EXTRACT FROM THE DIARY OF A RACE DIRECTOR
What are the duties of a race director at an event? What happens on race day and what’s important? So many questions. Beni Matti, Race Director at Stöckli, offers an insight.
12 FEBRUARY 2023, DOWNHILL DAY
I’m awake, wide awake. And without the help of an alarm clock or wake-up call. It’s always like that with an important race coming up. Try to get back to sleep? No way!
I’ve been doing this for seven years now. I know the processes, I know how it works, I know what to do, but there’s one thing that’s ever-present, no matter how many times I’ve done it or how well we’re prepared: the nerves!
I have a coffee. Not that I need to wake up (I’m that already), but it’s part of my routine. A routine that I can count on right now. Check my emails, the news, the FIS news: has anything changed? Has anyone been in touch? Any questions? And lo and behold: yes, there are questions – messages via WhatsApp. But it’s perfectly understandable, because some people are nervous. No one wants to put a foot wrong.
Still three and a half hours to go before the course inspection. I’m trying to distract myself, kill time. Read the paper, check social media, have breakfast. At a certain point, I can also make some phone calls without pulling someone out of bed.
One and a half hours to go before the course inspection; it takes 30 minutes to get there, which means I’d have to leave the house at 8.15, but I would actually be ready by now.
Whatever, I leave at 8.00 and set off on my way. On arrival at the lower cableway terminus, I see I’m not the only one who’s early. Among those waiting is Chris, Marco’s service man. We have a chat. As always, Chris is calm incarnate. I know he’s tense, but he’s not giving anything away!
Finally, it’s time to inspect the course. And that means focusing on the ground. What’s it like? How well is the snow holding? How icy is it? What do we need to look out for? The answers are key to what we do next. Yesterday, Chris prepared two sets of potential skis for today’s race. He usually does this, at which point we have a good chat about our strategy, analyzing the information we’ve received and deciding the best way forward.
To be able to select two out of a possible 30 downhill skis the day before the race, the weather forecast is crucial: what will happen overnight? How cold will it be? What’s the forecast for the day of the race? And there’s also what the training sessions have taught us about the course conditions (how is the snow? Is it aggressive, coarse, icy or brittle?) and the best line to take. In a nutshell, the condition of the course determines how the skis are prepared, while the race line determines the choice of model. To give just one example of what to look out for: if the snow’s wet, the texture of the ski’s surface must be coarser to be able to displace the water produced by the friction of the ski gliding on the snow. If the surface has little or no texture, a vacuum would be created, which would hinder the ski’s gliding properties: it would stick to the snow – a terrible thought!
But back to the inspection. Of course, in addition to facts such as setting the race line and the track conditions, there are the preferences and opinions of the athlete in question. Which brings us to the man himself: we meet Marco during our tour of inspection. Marco Odermatt’s views – or those of an athlete in general during an inspection – are of paramount importance. How does he feel? What’s his opinion? The three of us have a discussion. After inspecting a few gates, we settle on the ski. A quick decision isn’t guaranteed. Deciding isn’t always easy, especially when conditions change – due to the weather, for example. But today the weather and the course conditions are so clear that it simply has to be this particular ski. Chris and I walk on, while Marco stops at this gate with his coach. He spends around 30 to 40 minutes inspecting the courses at Super-G or giant slalom events. That’s more than for a downhill course because he’s already experienced it during training.
It’s now 9.30 am – one and a half hours to go to the race. Chris makes his way to his service room to get the ski ready. I look at my phone: five calls. Two service men, two reporters and a TV broadcaster have left voice messages. I start calling everyone back.
So, five calls later, I’m sitting in the team hospitality venue, where the athletes, service teams and coaches are based. Nothing to do now but wait. Wait until the event finally gets going. My nerves have calmed a little, the inspection helped take my mind off things. But come the race, they’ll definitely be back and ten times stronger than in the morning!
It’s almost time. Fifteen minutes till the start of the race. I make my way to the finish line, say hello to some people and team supervisors, talk about various things, news, tactics and so on. Marco Odermatt’s start number today is 10. So it’ll be about 25 minutes once the event has started before it’s his turn.
It’s time. The event has started. Now it’s all down to everything the team has calculated, tried, tested and developed over the past few months – all the hours spent in the ski cellar, on the slopes, in the office and in the factory. What happens now is what counts – there’s nothing more we can change. It takes a little over sixty seconds to decide whether we celebrate or commiserate – during which time even the tiniest of details can have a huge impact. I know everyone racing down here deserves to be world champion. Hard work, iron discipline and undying passion are what drives every racer and every team. And yet: I really, really hope Marco will make it. Not only for himself, but also for his team and everyone working at Stöckli. It would just be fantastic. But enough, I have to stop dreaming! In skiing, joy and misery are often so close together that you just have to keep both feet on the ground.
The slope’s difficult, the way the course is gated is demanding. Competitor after competitor completes the course, though all suffer problems of one kind or another. Two more racers till it’s Marco turn. I analyze each one, see what they do well, what the problems are. Analyses that are no longer relevant for this particular race, but will be for the upcoming World Cup races and, of course, for the second race of the day.
If someone were to measure my pulse right now, I think the device would go into overload. I’m breathing with difficulty, I can hardly bear it. I can barely concentrate anymore, such is my nervous state. Marco’s at the start gate – I hardly dare look.
Now everything happens at speed: I look at the screen – everything rushes by me. I forget everything around me and have to make sure I’m still breathing. I feel like I’m in a trance. Please just let it be green at the end. And… it’s… GREEN. Oh yes, it’s GREEN! That’s insane. 1.09 seconds faster than the competitor currently in first place. Utterly awesome. I know the race isn’t over yet – no way, there are still very strong contenders waiting for their go. But green is good. For now. Now all we can do is hope. I make my way to see Marco. I pick up his skis and want to know from him how it went, what he felt. At the same time, I share some initial feedback with him: the intermediate times, where he lost time, what could have caused it, and so forth. It sounds crazy: the race is isn’t over yet, but we’re already beginning to analyze. What was good, what was maybe not so good. How the ski felt.
Time flies. Racers continue to cross the finish line. Everyone behind Odermatt. My heart is in my mouth every time a racer comes down; I can barely stand it anymore because of the nerves. Actually, I don’t think there are any more competitors left who can ski faster than him. Or are there? You’re never sure until it’s over. There’ve been too many surprises during my time on the ski circuit, especially during a major event such as this. Young athletes or those taking part in a world championship for the first time often ski without any great expectations. And it’s precisely this freedom, this lack of pressure that can result in shock outcomes. They all ski well. They’re all professionals able to master this course.
While the number of competitors waiting to start dwindles, Odermatt’s already giving interviews. There are about ten to do. He accepts the interviewers’ congratulations only very cautiously: the tension and uncertainty are still too great to be thinking about a world championship title.
And me? I carry on analyzing the race, and I hope and hope that Marco’s time remains the fastest. Chris is now also on the finish line, and we discuss what we’ve seen. These insights are really important and helpful in terms of the races to come, but also for the development of our skis.
The last racer’s just crossed the finish line and now it’s definite: Marco Odermatt is the world champion. WORLD CHAMPION! What a great achievement. I feel a weight off my shoulders. I’m so relieved. Simply unbelievable. I salute this achievement and I’m so happy.
And now? We’ve earnt a bit of down time to have a drink and celebrate together. But we can’t spend too much time partying as the next races are coming up and we need to start looking for the perfect setup again…