How the World Cup Began

By Serge Lang

Translated from the French by D. Wright Pryce

Published posthumously, with the kind permission of Patrick Lang

Editor’s Note: Today’s World Cup of Alpine Skiing is so firmly in the grasp of the International Ski Federation (FIS) administration and of the national ski federations that it has almost been forgotten that the world-wide, season-long competition was not an FIS initiative, but one spearheaded by the press. The actual individual initiator was the dean of Europe’s ski writers, the late Serge Lang, a Swiss who lived partly in France, and wrote for the Paris-based sports daily, L’Equipe, as well as for German and Italian newspapers. Shortly before his death in 1999, Lang wrote a history of how the World Cup was launched more than 40 years ago.  


The World Cup was to be brought into being by a near-perfect conjunction of events and by the support of a handful of important people.

The very name chosen to designate it was of the utmost importance. World Cup, Coupe du Monde, Weltcup, Coppa del Mondo, echoed like a fanfare in all the languages of the world.  Other than in soccer, there were no other World Cups at the time. And soccer's international trophy had only been dubbed the World Cup by the British that same year. Today, of course, there are a hundred-odd world cups, in everything from sailing to cycling, fencing to volleyball, rugby to bob-sledding. In skiing alone—including jumping, cross-country, freestyle - there are half dozen World Cups, all inspired by the name and, sometimes, by the spirit and the formula of the alpine skiing World Cup, which my colleagues and I created.

The World Cup was not only a journalistic creation, a fact that I can confirm, having been a journalist since 1940. It was an event devised with the media in mind—not just the mass-circulation newspapers and the sporting press, but also radio and especially television. Audiences, viewers, readers and sponsors have proven this to be right. The World Cup has become a massive world-wide attraction.

In the early days, however, only three journalists were prepared to put their professional weight behind the project. Those three were: Michel Clare of L'Equipe, the famous French sports paper ; John Fry, then editor-in-chief of Ski Magazine in New York; and Austria's Kurt Bernegger, a reporter for Salzburger Nachrichten, later with Austrian television and to my mind the most far-sighted commentator of that era.

And what of all the other sportswriters and broadcasters? While they were not really against the World Cup, neither were they ready to support it. Later I was to read with great interest that a good many of them had, for a long time, imagined a similar ranking system. Well, such a system was not unique. Other sports had adopted a point-based ranking system for some time. The Desgrange-Colombo Challenge and the Prestige Pernod in cycling, and the Golden Ski of L'Equipe, awarded ten years earlier, all used similar systems.

The original World Cup of alpine skiing, in fact, borrowed its format from sailing. It followed a system of counting at the beginning of the season a limited number (best three) of finishes from each discipline towards the overall ranking.

"That way, our skiers won't feel obliged to participate in every race," said French team coach Honore Bonnet. He was wrong, as we were all to realize very soon, having ignored the racers' strategic sense of what was needed to win. Even after having accumulated their maximum number of points in any given event, they still entered races in order to deny rivals the chance to score more and get closer to them.

It Began at the Hahnenkamm

The story of the World Cup began late one January morning in 1966, less than a hundred meters from the "Hinterseer Farm," halfway down Kitzbühel's Hahnenkamm famous downhill course. Struck by sudden inspiration, I turned to French Team Director Honoré Bonnet and US coach Bob Beattie, who, like me, were there to watch the practice runs.

"What we are going to do," I said, " hold a World Cup." I was speaking in English for the benefit of Bob Beattie, so "World Cup" was the actual phrase I used. At that point Beattie was defending the idea of holding the FIS World Championships annually. (Ed. Note: The FIS World Championships were, and still are, held every second year.)

In a way, of course, I can take no great credit for coining the name World Cup. For several weeks the British had been using the term to describe soccer's world championship being played in England that summer of 1966. In Portillo, Chile, at the 1966 World Alpine Ski Championships, I remember standing on the edge of the downhill course at 10 a.m. listening to the soccer final between England and West-Germany at Wembley.

It was at Portillo that skiing’s World Cup was effectively born, thanks to Bonnet, Beattie and Dr Sepp Sulzberger, a lawyer who was in overall charge of the Austrian Alpine ski team. But it was Marc Hodler, President of the International Ski Federation (FIS) since 1951 who had the courage to shoulder the heavy responsibility and declare that the first World Cup would be raced under FIS patronage in the winter of 1967.


I once read that history knows how to choose the men and the women it needs to carry out its destiny. Perhaps it is true. After all, I held no mandate in any ski federation. The only official title I had was president of the International Association of Ski Journalists. But this was enough to enable me to have official-and usually friendly - relationships with the executives of the various ski federations, the FIS and, more importantly, its president.

