The last time the world came to town |

The last time the world came to town

U.S. Ski Team member Mike Brown enters the stadium at the 1989 World Alpine Ski Championships opening ceremony.
Vail Daily file photo |

As Feb. 2 approaches, the entire valley is preparing for its international close-up.

From to-the-minute countdown signs in Vail Village to racks of logo-sporting merchandise in local stores, the harbingers are everywhere for the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships. The prestigious, international skiing event promises to be a crowd pleaser with local darlings Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin competing at the top for their respective games.

As often noted, the ski championships are the valley’s time to shine for the world. That is true — we know because we have been there before.

It’s been 16 years since the world came to Vail and Beaver Creek, so many local residents don’t remember what its like to host the FIS championships. Here’s what it was like the last time the world came to town.

1989 – Welcome back to the USA

When the Vail Valley Foundation successfully lobbied for the 1989 event it marked the end of a 29-year drought. The alpine championships hadn’t been contested on U.S. soil since the 1960 event in Squaw Valley.

In 1989, 42 countries planned to send athletes to the event and hosting an international competition of this scope was new territory for the valley. Paula Palmateer of Vail was charged with the task of finding and organizing 1,200 volunteers for the championships. Those volunteers were assigned to work on one of 14 separate committees that covered everything from ceremonies to education.

“I think we are going to have a ball. I think its going to be a whole lot of fun,” said Palmateer.

In the weeks leading up to the championships, the downvalley communities of Eagle and Gypsum were naturally affected by the buzz. However, the big local story was the collapse of the Eagle Recreation Center roof and the subsequent demolition of that building and the adjacent McDonald Building. Formerly the Eagle School, the building housed Eagle County administration offices. County workers were moved to modular buildings and vacant office space around town and planning began for the new Eagle County Building that now extends across Broadway.

The other big local headline during the championships period was the execution of confessed serial killer Ted Bundy. While that event happened in Florida, Colorado investigators interviewed Bundy just days before his death, trying to glean information about a number of unsolved homicides. Before his execution, Bundy confessed to murdering Vail ski instructor Julie Cunningham in March 1975 and Michigan nurse Caryn Campbell, who was visiting Aspen at the time of her January 1975 death. Matt Lindvall of the Vail Police Department was convinced Bundy confessed to the 1975 murders in hopes of delaying his execution.

Dreams and nightmares

Just as it will this year, the 1989 championships began Feb. 2. “A Night of Dreams” was the theme for the event opening ceremonies held at Golden Peak. Former President Gerald R. Ford accidently welcomed the crowd to “California” before correcting himself.

Tragedy struck on the second day of competition when Spanish duke Alfonso de Borbon y de Dampierre, a member of the International Ski Federation, died in a freak accident. He was skiing the downhill course in Beaver Creek after the day’s races were complete when he slammed into a cable at the finish line. His death was instantaneous after he suffered a skull fracture and severed brain stem.

On the ski hill, Tamara McKinney’s gold medal in the combined and bronze medal in the slalom were the only U.S victories in competition dominated by Swiss skiers. Overall, organizers were disappointed by smaller-than-anticipated crowds.

“We’ve got the crowds, but they’re spread out over 4,000 acres of ski terrain. They come over, watch the first 15 races and then they ski off again,” said George Gillett, then owner of Vail Associates.

The championships were marked by a two-week school holiday for up valley students. Naturally that didn’t sit well with downvalley students and teachers and the eventual compromise was to allow excused absences for all Eagle County students. Some locals volunteered at events while others trekked up to watch the races.

There were a number of downvalley local interest tales during the event. As part of the dream theme, the Vail Valley Foundation solicited local teachers to share a wish. Gus Wallace of Eagle Valley Middle School was one of 15 lucky winners and she and student Bobbie Newby got to spend a day on the hill at Beaver Creek during the competition. Newby was one of four EVHS students who competed and eventually won the Denver Post Stock Market Game in 1988. The grand prize was a trip to tour the Chicago Board of Trade, but Newby was seriously burned in a kitchen accident and unable to make the trip. “Bobby missed the Chicago trip and I thought a day up there at the championships might make up for it a little bit,” said Wallace. The duo also attended the opening ceremonies.

During the opening ceremonies event, as a surprise everyone in the audience was instructed to let loose a helium balloon attached to a small slip of paper. Those papers outlined a local child’s dream. Edwards resident Bobby Hawks found the balloon let loose by Dalene Barton of Gypsum.

Dalene’s dream was to “be a world professional ice skater” and Hawks arranged for the entire Barton family to attend Brian Orser’s Wold of Championships ice show performance in Vail. Dalene got to meet several of the professional skaters during the event.

1999 — Seasoned host

After waiting nearly three decades to host a world championships, it only took one decade to bring back the event.

In 1999, organizers had a better notion of what they were in for. While Eagle lodges reported they saw no significant increases in business on the eve of the championships, spectator crowds were larger than reported in ‘89.

Austrian skiers dominated the competition, winning 13 medals at the championships. The breakout stars were crowd favorite Hermann Maier of Austria and Norway’s Lasse Kjus, who won a record five medals. The U.S. Ski Team was shut out of the medals.

“What a difference a decade makes. Ten year ago the men’s downhill was postponed at least twice due to weather. This year it started on time, with the precision of a Swiss watch,” wrote reporter Madeleine Osberger. “And one of the favorites — the Herminator — won the event. Best of all, the Birds of Prey downhill was a thriller.”

Off the hill, Dobson Arena was transformed into a rodeo arena for two days when the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association came to town as an entertainment option for the event.

As was the case in 1989, a huge national story broke during the championships week when the U.S. Attorney’s offfice issued subpoenas to environmental groups related to the $12 million arson attack that gutted Two Elk Lodge atop Vail Mountain during the early morning hours of Oct. 11, 1998. Locally, the news centered around the Eagle Town Board’s review of both the Eagle Ranch and Adam’s Rib proposals.

The other big news in Colorado was when the Denver Broncos beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bow XXXIII.

In a full page ad following the event, Vail Valley Foundation President John Garnsey and Vail Resorts President Andy Daly noted that the 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships reached the largest TV audience in the history of ski racing and that more than 25,000 articles about the event had been published by print media world wide. There were 1,000 athletes representing 55 countries at the competition and 1,600 volunteers contributed more than 80,000 hours of their time.

“Our mission as the organizing committee was to place Vail and Beaver Creek and Eagle County as the premiere destination ski communities for the next millennium,” the ad stated.

That new millennium is now 15 year old and the world is coming back to the valley for ski adventures and off-mountain stories. Get ready for an adventure.

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