Since the parallel event was first introduced to the World Cup circuit in 1974, controversy has followed. In its inaugural year, the first-ever parallel race was scheduled to run at World Finals in Val Gardena, Italy.
That race would unknowingly become the deciding factor in the men’s overall title, which came down to Italy’s Gustav Thoni, Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark, and Austria’s Franz Klammer. Prior to the event, the trio sat in a three-way tie for the crystal globe. Klammer, a speed skier, found himself eliminated in the round of 16. Thoni and Stenmark made it all the way to the big final and would go head to head, ending the season with an Italian win.
Fast forward to 2020, and the parallel is now considered its own discipline, yet the controversy lives on. After almost every race contested this past season, at least one or two athletes — sometimes more — had a comment to make about the legitimacy of parallel as an event.
If parallel stirs up so much unrest, why are officials putting so much effort into making it a legitimate discipline? The main reason is to build value in alpine ski racing, according to the Parallel Working Group Chair Ken Read. The sport has always changed over time and should continue to do so, and in order to accommodate new technology, new audiences, and new challenges, alpine ski racing must adapt, he says.
As the sport changes, marketability is a concern of TV stations, advertisers, and sponsors, as well as its capacity to be consumed by a wider audience. With parallel, the average viewer does not have to be a serious ski racing fan to understand the race. The head-to-head, racer-versus-racer format makes it obvious which athlete is faster, which athlete wins, and which athlete loses.
Parallel also gives fans that do not have the means to get out to the mountains an opportunity to see a ski race closer to home. Shorter courses allow for more venues to host events, allowing for races to be held closer to metropolitan areas. For example, New Jersey hosted its first-ever NorAm race in February, putting ski racing within reach of millions living in the Tristate Area. City events, such as those held in Stockholm or Munich, are always parallel races for this reason. The FIS, TV producers, and marketers all see this as a huge bonus because it allows the opportunity to grow the fan base of the sport.
Growing the fanbase is important to increase the popularity of ski racing. Fans based in North America share the common knowledge that winter sports, such as alpine, are centered around the Olympic competition years. U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s entire business and athlete-development model is focused on achieving Olympic success, as stated in the Athlete Project released in 2019. In Europe, ski racing is much more celebrated in the non-Olympic years. However, that does not change FIS’s desire to see the sport reach a wider audience.
The parallel event is meant to help bridge the gap between the general public and alpine ski racing to encourage engagement with a broader population, increase marketability, and offer more flexibility on venue locations. Going into the 2019-20 season, FIS anticipated some growing pains. To mitigate problems and implement solutions, they also established the parallel working group.
“The intention was to essentially codify the rules and make recommendations as to how this would fit in [the schedule] on the basis that we knew the parallel was going to be in the World Championships in 2021,” said Read.
As part of establishing parallel as its own discipline, points accrued would no longer be allocated to giant slalom and slalom titles, rather they would go toward a new parallel title. This new rule was implemented per athlete feedback.
While the issue of points may have been resolved, now organizers are responding to new concerns surrounding fairness and safety.
Read says it’s no longer an issue of “how do we run a parallel. It’s an issue of how do we run a good parallel?”
Many see potential. Circuits like the World Pro Ski Tour that rely solely on parallel were once widely popular events in the 70s and 80s. The Pro Tour, which was shuttered and recently revived, utilizes a completely different format compared to World Cup. The starts resemble that of boarder cross, which is a key difference, but more importantly, the Pro Tour eliminates problems of fairness by putting athletes in both courses. After an athlete qualifies for the round of 32, the dual races consist of two runs where racers switch courses after the first run. Times are differentiated and the winner of each match-up advances to the next round.
On the World Cup, once athletes qualify for the round of 32, the program moves to single-run elimination. Ted Ligety, who has actively competed on both tours this season, thinks the Pro Tour is doing a better job with its format than World Cup. Ligety says there are some kinks to be worked out at the Pro Tour level, as well, but he still sees it as the superior parallel format.
“The format on the World Cup, having one run, it’s impossible to just keep going on that way and consider it a legitimate event,” says Ligety. “Without a doubt, 100% of the time no matter what happens, one course is faster. It’s really luck-based at this point. It’s a joke, to be a matter of fact.”
Ligety is one of many athletes on the men’s side that have taken to social media this season to express grievances. Other names that have expressed concerns include slalom and giant slalom crystal globe-winner Henrik Kristoffersen, alpine combined crystal globe-winner Alexis Pinturault, FIS Athlete Representative Daniel Yule, and parallel overall crystal globe-winner Loic Meillard.
Meillard earned his first-ever World Cup win through the parallel giant slalom in Chamonix, France in February 2020. His results in that race also secured him the parallel overall title, his first crystal globe. However, he said the win felt bittersweet, as he knew luck was very much on his side. If he had not drawn the blue course for the entirety of the event, he may not have been so fortunate.
In Chamonix, only one man successfully won on the red course throughout the entire day – USA’s Tommy Ford. This is not unique to Chamonix’s event, although it was one of the races were the lack of fairness was more obvious. In the Alta Badia parallel giant slalom, Norway’s Rasmus Windingstad expressed similar concerns after earning his first World Cup win.
