event to get their seasons started, before taking a three week break ahead of the second race weekend of the season. In this weekend’s races, there will be a number of names to watch, especially with this season’s added importance for Olympic qualifiers. For the U.S. team, Paula Moltzan, Nina O’Brien, and River Radamus are a few of the big names to keep an eye on, each of which were recently profiled by SkiRacing.com. In addition to these athletes, Mikaela Shiffrin is once again one of the biggest names to watch as this season is shaping to be something of a comeback season for her. We’ll dive a bit deeper into that storyline in our second highlight this week, but for now just know that Shiffrin is back and her sights are set on unparalleled levels of success. To preview this weekend’s races or to check their results, refer to this link from the FIS. To watch the races themselves, tune into Peacock.
In other FIS competitive ski news, this weekend also marks the start of the freestyle skiing season as Olympic hopefuls have gathered in Chur, Switzerland for the first Big Air event of the season. Sticking to the typical stadium setup, where athletes climb to the top of a massive piece of scaffolding, dropping into a singular Big Air jump, this weekend’s event is the first chance for athletes to earn points towards their Olympic qualification efforts. While there have been some murmurings on social media from athletes who are underwhelmed by the set up, the pressure to outperform their peers in an attempt to make the games should create a quality competition nonetheless. For the U.S., athletes Alex Hall, Hunter Henderson, Cody Laplante, Mac Forehand, and Marin Hamill will be competing, with Alex Hall likely the top contender of the group. To learn more about this upcoming event, check out the preview from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team website. To watch the event live or to catch a replay, you’ll want to tune into Peacock.
#2: Mikeala Shiffrin Officially Aiming to Compete in All 5 Olympic Ski Racing Events:
In other competitive ski news this week, there’s been a lot of chatter surrounding Mikaela Shiffrin, yet again. In the leadup to what could be a pivotal year in her career, it’s highly understandable. Amongst the talk and news emerging surrounding her upcoming season, is an update that builds upon comments Shiffrin made a few weeks back when she shared that she was looking forward to renewing her focus on speed events this season. After showing some solid promise in speed events early in the 2019-2020 season, a series of very unfortunate events led to her stepping back from this aspect of ski racing through the duration of last season. Now, feeling like she’s ready to get back to the top of her game, Shiffrin’s returning her attention to the possibility of adding speed events to her dominant repertoire. This week, we learned a bit more about that perspective as she told reporters that, “Something I’m dreaming about right now is to be able to compete in each event in China.” She went on to acknowledge how difficult of a task that would be both physically and mentally, but suggested that if she simply keeps a focus on each event throughout the season, taking them one at a time, her hope is that the qualification process will take care of itself. More importantly though, Shiffrin’s primary goal is to become a contender for the World Cup Overall gold medal.
In other Shiffrin news, we’ll briefly mention that she was profiled in the Washington Post this week, giving further insights into her unique perspective as a competitor. As is typically the case, we get to relearn all about her difficult recent seasons, but are also ultimately treated to some anecdotes that can only be delivered by someone of Shiffrin’s caliber. Specifically, she makes an incredible comparison between the Olympic games and the Demagorgen from Stranger Things, citing the fictitious monster as a parallel to the way the looming games make her feel. While success at the Olympics can be the crown jewel of any career, the pressure leading up to and during the games themselves can be massively overwhelming. For those who watched the Summer Olympics, we can’t help but draw a connection between Shiffrin’s comments and Simone Biles’s experience at the games. All in all, it’s an interesting read for those with a Washington Post subscription and an interest in Shiffrin. For those without a subscription, you can catch a summarized version over on the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team website.
#3: The Great Resignation Hits the Ski Industry as Resorts Struggle to Find Workers:
Ok, let’s take a brief break from competitive ski news, which we’ll get back to in highlight #4. For our third highlight this week though, we have to discuss a situation that’s been growing in volume in recent weeks. Prior to this week, we’d seen a few headlines, but this week we came across numerous headlines from various parts of the U.S., sharing the unwanted news that ski resorts are struggling to find employees for the winter ahead. As you likely know, here in the U.S. we’re in the midst of what many news outlets are calling the “Great Resignation.” That is, the service industry on the whole is suffering from labor shortages as the post-pandemic workforce is opting out of low wage, hourly jobs. This trend has tangentially hit the ski industry already as summer events have been curtailed or cancelled due to the inability to find staffing. Now, this week, we’re hearing that the ongoing struggle is beginning to affect ski resorts in Colorado, Utah, and Vermont. As per usual, the Colorado Sun has an excellent article covering the issue, so we’ll start our coverage there.
