Freud: Beaver Creek Birds of Prey saga vaults Hirscher to win? (column)
The Xfinity Bids of Prey Audi FIS World Cup — yes, I thought I was done typing that cumbersome phrase — never stops.
Nearly two weeks after Germany’s Stefan Luitz theoretically got his first World Cup win in the Beaver Creek giant slalom, FIS indicated on Friday that it was going to strip him of the win.
Luitz used oxygen between runs, and FIS banned the use of extra of said element in 2016.
An unexpected win at Birds of Prey just got weirder.
You’ve got be kidding
That Luitz won the Birds of Prey GS was a story in itself. Not only did the German beat the unbeatable Marcel Hirscher in a tech event, but Luitz had seemingly had forged a comeback story for the ages.
The leader after the first run, Luitz ran last in the flip, knowing that Hirscher was the leader. He lost his lead at the final interval before the finish — usually a bad sign; pile up your speed on top and maintain it through the lower flats is the strategy for GS races here — but somehow found some speed in those last gates.
Luitz celebrated jubilantly in the finish area because his career had been short-circuited by knee injuries. He did his left ACL in 2013 and had come back to finish third in last year’s GS here. Naturally, he injured his right ACL shortly after the tour stopped in Beaver Creek.
His win about two weeks ago was the validation that all his work had come to fruition. Even Hirscher was politely happy for him at the post-race news conference.
Cheating or not?
Sometimes, this sort of violation can be a false positive. While Luitz’ case involves oxygen use, when testing organizations find excessive testosterone or masking agents, the tests can be inconclusive. Remember the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun during his 2011 MVP season?
The sample can be mishandled, as Braun insisted, though that claim was later undercut by the Biogenesis scandal.
With Luitz, whether he committed the offense isn’t murky. Skiracing.com, among many other media outlets, reported that there were pictures of the racer using an oxygen mask. That’s pretty cut and dry.
Should oxygen use be permitted is another matter. In theory, oxygen isn’t a performance-enhancing drug. Are we all using PEDs by existing? As Americans, we’re used to seeing football players sitting on the bench using oxygen, particularly when the Broncos are playing in Denver.
Yet it is in the FIS rules.
One of the major reasons the Birds of Prey stop exists on the World Cup calendar is that Beaver Creek generally has snow early in the season. One of the major reasons Beaver Creek generally has snow early in the season is that the finish area is at roughly 8,900 feet, making it easily the highest — in terms of altitude — stop on the circuit.
Oxygen, or lack thereof, is an issue up here, particularly in giant slalom and slalom races. I go back to the second week of the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships at Beaver Creek when athletes were still crossing the finish line exhausted, even though they had the opportunity to acclimate because the World Cup schedule stops for two weeks for Worlds.
Now, go back to Luitz trailing Hirscher at the final interval during the second run. Usually, that’s the death knell. Did Luitz have a little extra in the tank because of oxygen use to power through the last part of the course?
While he didn’t use oxygen intentionally to gain an advantage — he probably used it because, like most people when they go to high elevations, he was having a hard time breathing — it does affect the competitive balance.
The new king of Birds?
Pending an appeal, which is likely to fail; remember the pictures, by the German Ski Team, Luitz is disqualified and it reshapes the podium. Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen moves into third place. Switzerland’s Thomas Tumler’s first World Cup podium becomes even better — second place.
Hirscher, all of a sudden, gets his seventh win at Beaver Creek, top among active racers, moving ahead of Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal and American Ted Ligety, who both have six victories here.
And thus the oxygen debate sparks another one. Hirscher is just one win behind fellow countryman and legend Hermann Maier (eight) for most wins at Birds of Prey.
Since Birds of Prey is better known as a speed venue and Maier the lord of derring-do in his era, some might find it sacrilege to have a tech racer possibly be the king of the course. But, in fairness, Hirscher is as dominant a racer, if not more, in his time as the Herminator was in his.
Hirscher exceeds Maier in World Cup wins, Worlds golds and medals and World Cup championships.
Apparently, Birds of Prey continues to produce the unexpected, and it’s only 50 weeks until next year.