“That’s really unfortunate for Loic [Meillard], to win a World Cup and also win a globe. It’s just unfortunate that he or Rasmus has a great race, they had to ski well in order to win,” said Ligety. “They still had to go and do it, but nobody really considers it anywhere close to a similar achievement as a normal World Cup win, which is unfortunate for them.”
On the women’s side, the Sestriere parallel giant slalom suffered from the same issues. Throughout the event, it became apparent that the blue course was faster than the red, putting athletes who happened to draw the red course during the knockout rounds at a disadvantage. Mikaela Shiffrin was one of those athletes who fell victim to bad luck.
“This is the first parallel GS that we’ve had, and it is fun. I think I like the parallel GS actually more than the parallel slalom. But it’s a little bit difficult. I think there’s still a lot of work we have to do and FIS has to do to really make the race as even as it can be,” Shiffrin commented after being eliminated in the round of 16 in Sestriere, Italy.
“You can see there’s always a faster course, but today it’s like they’re not even the same course at all. Especially in the last four or five gates on the blue course, you can even see looking up the hill that it’s straighter than the red course,” Shiffrin added after the race.
“If you’re on the blue course, even if you’re behind on the middle section you can make up speed on the flat. In the red course, if you get to the flat and you don’t have all the speed, then you’re going to have a tough time to make that up. It’s for sure possible, but you have to have all the risk, really clean skiing, perfectly precise with no mistakes, and then also hope that the person in the blue course is going to make a mistake to have a chance. That’s a tough thing to swallow.”
Then, there’s the concern about safety. Ligety can’t speak for every man or woman that has competed in the parallel on the World Cup, but he can say that in every conversation he has had with fellow athletes about the discipline, counter-arguments have been made against it rather than for it. Not only do athletes say the format as unfair, but they also say it is unsafe.
“It’s inherently going to be way more dangerous because of speed and having guys being that close to each other because you have to push a little bit harder in a neck-to-neck dual, and it’s so short,” explains Ligety. “To have guys go at each other is going to happen inevitably at some point. And when you have artificial terrain in there and not great course prep, it just adds a whole other layer of danger to it.”
The dangers of the parallel event also became apparent in Chamonix’s race, when Ford ejected from the blue course and slid into the red course, just ahead of Switzerland’s Thomas Tumler, who finished second that day. In NBC Sport’s highlights of the race, Tumler can be seen missing Ford by inches, an extreme hazard to both men who could have been injured or suffered lacerations from sharp skis.
Italy’s Simon Maurberger was not as fortunate. When he was ejected from the red course in the quarter-final matchup, Maurberger skied into a course worker and suffered a right knee injury that could have been avoided.
Ligety says one remedy is to address the course set, which could be used to control speeds, much like it is done on the World Pro Ski Tour.
“If the distance is a little bit longer, and there’s more turn shape, you control speed and its a way safer event,” says Ligety. “So it’s good to see that’s what the World Pro Ski Tour is doing for the most part. In Steamboat, you saw with a little more turn shape, steeper hill, it was a good event. There weren’t any close calls for guys crashing into each other and when you set straighter courses that happens a lot.”
“Safety should always be the first consideration and holding a fair event comes second,” Ligety adds. “Those two things need to go hand in hand. And if you can’t do one without the other, or either one, then it shouldn’t be run as a race.”
The Pro Tour has also gained the support of NCAA coaches, such as University of Colorado’s Richard Rokos, who believes that the parallel format represents progress for the sport.
“The dual version of alpine skiing, where spectators can observe the whole course, and racers compete in head to head competition is a most appealing and spectator-friendly form,” says Rokos. “It is making alpine skiing more visible, more American-like in comparison to NASCAR, the X-Games, and stadium events. [It also] motivates young athletes, promotes the sport, offers a great and dynamic public show, and promotes sponsorship interest.
“The mission of every sport should be to provide individuals with the maximum opportunity to participate. Each alpine athlete’s career has a story, going pro is the punch line,” he added.
If the Pro Tour is being praised for its successes when it comes to format, then there is room for the World Cup to make its version of the parallel a success, as well. The only concern raised by broadcasters has been with regard to the length of the event, but Ligety has a solution for that, as well.
“If you’re worried about it going too long for TV, you either don’t show the round of 32 or making qualifying the round of 16. Right now you absolutely shouldn’t have any more rounds after you lose. Like you shouldn’t be competing for fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth. You have to keep it simple in the sense that whoever wins goes on and that’s it.”
Why keep it simple? Ligety argues that as an athlete competing in the event, even he is confused by the format, and if he doesn’t understand what’s going on, he can’t understand how the general public is supposed to get it either.
As it stands, he believes that athletes will begin to distance themselves from the event until changes are made. Currently, he claims most athletes choose to participate because parallel points go toward overall points, not because they are excited to race or have a financial incentive in terms of prize money. If every single race is going to have some sort of controversy surrounding it — and whoever wins isn’t properly celebrated because their success is overshadowed by negativity — Ligety asks, what’s the point?
“I think what FIS is doing, the idea behind it is valiant,” he says. “It’s just the execution of the event is very poorly laid out. FIS is hated enough as an organization as it is that it would be nice for them to get a win and have people excited about their events.”
As of press time, FIS declined comment on the parallel controversy until further discussions have been held.
Have some thoughts on this? Send a letter to the editor. We’ll publish it.