Vail 1999 World Championships

“The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong—but that’s the way to bet it.”

Had the late American journalist Damon Runyon been on hand for the 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships, it would not have been difficult to follow his own advice as these Championships featured a great many swift and strong men and women, all determined to rewrite the alpine skiing history books. Fortunately, there was plenty of history to pass around.

For starters, the 1999 Championships marked the first time in history that the event had returned to the same site in a ten-year span, Vail and Beaver Creek playing host to the 1989 World Alpine Ski Championships as well.

The 1999 Championships would showcase the largest crowd in U.S. ski racing history for the Men’s Downhill, with an estimated 20,000 people on hand to watch Austria’s Hermann Maier tame Beaver Creek’s Birds of Prey course.

The crowds were not just confined to the Men’s Downhill, however, as full and boisterous stadiums greeted racers for each day of competition, staying and cheering until the final racer had crossed the finish line. An estimated 125,000 spectators witnessed the two weeks of racing, bolstered by 5,400 Eagle County school children that each had their day at the races.

Any questions about the new men’s downhill course were quickly put to rest in December of 1997 with the world premier of Birds of Prey. Ranked among the top five downhill courses in the world, Birds of Prey provided a thrilling experience for both competitors and spectators during the Championships.

The racecourse aided the historical perspective of the 1999 World Championships as Maier and Norway’s Lasse Kjus finished in a tie for the Men’s Super-G gold medal, marking the first time that two races have shared a World Championships gold medal. With Austria’s Hans Knauss picking up the bronze, the top three places were separated by a mere one-one hundredth of a second.

Kjus would prove to be a history lesson all by himself, becoming the first competitor to ever win a medal in all five World Championships events (gold in Super-G and Giant Slalom and silver in Downhill, Slalom and Combined).

The 1999 World Championships were also highlighted by the first-ever alpine medals for Australia and Finland, as Zali Steggall captured the gold medal in the Women’s Slalom, while Kalle Palander claimed the gold in the Men’s Slalom.

In all, 56 nations descended on the Vail Valley for these Championships, tying the record set in Sestriere in 1997, and eight nations came away with medals. The international television audience surpassed any in the history of televised ski racing, with over 500 million viewers, while the World Championships web site averaged 300,000 hits per day during the event.

Twelve athletes made the return trip to the Vail Valley ten years later, after competing in the 1989 World Championships. Three of them left with medals, including Switzerland’s Paul Accola, who captured the silver medal in Combined in 1989 and added a Combined bronze in 1999. Wachter (bronze in Giant Slalom) and Florence Masnada of France (bronze in Combined) also collected medals.

The University of Colorado marching band and the St. Anton band entertained the crowds before, during and after the races, while international violin sensation Vanessa-Mae and country music superstar LeAnn Rimes each offered their pre-race renditions of the national anthem. Race fans from around the valley and around the world danced in the streets and in the stands, the press corps rode the mechanical bull and learned to line dance at the media party, and racers jumped up into the bleachers to celebrate with their fans.

In retrospect, the 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships in Vail and Beaver Creek truly lived up to its advanced billing as “The Last Great Party of the 20th Century”. History was made, both on and off the racecourse, and a splendid time was had by all.

Photos from 1999