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Ski Sunday: The show that sent Britain downhill fast

With Briton Dave Ryding going for gold in Beijing, now's the perfect time to celebrate the 44 years of a BBC institution

David Vine introduces the first-ever episode of Ski Sunday on January 15, 1978. Pic: BBC Archive

Can a terrible piece of music simultaneously be a superb television theme tune? It can if it’s Sam Fonteyn’s Pop Looks Bach, a track that owes rather too much to the equally dreadful disco classical numbers showcased on the Saturday Night Fever OST but is truly sublime when played under footage of Franz Klammer conquering the Hahnenkamm or Peter Muller breaking his collarbone. Again.

Welcome to Ski Sunday, a show that’s sure to have plenty of fresh eyes on it now that Dave Ryding’s become the first Briton to win World Cup gold. An unanticipated triumph that has people talking about whether the Lancastrian might even have a chance of a Winter Olympic medal, Ryding’s slalom win at Kitzbühel stemmed in large part from his straightforward approach to the sport: “I thought: ‘Bugger it’, I’ll just try and get down and ski as well as I can and see where that gets me.”

But the Chorley lad was also quick to credit the impact and influence of a certain television programme: “We’re so fortunate to have always had Ski Sunday on the BBC, it’s massive for the sport. You need to have someone competing on the world stage for people to get involved.”

Now midway through its 37th series, Ski Sunday is now hosted by Ed Leigh and a brace of British Winter Olympians, Chemmy Alcott and Graham Bell. In its current incarnation, it’s a programme that is part-travelogue, par -roundup of the week’s competition results. Previously in the mid-noughties, the show’s format veered rather too close to that of Top Gear, with celebrities such as Fiona Bruce, Marcus Brigstocke, Colin Jackson and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson being set various, potentially bone-shattering challenges.

All of which is so very different to the show that launched on January 15th 1978. During those peak years, Ski Sunday was dedicated entirely to the World Cup circuit in general and downhill and slalom skiing in particular. It was also but one of many programmes from the era to showcase the baritone of David Vine. The host of Superstars, Question Of Sport, Pot Black, It’s A Knockout and World’s Strongest Man, Vine was ubiquity personified. He also made frequent appearances in Private Eye‘s Colemanballs strand, with his description of Israel as “a Mecca for tourists” guaranteeing him a place in presenting infamy.

As for how the BBC became convinced that there was an appetite for alpine sports, it was a notion fuelled by the thrilling conclusion of the men’s downhill at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. Franz Klammer had gone into the event the clear favourite for gold; the Austrian’s commitment to speed and risk having seen him reinvent the sport along Dick Fosbury lines. Rewind four years to the glory days of Jean-Claude Killy, and the Downhill was an elegant affair with the skier not some much attacking the course as negotiating it. The clamour surrounding Franz, however, was all to do with his riding the mountain like a cowboy aboard a bucking bronco. As he crossed the finish line before his home fans in 1976, it was clear skiing had been elevated to the level of an extreme sport. Little wonder BBC Two was so keen to add a dash of adrenaline to its otherwise cozy Sunday winter schedules.

Unfortunately, Klammer had peaked by the first time David Vine’s reassuring tones drifted across the Alps. Not that he wouldn’t continue to regularly win on the circuit and capture the imagination the way only a genuine sports star can. But in addition to failing to qualify for 1980 Winter Olympics, Klammer won only one World Cup title after Ski Sunday began to air. In contrast, Swedish slalom legend Ingemar Stenmark was so successful throughout the show’s early era that a Stenmark victory became as much a part of your average British Sunday as Songs Of Praise.

A big enough star in his homeland to occasionally pip Bjorn Borg to the Swedish equivalent of Sports Personality of the Year, Stenmark’s frequent triumphs of the circuit came in addition to a brace of Olympic golds and a hat-trick of World Championships. He no doubt would have added to this tally had he not been kicked off the Swedish team for the 1984 games in Sarajevo for accepting promotional payments. By the time the Calgary Winter Olympics came around, he was a spent force, albeit one still capable of recording the fastest second Slalom run.

In the best traditions of the sporting icon, Stenmark would marry an air hostess, move to Monaco to escape the taxman, and participate in the Swedish version of Strictly.

