Lyons’ Den: Conclusively Naming The G.O.A.T.
The history of alpine World Cup ski racing is replete with characters who we may admire and revere, and we all have our favorites. One of the arguments that always bubbles just beneath the surface of civil ski racing discourse is the topic of who is the greatest of all time. The nattering nabobs of North American ski knowledge (apologies to wordsmith Spiro Agnew) usually settle on one glorious name as the standard bearer of greatest ever: Stenmark. Considering anyone beyond that was a hard examination for me personally, as I used to ride on the Ingemar bandwagon with haughty aplomb, secure in my understanding of the inner workings of alpine ski history.
For the last five years, I have watched every single World Cup, World Championship, and Winter Olympic Games ski race. I have poured over numbers, stats, articles, stories, and lore in my job as a TV researcher. In short, nobody is more qualified to create the definitive top-10 list than me, and my opinion has matured when it comes to Numero Uno. This bald monkey is here to provide the definitive and scientific (wink, wink) list of the 10 greatest skiers of all time. There won’t be discussions of arc radius, counter rotation, rise lines, or pinky toes. Nope. Just truth bombs reigning down from history.
1. LINDSEY VONN
It has taken me a while to appreciate the greatness of LV. Familiarity sometimes obscures the truth. Wade through the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, the Hollywood appearances, ESPY Awards, and dating dramas, and we uncover alpine skiing’s G.O.A.T. Oh, the Stenmark acolytes will play the win total game, but it is a shell game played by the pandering lemmings. The numbers speak for themselves: Vonn has 77 World Cup wins, an Olympic gold, two World Championship medals and 20 globes, including four overall titles. She has won in every discipline and dominated the speed events like no one… ever. Fearlessness is her calling card, and tenacity is the underpinning of her success. Did we expect her to win more gold medals? Did we think she could have dominated in giant slalom? Those are our expectations and do not detract from the enormous successes that unequivocally make Lindsey Vonn the greatest skier ever.
2. MARC GIRARDELLI
Wait – only 46 wins and no Olympic gold medals, how can he be ahead of Stenmark? Cry me a river, Stenmark apologists. Girardelli won in every discipline, and in 1989 he won in every discipline in one season, one of only four skiers to pull off that feat (and the only male). Girardelli’s squat bulldog style belied a prodigious commitment to technique and skill. Possibly overshadowed by his domineering father, five overall titles tell the story of consistent and continued excellence across all events. Girardelli won only three downhills, but his wins included Wengen and Kitzbuehel. Oh, he also won both slaloms too. Plus he did this all in rear-entry ski boots. Simply stunning.
3. BODE MILLER
Style counts. You can throw numbers at me and wax poetic about the athletes’ commitment to craft, yadda yadda yadda. But Bode Miller’s iconoclastic style lands him firmly in the top 10. Bode cannot walk around in Europe without people stopping dead in their tracks to stare at him. I have witnessed it. What does that have to do with greatness? Just about everything. The legend is still strong, long after the wins have ceased, and the people know. Miller has 33 wins, two overall titles, six Olympic medals, and five World Championship medals. He is the only skier to win at least five races in each discipline. He won with an uncompromising style that conceded nothing. Should he have won 20 more races? Probably. Twenty wins here, 20 wins there – who cares when we got to see him careen down a downhill on one ski, watch him push it to the limit every run and cheat death on numerous occasions… all while plowing through Europe in an RV at a time when he was seemingly powered by alcohol and European women.
I’ve heard Bode say that his downhill training runs in Sochi were some of the best downhill skiing ever. I was there, and I believe that to be fact. Those runs were mesmerizing. I have not seen anything quite like it before or since. Maybe Hermann Maier crushing the Birds of Prey downhill comes close. Miller’s go-for-broke runs on a course that was scary and wreathed in danger were appointment viewing, not to be missed and never to be forgotten. He did not win a downhill medal in Sochi on race day, but he was the best skier that week, by far. Greatness does not always require winning.
4. ANNEMARIE MOSER-PROELL
For all the male chauvinist, old boy network “ding dongs” – yes, two women do belong way up here on the list! Again, the numbers tell a story that is obvious. Sixty-two World Cup wins, six World Cup overall titles, five World Championship medals and one Olympic gold. Moser-Proell raced before super-G existed; so go ahead and tack another 30 to 40 wins to her total if she had the opportunity to race super-G. She won in every discipline in her era. But the stories about this woman paint a much more vivid picture. Shots of schnapps in the start, first to go naked under her downhill suit, pulling over mid-run to stand with the coaches during a downhill training run so she could watch the other women ski a new and tricky section, smoking, partying. Are all these stories true? Who knows, but the fact that they exist is the foundation for a legend. It was a given that everyone else was skiing for second when she arrived at the start.
