Associated Press, Published March 21 2011
Column: Note to Lindsey Vonn: Sulking isn't cool
Because of her incredible determination to win, the American is a great athlete, one of the best women skiers ever.
But Vonn's ultra-competitive streak did her a disservice this weekend. Vonn forgot the rule — which Rafael Nadal, in particular, adheres to so admirably — that the greatest champions accept defeats as graciously as their victories.
Admittedly, the nature of this loss must have been painful and frustrating for Vonn. Ski fans and the sport's marketers can lament how what was primed to be the climax to an enthralling season instead went 'pfffffft,' a dud.
Because of poor weather — which ski officials cannot be blamed for — and some questionable regulations, which they should perhaps now reconsider, skiing blew a great chance to showcase what a thrilling and attractive sport it is, blessed on the women's side with a rivalry as fascinating as Nadal's with Roger Federer in men's tennis.
Just three World Cup points — peanuts, really, for two brave women who each accumulated more than 1,700 of them during five hard months of racing — separated Vonn and Maria Riesch ahead of the final race, a giant slalom. Like extra time in a soccer final or a deciding fifth set on championship Sunday at Wimbledon, this would be one of those sporting moments to savor.
Or it would have been without fog thick enough for a horror movie and snow so soft that, with strawberry flavoring and a cone, you might have eaten it.
Convinced that sending the women down the steep slope would have been neither fair nor safe, organizers canceled and, because of their rules, did not reschedule. With her three-point lead, Riesch became World Cup champion. Vonn, the three-time ex-champion, cried foul, in a statement which she issued instead of actually talking to reporters.
"A system that allows a decision like this to be made off the snow needs to be looked at," she said. "The cancellation of this race doesn't just hurt me, it hurts the fans and the sport of ski racing as a whole."
"There are so many ways to look at this, there may never be a day where I don't look back and say 'what if.'"
But what if a skier had been seriously hurt by being made to race in unsafe conditions? That would not have been an attractive alternative and, had an accident sidelined a star like Vonn who brings in sponsors and fans, could also have been harmful for the sport.
Or what if Vonn or Riesch had missed a gate and been disqualified because they couldn't see through the fog that grew so thick that the 10,000 spectators at the bottom of the course couldn't even see the finish line? That would have seemed as farcical, random and unfair as Riesch securing the World Cup crown without even clipping on her skis.
In skiing, there will always be days when the elements, not the humans trying to conquer them, will win. Vonn should reread her words of March a year ago. Then, officials canceled the last super-combined race because of high winds. That clinched the 2010 World Cup super-combined title for the discipline's leader, Vonn.
"It's an outdoor sport and anything can happen," she posted on her Facebook page then. "Sometimes these decisions go your way like in this case, and sometimes they don't its just part of our sport."
The director of women's World Cup races says he has no qualms about Saturday's cancellation. Atle Skaardal says skiing a giant slalom on such poor snow — a thin icy crust above a soft, sugar-like base — would have opened up holes that could have been "very dangerous." Organizers did manage to hold a men's slalom, but those races aren't as fast and as long as a giant slalom, which made the men's race more feasible in the poor conditions.
"We want to do the races more than anybody, but not at any price," Skaardal said in a telephone interview. "The price here would have been too high. We would have had a catastrophe in terms of snow conditions and weather conditions."
Moving to another mountain with better conditions wasn't a realistic option, either, because it takes days to prepare ski tracks, with snow often treated to make it hard and resilient and double rows of netting to catch racers who fall.
Conceivably, organizers could have moved the all-important women's race to Sunday, when skies cleared and after an overnight freeze hardened the piste.
But to be fair on everyone, all of the races, not just the Vonn-Riesch showdown, that were canceled because of rain and warm weather in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, would then have needed to be rescheduled. They included a giant slalom for men and the men and women's super-G races.
As questionable and pig-headed as its regulations seem now, Vonn will have known and presumably accepted going into the crucial last week that the International Ski Federation would not be rescheduling any weather-ruined races.
"You lose your slot, you lose your slot," Skaardal said. "I cannot start to consider if it is bad for a U.S. racer or good for a U.S. racer."
In her statement, Vonn said she was happy for Reisch, but the champion said Vonn showed no warmth on the podium. The German fears that Vonn may now also decline her invitation to Reisch's wedding in Austria next month.
What a shame that would be, because the off-piste friendship between the two women who celebrate Christmas together makes their on-piste rivalry only more unique and intriguing.
Given her skills and drive, Vonn should figure that one day she'll be the champion again. In the meantime, she shouldn't be a sore loser.