With the World Cup season usually consisting of five widely contrasting disciplines – Downhill, Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super Giant Slalom (or Super-G) – it was unusual for one skier to establish a measure of overall dominance. The exception to this rule was Pirmin Zurbriggen who in 1987 was declared overall champion on the back of having won the Downhill, Super-G and Giant Slalom titles. To cap a quite extraordinary year, the then-24-year-old won gold in the Super-G and Giant Slalom at the World Championships, before winning the gold medal in the blue riband event, the men’s Downhill, at the Calgary Winter Olympics.

Smart enough to quit while the going was good, Zurbriggen hung up his skis in 1990. The father of five now runs a hotel with his parents in his hometown of Saas-Almagell. His sister Heidi would continue the family’s good name, winning a pair of World Championship silver medals in the late ’90s.

Speaking of women, they were another crucial part of Ski Sunday‘s popularity what with the programme being one of very few sports shows willing to give the sexes more or less equal coverage. As for those athletes who caught the imagination, it’s fair to say that Hanni Wenzel was among the first, partially because of her brace of Olympic golds and pair of overall titles, but also because she became the answer to a killer pub quiz question.

Born in Bavaria but raised in Liechtenstein, Hanni was barely 18 when she won the Slalom world championship at St Mortiz in 1974. Her first date with history came two years later when she won bronze in the Slalom at Innsbruck, the first medal of any colour one by an athlete from the principality. Fast forward to the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, and she topped the podium in both that event and the Giant Slalom; a one-two punch that ensured people now knew something about Liechtenstein other than the fact that, at that time, it was the world’s only double landlocked country.

Marc Girardelli would do something similar for Luxembourg, a nation whose relationship with mountains is about as distant as that of the UK and deserts. As befits a sport where you need an ego otherwise you might think twice before throwing yourself down an Alp, Girardelli’s nationality was the product of a fit of pique. Austrian by birth, so poor was our man’s relationship with his national ski federation, he simply packed his bags and headed off to the Low Countries.

Except he didn’t; rather Girardelli competed for Luxembourg – for whom he won five World Cups and five World Championships – without ever taking up residency there. The upshot of retaining his Austrian citizenship was that he was ineligible for the 1984 and 1988 Winter Games. Oh well, at least he’d shown those pesky Austrian skiing administrators a thing or two.

Every bit as egotistical but infinitely more charming was Italy’s Alberto Tomba. Fuelled by his mother’s pasta and an insatiable appetite for success, ‘La Bomba’ was to slalom skiing in the ’80s and ’90s what Stenmark had been in the 1970s. Blitzing his way to two Olympic golds in Calgary, he was but a whisker away from repeating the feat in Albertville. Consolation later came in the form of the Slalom and Giant Slalom gold medals at the1996 World Championships, plus the 1997 overall World Cup title. His Everest conquered at last, Alberto quit the slopes for a career in front of the camera. When he’s not acting or presenting, he claims his favourite hobby is ‘sleeping’.

With such a variety of stars and personalities, it’s not really surprising skiing proved so popular in Britain, a country whose poor excuse for a ski season is measured in weeks rather than months, if it can be measured at all. More to the point, at a time when the US and the USSR dominated international sport, it was a treat to follow a sport where the winners came from nations closer to home. Oh, and since the UK’s skiing pedigree had taken a turn for the slushy in the 50-odd years since helping develop the sport, what little British success there was – namely Konrad Bartelski’s shock second place at Val Gardena in 1981 – made for the nicest of surprises.

It’s rather fitting that the current series of the show should be co-presented by Graham Bell, who together with his brother Martin provided the odd spot of unexpected British downhill delight in the ’80s and ’90s. But though the production is now state-of-the-art, the feats of derring-do are still breathtaking, and the country has finally found a homegrown talent worth cheering for, the charm of the programme’s original incarnation still lingers.

We now live in a world where there’s never a shortage of sport. But back in the 1970s, when this was far from the case, there was something truly exotic about Ski Sunday, what with David Vine sounding as if he was broadcasting from another planet and Messrs Zurbriggen and Girardelli proving on a weekly basis that a surname akin to a bad Scrabble hand needn’t be an impediment to success on the slopes.

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