5 Min Read
BEAVER CREEK, Colorado (Reuters) - Sitting on a terrace on a bluebird day overlooking the Birds of Prey finish line, International Ski Federation (FIS) chief Gian Franco Kasper scanned the horizon for recreational skiers that never appear.
"Even in the cold countries like Switzerland and Austria the number of kids being involved in skiing goes down," Kasper told Reuters during a piste-side interview. "The main thing is the youth, young people, we need to bring them back into snow.
"I am not speaking about competitive skiing. We measure our success in the number of tourist skiers, that is the most important thing.
"We have had a few bad years in regards to snow so the kids they couldn't train, so they look for another sport because they like sport but there was no skiing possibilities.
"Those generations we have lost."
The alpine world championships at the posh Colorado resorts of Vail/Beaver Creek were projected to provide a $130 million two-week jolt to the local economy.
As advertised, the event delivered plenty of thrills and spills on the slopes and an adequate apres-ski buzz in Vail but for a large part was greeted with a shrug.
Vacancy signs flashed at hotels and resorts around the Vail valley while restaurant and bar staff expressed surprise at the lack of business.
The television images from 200 camera positions were spectacular and organisers estimate that close to 130,000 took in the action on the hill. FIS declared the event a success and said the bar had been raised for the next worlds, to be hosted by St. Moritz in 2017.
Certainly Austria were impressed having combined for nine medals, including five golds, on the Birds of Prey and Raptor tracks ensuring a hero's welcome from their ski-mad nation.
But the numbers Kasper and other industry leaders are fixated on are the participation figures that will ultimately impact the FIS portfolio of world championships: alpine, nordic, freestyle, snowboard and ski jumping.
A federation that relies on snow as its lifeblood, FIS has been feeling the heat created from a perfect storm of global warming, vanishing pistes and waning interest.
The problem of rising temperatures is compounded by the soaring cost of a ski vacation that has resulted in many families finding other ways to spend their leisure time.
A recent report by the Denver Business Journal said 57.1 million people hit the slopes across the United States last season, a figure that could drop to 45.3 million by 2030 if skiers are lost at the current rate.
It is trend right across Europe's alpine arc with the sport gaining ground in some areas and losing traction in others.
"What is most interesting is the number of new nations that are now becoming active within skiing, as an example we now have Kazakhstan who are now bidding for the Olympic Games," said FIS general secretary Sarah Lewis. "Where there are concerns are in terms in numbers who are actually taking up the sport.
"We've really tried to engage not just through the national associations but with the resorts, tourist organisations, with ski schools, with everyone who has a stake in the sport to try and create activities to make skiing fun so they develop a love and passion for the sport."
Alpine skiing rarely grabs American interest outside of the Olympics but with a U.S. team packed with potential champions the worlds were viewed as a chance to put skiing in the American sporting spotlight.
Gold medal performances from Ted Ligety in the giant slalom and 19-year-old ski darling Mikaela Shiffrin were dramatic.
But with the championships sandwiched between the Super Bowl and the NBA All-Star weekend and qualifying for the Daytona 500, Kasper worried that exploits of U.S. skiers were appreciated more in Europe than at home.
"We had some bad experiences in the past (in the U.S.). I'm still not very happy with how the American people treat their champions, the interest (in ski racing) is very low," said Kasper. "But the only thing that counts is the number of skiers on the slopes and I think these championships will help out in the USA.
"They don't care much in the U.S. the name of the skiers but they see it and think it is fun and maybe will try it."
Editing by Frank Pingue