Even though Hodler had long been enthusiastic about such a project, nothing was certain in Portillo. Even after long days and nights of negotiations with my three partners and with the project finally ready, Bob Beattie doubted that we would get FIS approval. For a week, Beattie listed the possible objections, even though he was one of the greatest supporters of the World Cup idea. One evening he got up from the table, pointed to a piece of paper on which we had noted the various points of our agreement—the dates of the first schedule, the rules and the points system and so on—and said : " Marc Hodler will never accept this proposal. "

Fortunately this was a gross misreading of Marc Hodler, of his sportsmanship, enthusiasm, goodwill and his long range vision. The next day, around noon, and in the same bar where, with the aid of much "Pisco" and coffee , we'd just spent a good part of our Chilean nights, Marc Hodler studied the proposal for a few minutes then asked simply : "What time do you want me in the Press Room to announce the creation of this World Cup?"


And so, in the heart of the Andes, thousands of miles from the Alps, the old calendar of ski racing died on August 11, 1966. A new era, whose outlines we could not yet make out, was about to begin.

At the time, international ski racing was in the doldrums - except for its natural peaks, the Olympic Games and the World Championships. Meanwhile, a new medium had arisen. The growth of television highlighted the need for a change in the ski racing’s format.

TV had already begun to make its presence felt in the skiing world, making stars out of what had formerly been ski racing champions on paper. Racers likes Jean Claude Killy, Karl Schranz and Leo Lacroix clamored for TV attention. International skiing was desperately in need of a new showcase.

Bonnet and Beattie had come up with the idea of an Alpine Countries Cup. The concept played down individual victories and elevated nation-by-nation racing. It was an excellent idea in itself, but unlikely to generate mass popular interest. Ski racing is a sport of individuals, not a team game. And TV wanted to concentrate on stars. Nevertheless, the national team competition idea persisted. The mid-March 1965 “World Series of Skiing” at Vail was restricted to nations – France, Austria and the U.S. -- whose athletes had won medals at the Innsbruck Olympic Games the year before.  Excluded were the Canadians and the Swiss. They were snubbed. And, in the view of some people, unfairly.

Meanwhile, something else happened in 1965. During the summer, in the heart of Roubaix, France, a dense crowd had gathered to witness the morning start of one of the stages of bicycling’s Tour de France. In the confusion, Jacques Goddet—chief editor of l'Equipe (the French daily sports newspaper) and head of the Tour de France itself - strode towards me in pressed khaki pants, like a central-casting British officer.

"Hello Serge" he said. "Listen, dear friend, no-one can make head nor tail of this ski racing business anymore. One day Killy is winning, the next it's Schranz, Marielle or Billy, Dick or Harry. Come on, get me something together. A challenge to decide the winner, a gimmick or an event like the Super Prestige Pernod in cycling. Fix it with Albert de Wetter and get me an outline before the end of the Tour de France" At that time, De Wetter, a noted journalist, was one of L'Equipe's two representatives in the Publicis group, the main advertising agency of this important sports paper.

Over an awful cacophony of car horns, De Wetter shouted at me: "I've found a client who wants to spend a quarter of a million to link his logo with skiing and snow—it's Evian mineral water. You get the picture—drink Evian and feel like you're in the French Alps. Set up a challenge with a ranking over a number of races...See you at Bordeaux."

On the eve of our next meeting, I drafted my project. There was to be a point system: in each race—25 points for the winner, 20 for the second, 15 for the third and so on, down to one point for a tenth place finish. There would be a dozen races. Everything was to begin at Hindelang in the western part of the Bavarian Alps and to end, at the beginning of March, in Muerren with the Arlberg Kandahar where all the points would be added up. It was a simple idea and, including the schedule, it fitted on two-double spaced pages.

I gave my outline to De Wetter the night of the Bordeaux stage of the Tour de France. It did not seem to interest him as much as it had a few days earlier in Roubaix. The first races were won by Karl Schranz and Marielle Goitschel,  yet the season-long competition was being named "Challenge de l'Equipe," and not "Challenge Evian." Because of a banal misunderstanding, the original sponsorship agreement had never been completed.

The "Challenge de L'Equipe" survived one year. A wasted year? Hardly. That season was a great prelude to the World Cup. After Billy Kidd, who led the Challenge after his slalom victory at Hindelang, injured himself during the Hahnenkamm slalom at Kitzbühel, no-one talked anything but the World Cup,  the name that had struck a chord a stone's throw from Hinterseer's farm.

Once Evian learned that what was at stake was no longer a challenge but an authentic World Cup under the aegis of the FIS, the mineral water company wanted to share it. So it happened that the first World Cup was graced by the  famous crystal globes introduced by Evian in 1968.


I have good reasons to believe that had the 1966 World Championships—then held every four years—taken place anywhere else but Portillo, Chile, in the Southern hemisphere far away from the Alps, the World Cup would never seen the light of the day. The Southern Cross was our lucky stars. If the World Championships had been awarded to a more traditional European venue - Davos, Garmisch or Kitzbühel for instance - our proposal for a World Cup - which would run throughout the season from country to country - would not have overcome the opposition of the conservative voices in skiing. But in Portillo, they were of no consequence. The potential political opponents did not come.