In their writeup, the Colorado Sun paints a picture of an issue that’s actually the summation of a number of issues we’ve discussed previously here on Chairlift Chat. While it takes a combination of these issues to paint the full picture, one of the primary culprits behind this growing problem is a lack of affordable housing in ski towns. That issue reveals itself in two ways: local U.S. citizens are unable or uninterested in moving to a ski town where they can hardly afford to live, if they’re even able to find a place to rent, while resorts are also struggling to commit to hiring foreign workers eligible to work under J-1 visas as they’re unsure if they’ll be able to find housing for them. While resorts are doing everything they can to solve this issue, from building new housing, subsidizing rent, and even employing people specifically to look for rentals on behalf of new employees, a combination of issues in the real estate industry have made what was once difficult to now being all but impossible. Put differently by Aspen Skiing Co.’s head of human resource, Jim Laing, “it’s gone from ‘very difficult’ to ‘absolutely critical’ stage right now.”
The difficulties regarding hiring don’t start and stop with real estate though. Much like the rest of the service economy, potential employees are also turned off by the low wages being offered at any number of businesses that are essential to a thriving mountain town. From working at the resorts, to area ski shops, restaurants, and lodging, low wages prevail across the entire spectrum of job opportunities. As such, wages are going up across the board, with many resorts, ski shops, and eateries offering wages starting at $15/hr, a multi-dollar increase from years past. As was pointed out in an article from Park City’s Park Record, this could lead to what they call a, “wage-price spiral,” in which businesses have to increase their prices in order to support the cost of their employees. This, as you can imagine, has the potential to negate the wage increases as employees will find themselves experiencing an all around increase in their cost of living. Unfortunately, that’s where this story stands. We don’t have any lights at the end of the tunnel for this one yet, and it’s likely that the effects of the Great Resignation will be felt in some way across the U.S. ski industry in the season ahead. What we can do however, is refer you to this article from the Colorado Sun, this one from the Park Record, or this article from Vermont Public Radio to learn how this issue is affecting multiple regions.
#4: Benjamin Alexander is Aiming to Become the First Jamaican Olympic Alpine Skier:
Finally, rounding out this week we have what we expect many to consider a light hearted story, although we suspect at least a segment of our readers will be all fired up after reading this one. That’s because we read an article from Eurosport.com this week that tells the story of Benjamin Alexander, a skier hoping to become Jamaica’s first ever alpine ski competitor. Sounds cool, right? A little reminiscent of the ever popular Cool Runnings storyline? Well, here’s the rub: Alexander is a decent skier, but he’s not incredible, and certainly not your typical Olympic caliber athlete. In his own words, “If you go onto the International Ski Federation website, you will see that I am the best Jamaican skier out there. That doesn’t say much. If you look at the rankings, I believe I’m in 3,748th place in the world for Giant Slalom.” He goes on to say, “Am I better than a superstar Austrian kid who’s been skiing since he was two and racing since he was seven but now he’s 14? No, that 14 year old is probably much better than I am.” In other words, this story is ultimately about how a 38 year old British born man, of Jamaican descent, who’s spent much of his professional life touring the world as a DJ and only really began skiing in 2017, decided to use his earnings to chase his Winter Olympic dream on behalf of Jamaica. If that sentence feels like it’s overflowing with subplots, that’s because it is. To be clear, this is a wild story with countless angels worth analyzing.
Here on Top Five Fridays, we’re not sure we’ve ever shared a story that lends itself to so many different reactions. For some, Alexander’s story could be seen as inspirational, as he’s accepting the Olympics’ challenge of having as many nations as possible represented at the games. For others, it could be seen as a mockery of both the sport and the games, as an athlete who openly admits that his competitors are leaps and bounds above him in terms of talent has a legitimate chance at making the cut. Given his background, some might consider this another example of wealth creating wide opportunity gaps within the sport of skiing. Still others might earmark this story as progress in terms of creating a wider representation of BIPOC athletes in the sport of skiing. Mix in a discussion of how the eligibility criteria to become an athlete in the Olympics might be in need of updating, and you have yourself a whole melting pot of debates, presented in the form of one seemingly simple story. As for us? Well, we’re just enjoying the show. According to Eurosport, they’ll publish a second part to this story sometime next week. Until then, you can read part one in full right here.