Ted Ligety, Skiing's Most Outspoken Critic, Is Still the Best in the World

Ash MarshallSenior Analyst IOctober 30, 2012

SOLDEN, AUSTRIA - OCTOBER 28: (FRANCE OUT) Ted Ligety of the USA competes during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Men's Giant Slalom on October 28, 2012 in Solden, Austria. (Photo by Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

American skier Ted Ligety was the most outspoken critic of new plans to radically alter equipment amid safety concerns entering the 2012-13 season.

But at the first World Cup race of the season in Soelden, Austria, the three-time giant slalom champion, new skis and all, shattered a 34-year-old record with an unprecedented 2.75-second victory.

The win was Ligety's 12th career triumph, and it was made even more impressive by the fact that he not only mastered the new skis he has vocally opposed this quickly, but that he triumphed through a raging blizzard in setting one of the largest margins of victory in the sport's history.

"I'm psyched. I didn't want to leave anything out there, I was hammering," Ligety said in a press release issued by the US Ski and Snowboard Association.

"I knew I was skiing well. I've been skiing fast in training. I've been working really hard on these new skis to get to the point I knew I was going to be among the best ... I can't expect anything like this. This is a once in a career kind of margin and it was really a surprise to me."

To put this achievement into context, it's important to know the history surrounding the change as well as Ligety's criticism of it.

The FIS—the Federation Internationale De Ski—is the international governing body of competitive skiing and snowboarding.

Last March, the federation reported that a research study examining the impact of ski equipment, among two other factors, on long-term injuries was making progress.

As part of the study, the FIS interviewed dozens of professional racers to learn about the nature and causes of injuries. Taking this subjective knowledge, which shouldn't be confused with scientific data, the federation then teamed up with manufacturers to develop new prototype skis which would, in theory, reduce the stress on a skier's knees during fast turns and decrease injury risks.

They did this by increasing the ski's minimum turning radius (from 27 meters to 40 meters) and extending the length of the ski (from 1.85 meters to 1.95 meters). The logic behind this, I have to assume, was that it would ensure racers would not be able to make the same turns they were accustomed to without sacrificing speed.

On his website, Ligety, who will remain in Europe to train for the World Cup slalom in Finland in mid-November, previously said, "FIS’s tyranny has gone on long enough. It seems FIS is going out of their way to ruin the sport. FIS runs a dictatorship. They demand absolute control then try to butter their will in a fake cloak of benevolence."

He also claimed that the "FIS has shown that they don’t value athletes, as seen in this instance in their complete disregard for our input."

In July, the federation said the new regulations would come into effect in time for the 2012-13 season. The following month, it issued a press release saying new skis were "scientifically proven to enhance athlete safety and reduce risk of injury."

But David Dodge, who has a degree in mechanical engineering and who has worked in the field of ski safety for 30 years, rejected the FIS's claims.

In a letter sent to FIS president Gian Franco Kasper, 14 members of the federation's Alpine Executive Board, 20 members of its legal and safety committee and academics from the University of Salzberg (who were helping carry out other research project), Dodge said the findings and consequent equipment changes "do not constitute scientific proof."

Dodge went as far as saying the new skis could unintentionally "cause more injuries than will be prevented." The letter, republished in full on the Ski Racing website contains way more detail than the average fan would ever need to know, but Dodge's conclusion is that the FIS was "recklessly endangering" skiers.

The FIS later reduced the new specifications to a 35-meter minimum turning radius, still much greater than what many of the world's top skiiers, like Ligety and Lindsey Vonn, use.

According to Ligety, skis of this specification have not been used since the 1980s.

But on the Rettenbach Glacier at the Audi FIS Alpine World Cup season-opener this weekend, Ligety repeated as champion and earned his sixth straight podium in Soelden.

He was four-tenths of a second behind France's Thomas Fantara after the first run, but he overcame a near whiteout in his second run to post the seventh greatest margin of victory of all time in giant slalom, and the first of that magnitude since Swede Ingemark Stenmark achieved the feat in the late 1970s.

Head coach Sasha Rearick praised Ligety's performance, saying it was a reflection on his desire to succeed.

"What Ted did today is a true testament to the hard work that he's put in over the summer - really since last winter - working on the new skis, testing the new skis, modifying prototype after prototype, just putting in an extreme effort," he said in a US Ski and Snowboard press release.

We often talk about how you work hard, you train hard so that you can trust yourself. Today he did that. He couldn't see the track but he trusted that the track was good and he was going to be able to ride a clean ski from top to bottom. You only gain that trust and confidence in yourself when you put in day after day of hard work. Ted's arguments he had on the skis were his own opinions but a lot of people agreed. He's a vocal person and that showed in his arguments against the skis. But once he figured out this is what it is, he put all that energy, all that focus into making sure he was going to be the fastest and that he wasn't going to lose.

When Ligety talks, I listen. One reason is because he speaks candidly and without fear of punishment. The fact that he consequently talks in soundbytes alone makes him media-friendly.

But a bigger reason is because he knows what he's talking about. He's been on the U.S. national team for a decade and he is an Olympic gold medalist. He's been skiing since he could walk, and he has only ever known a world with curved skis and arcing turns.

Ligety has the most to lose from the new changes because any shift from the status quo would impact his ability to remain the best in the world. But he has said that he would favor any change that would make the sport safer...if it actually made the sport safer, of which he is still not convinced. 

Maybe it's cliche and overly simplistic to simply believe people don't like change. However, I would suggest the general premise holds more than a grain of truth when it could mean someone goes from being the best at something to, well, just another competitor.

The sport will never be 100 percent safe. Whenever you have a competition where the one and only determining factor is how fast you can slide from the top of a steep snow-covered mountain to the bottom, accidents will happen. It's part of the sport, and racers assume and accept this risk.

But in a sport where a minimal mistake can have a devastating effect, there's no need to add to this risk with such a radical change. Racers will now take straighter lines and put even more stress on their bodies than ever before. In my mind, the FIS is one big accident away from a PR disaster, an athlete revolt and a crippling lawsuit.

This weekend's performance proves Ligety can compete just as well, if not better, than ever before. But don't be surprised to see him in the headlines all year, if not for his success than for slamming the FIS with a big dose of "I told you so" when things blow up on the face of a mountain.

Ligety's criticism will not be the only avalanche the sport's governing body will have to deal with if a serious problem occurs.


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