The move to Portillo was itself revolutionary. Think of it...what kind of idea was it, to go and hold world skiing championships in midsummer,  in a distant part of the globe, let alone to discuss a new idea for a World Cup? Anyway, at the crucial moment, the stick-in-the-muds were not there to bray that a World Cup would serve no purpose and would only cause additional problems. Of course, they made their positions known, but much later - too late, once everything had begun.

The whole set-up in Portillo was of vital importance too. The small resort was situated a few kilometers from the Chilean-Argentine border, perched at nearly 9,000 feet. All the skiers and officials had to live together in a single hotel offering only 100-odd beds. This excluded battalions of unwelcome visitors. Everything had to happen either in the hotel or on the slopes. While the Andes offered an admirable diversity of skiing, in the hotel everything was confined to dining room bar and the basement nightclub. It was in that bar, which was deserted after dinner, that Bonnet, Beattie, Sulzberger and I sat day in, day out discussing the new season-long, annual competition.

While the racers' attention was naturally fixed on the events of the World Championships, most of them, including Jean Claude Killy, greeted the idea of the World Cup with enthusiasm.

Yet a few months later, as the opening date of the first World Cup season of 1967 approached, I wondered. How would it be greeted by the countries with long skiing traditions, whose races were already classic events long before the World Cup? I need not have worried. The World Cup not only strengthened all the classic races, but it proved to be crucial in the development of more races and resorts.


The first World Cup season of 1967 comprised seven slaloms, five giant slaloms and five downhills. A racer’s points were derived from his or her three best results in each discipline. It was a little bit like draw poker, where you discard an inferior card and hope to replace it with a better one. If you placed well in a race, the points replaced a previous lesser result. You could earn a maximum of 75 points for the season in each of the three disciplines, but as you got closer to attaining 75 points in giant slalom, for example, point gains diminished. You needed to turn to downhill and slalom to keep up in the overall standings.

In retrospect, the original World Cup formula—discarded after only a few seasons—was a good system. It truly rewarded all-round competitors. It involved only 17 races, compared with the bloated total of 30 or more created in later years—not by the press, but by ski politicians seeking to appease resorts and national federations.

Beginning in the 1970s, FIS officials fought against specialization in alpine skiing, by frequently changing the World Cup point formula. The battle to prevent technical specialists from winning the overall title was understandable, but  juggling the point formula removed any chance of comparing the performances of racers from year to year. In my judgment, it impoverished the sport’s history. Fans and journalists today cannot rate, for example, Hermann Maier’s 1998 World Cup points against Jean-Claude Killy’s or Ingemar Stenmark’s winning records.

As for the first World Cup season, it culminated in March,1967 when a huge entourage of racers, coaches, officials, press and their mountain of luggage and skis arrived in the United States for the first North American World Cup races at Cannon Mountain. Before the racers came to Cannon, we published a profile of Killy by Lang in SKI Magazine.  I created a program for the event, with an explanation of how the new winter-long circuit worked. It appeared as an insert in SKI Magazine, reaching 100,000 readers. As many as 15,000 spectators showed up. Killy won all three races. Sports Illustrated featured him on its cover. At the season-ending final ceremony at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, FIS President Marc Hodler presented Killy and Nancy Greene with Evian’s trophies.

The World Cup had proved a huge success! Serge Lang’s dream came true.



By John Fry

Serge Lang, en route from the FIS World Championships at Portillo to his home in Switzerland, visited me in my office in Manhattan on a hot August day in 1966.

“SKI Magazine should be involved in the new World Cup,” said Lang.

I gave Lang the usual answer to all proposals brought to the magazine at the time. “We don’t have any money.”

“That’s okay,” he responded. “Evian (the bottled water company) pays for everything. But we want American press exposure. Why don’t you present a trophy?”

“For what?”

“Come up with an idea,” said Lang.

“Right now, I don’t have an idea.”

“Fine, let’s go to lunch. I know a very good Italian restaurant on Madeeson Avenue.”

Extended, multi-course meals, laced with several bottles of vin rouge, were Lang’s way of finding solutions, as I came to learn. The Madeeson Avenue lunch produced no ideas, but waking the next morning, I came up with one. Why not group the points accumulated by each nation’s racers and create a team competition—albeit a statistical one? The team whose racers aggregated the most points by the end of the season would win a trophy, called The Nations Cup. Year by year, the standings would compare how the world’s alpine skiing nations rank in strength.

That morning, before Lang flew back to Europe, he dropped by my office, where I explained my concept to him. “And SKI Magazine will present the trophy,” I added, “not to an athlete, but to the head national coach, as a means of recognizing the role played by the trainers.”

“It’s good,” he said quietly. . .so quietly that I couldn’t tell if he was unenthusiastic, or sorry The Nations Cup wasn’t his own idea. “It’s good,” he repeated. We shook hands.

Although it was an American idea, the Nations Cup has never been won by the U.S. Ski Team. The Team did, however, win the women’s category in 1982; its best overall showing, second-place, was in 2006. In 42 winters so far, only Austria, Switzerland and France have won the Nations Cup.