90 Seconds of Fame: the Legacy of Ski Ballet

The Beijing Winter Olympics are upon us, and with that comes another political elephant in the room and of course the existential dread of that thing we’ve all been dealing with. Still, the Olympics are a time to honor what is great in humanity, displaying the best of our youth. Over the next two weeks, figure skaters will dazzle us, curlers will inspire us, and those skeleton dudes will have us feeling anxious. Years ago, in the days of Cool Runnings, there was a sport just on the fringe of Olympic competition called Ski Ballet. It was here and gone before it could grab the hearts and minds of the world, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t special. I assure you, whatever you’re picturing in your head, you’re probably correct.

Demonstration sports used to be the norm at the Olympics. For decades, there were disciplines that were not deemed to be completely Olympics-worthy, but still had a place at the Games. Sports such as speed skating, tennis, and taekwondo all had their time as demonstration sports before being upgraded to full Olympic sport status.

The 1988 Games were held in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Although the main surviving legacy of these games is the Jamaican bobsled team, it was also ski ballet’s first shot at glory.

It had been around for nearly twenty years by this time, and had actually begun to wither in popularity. Not an ideal situation for a potential sport, but nevertheless it persisted. The competition was simple enough, athletes had ninety* seconds to flip and flop and prance and dance on skis as they careened down a slight slope. That’s it. And it was spectacular. Here’s a clip of Hermann Reitberger, the ski ballet GOD of the 1980s.

Finally, after nearly three years, our little website has a titular Fancy Boy. And what a king. The mental and physical dexterity it has to take to do that is captivating and inspiring and also… a tad perplexing, right?

We’re used to watching figure skating every four years. It’s the backbone of the Winter Olympics. There’s a level of brilliance and transcendent athletic ability on display that cannot be achieved anywhere else, and it’s breathtaking. So why didn’t ski ballet catch on in the same fashion?

The answer comes in the natural limitations of the sport. Most sports find some way to evolve over time, either by changing rules or by the growth of competitive advantage through specialized training. Basketball added the three point line, baseball created the automatic walk, hockey eliminated ties. But those sports were already entrenched into the athletic zeitgeist. For ski ballet, the clock was ticking before the games had begun.

As it turns out, there are only so many things that can be done on skis, especially on nearly-flat ground. There are flips, spins, maybe some kicks and such, but that in itself is nearly the ceiling.

And by all means, doing a standing flip in skis is an incredible achievement, but no one could do two flips. Sure, twirling is nice, but at some point it just becomes a guy making himself dizzy while skiing. In figure skating, the speed, grace, and combination of moves is what raises the difficulty and subsequently the scores. For ski ballet, the theatrics had to raise the stakes.

While this next video is not Olympic ski ballet, it is a good representation of the heights of the genre.

Oh dear, I fear society did in fact peak before I was born.

The problem was that by 1992, nearly everything had been done, redone, and done once more on the slight slopes of ski ballet. The Albertville Games were the sport’s last shot at making the cut, and boy was interest waning.

Many ski federations and organizations around the winter sports world had already scrapped it as a part of their freestyle skiing programs. The sport was on life support and the IOC was about to pull the plug.

But look at the majesty, the grandeur, the razzle and the dazzle. The last gasp of ski ballet was perhaps the greatest sendoff it could have hoped for, and now it’s immortalized as a reminder of just how bad television image quality 30 years ago. Sorry about the headaches this will cause.

Ski ballet perished in full by the end of the decade, being removed from the last competitive program in the 1999-2000 winter season due to complete lack of interest.

There have not been any demonstration sports at the Winter Olympics since 1992, leaving ski ballet to be the end of many eras.

As the Games continue to grow in their financial footprint and commercial interest, it seems that goofy, borderline bonkers sports like this have gone the way of the dodo. The days of art and literature as competitive disciplines in the Games have been gone for over a century, but the thirty year wake of pageantry and showmanship has left an indelible mark on the modern Olympics.

Long live ski ballet.

*I’m told the routine’s were supposed to be 90 seconds, but I have yet to see one that sticks to that guideline. I’ve watched several.

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