5. INGEMAR STENMARK
Eighty-six World Cup wins – the most ever – were acquired by a Swedish ski nerd who a generation of ski racers worshipped like he was some sort of deity. I remember following him around on a glacier in Austria, just hoping to see him carve a turn on the pocked and brutal glacier snow. He refused to oblige my teenage worship. Let’s not forget that Stenmark was so dominant that FIS (see Austria) altered the World Cup scoring rules so Stenmark could not win overall titles. The change led to the immortal Peter Luscher winning the overall title in 1979 after winning only three races and finishing on the podium 10 times while Stenmark won thirteen races and finished on the podium 17 times and finished fifth in the overall standings. Just an abomination – thanks, FIS. He walked away from the sport with 19 World Cup globes, including three overall titles (the rules change prevented at least two more). Despite being barred from the 1984 Olympics for taking pay directly from sponsors, he won two Olympic gold medals. The numbers are truly staggering, but watch Stenmark take a dainty stroll down the Steif in 1981 and you, too, will know that he is not the greatest ever.
6. PIRMIN ZURBRIGGEN
Forty World Cup wins in all disciplines including the parallel slalom, one Olympic gold, nine World Championship medals, and four overall World Cup titles while competing against the likes of Stenmark, Girardelli, and Mahre. I admit a case could made he should be in the top three.
7. FRANZ KLAMMER
The Kaiser – a nickname that pretty much says it all: 25 World Cup downhill wins, most male downhill wins, four downhill titles. But it’s his iconic run on the way to the 1976 Olympic gold medal gets him on the list. It is quite possibly the most iconic run in the history of the sport. If you haven’t watched it, you have to.
8. ANJA PAERSON
Forty-two World Cup wins, two overall titles, six Olympic medals including one gold, seven World Championship gold medals, and wins in all disciplines. She is the second person from tiny Tarnaby, Sweden, to make the top 10. You already know the other.
9. JEAN-CLAUDE KILLY
Killy only raced two seasons on the World Cup, but he won 18 of the 27 races he started and finished on the podium in 24 of those. His French win total was not surpassed until 2017 when Alexis Pinturault notched his 19th Killy also swept the alpine events at the 1968 Olympics. In his two seasons on the World Cup, he won six globes including two overall titles, and his signature good looks and style put alpine ski racing on the map.
10. HERMANN MAIER
Fourteen World Cup titles including four overalls, 54 World Cup wins despite missing the better part of two seasons after a nearly career-ending motorcycle crash. Maier’s downhill runs on Birds of Prey were master class when it came to combining power and technique. I saw him sign a woman’s chest in the Coyote Café after winning the Birds of Prey. Why isn’t he higher up the list? He was not a factor in slalom.
The Close-But-No-Cigar Club
Marcel Hirscher: No guts, no glory – where’s the downhill, son?
Benjamin Raich: The mashed potatoes of ski racers. Stonehenge is a more dynamic alpine racer.
Aksel Lund Svindal: Master tactician, but just not good enough to be in the top 10. Also, way too sexy for the top 10.
Alberto Tomba: Fifty career wins and more panache than anyone, but downhill and super-G are conspicuously absent from his résumé.
Phil Mahre: Three overall titles and 27 World Cup wins seems pretty good. He once remarked that downhill was boring and he had an odd allergic reaction to super-G. At least one of his overall titles was gifted to him by FIS with the aforementioned Stenmark rule change. In 1981, Phil somehow won the overall title with six wins and 12 top-threes while Stenmark finished second with 11 wins and 20 top finishes – Phil is DQ’ed from the top 10.
Kjetil Andre Aamodt: Wins in all disciplines, a ridiculous number of Olympic and World Championship medals, but only 21 World Cup victories.
Tina Maze: Had one of greatest seasons in history when she accumulated 2414 World Cup points in 2013, the highest point total of all time. The historic winter included 11 World Cup wins (with a victory in each discipline), three World Championship medals, and darn near every discipline title as she took home three globes including the overall. But her career World Cup win total of 26 just wasn’t enough to crack the top 10.
Don’t agree with this list? Let it fly in the comments section below. Just know that you will be wrong!