Ingemar Stenmark- the greatest skier ever?

Sunday, 1 April 2018  |  Evan

Skiers of a certain generation (ahem, myself included) will remember remember Ingmar Stenmark as a titan of ski racing in the 1970s.  He dominated the technical events (slalom and giant slalom) during the mid to late 1970s and still holds the record for the most world cup wins, with 86 victories to his name (at least at the time of writing- Lindsey Vonn currently has 82 and probably won't quit until she's surpassed Stenmark's total).  I can still vividly recall his distinctive woolen hat bobbing gracefully down the mountain, as I watched Ski Sunday in the 70's, usually following a fine Sunday roast at my grannie's house.  Seeking a bit of nostalgia for those times, I went hunting YouTube for some footage of Stenmark in his prime.  There's plenty to find, an watching them got me reflecting on just how much ski racing technique (coupled to ski technology) has advanced in the last 40 years.  Look at some footage of Stenmark here:

Compare this to the modern example of Mikaela Shiffrin:

These are a few observations/thoughts.

  • Spring loaded poles have made a massive difference to the fastest line that can be taken.  Notice how Stenmark skis around the poles, while Shiffrin skis through them, hitting with her knees and blocking with her hands.  At a very simple level, this is immediately obvious from an inspection of the protective equipment each is wearing.  Shiffrin has a chin guard, shin pads and hand guards, while Stenmark is wearing no protective kit whatsoever (if you want any of this kit, click here smiley).
  • It almost doesn't need said, but carving skis and carving technique has revolutionised ski racing.  Look how twisty/pivoty many of Stenmark's turns are, while most of Shiffrin's are clean carved throughout the whole arc.  This is associated with much higher edge angles in Shiffrin's case (see below for another video that emphasises the evolution of edge angles in ski racing). This has been driven by evolution of equipment- in fact in a few cases you can see how Stenmark's thin skis just couldn't hold an edge and break away from the turn, leading to a massive skid.  You practically never see this happen unintentionally (i.e. setting aside the Ligety spivot) in modern world cup racing. I reckon Shiffrin on modern equipment would thrash Stenmark on the older kit.  In fact I'd love to see that race!
  • The pole plant has pretty much disappeared from modern ski racing, while it was virtually ever-present in Stenmark's skiing.
  • Piste preparation for ski racing also seems to have evolved.  Notice how soft the snow is in some of the Stenmark races, reflected in the fact that he almost seems to be racing through mogul fields in some runs.  In contrast, while still showing some rutting, the slopes that Shiffrin is skiing on are hard, hard, hard.
  • Notice how often Stenmark will lift his inside ski.  I think this is part of a skated racing turn that used to be quite prevalent at that time, and which was designed to project momentum downhill, but others can correct me if I'm wrong (leave a comment).

So which style do I prefer?  Well, while clearly acknowledging that Stenmark is a legendary skier and icon of the sport, I must admit that I prefer the modern style- there's something about the rhythm of clean edge to edge carving that I find very graceful.

Finally, here's a video that nicely illustrates the evolution of edge angles in ski racing, over the past 80 years or so.