No disrespect to Serena Williams — this space wrote 20 months ago that she ought to light the cauldron for a Los Angeles Olympics, and that was before the International Olympic Committee picked LA for the 2028 Olympics — but the fact that Serena Williams didn’t win a Grand Slam in 2018 and Mikaela Shiffrin on Saturday capped her best year ever by becoming the most successful slalom skier in the 52-year history of the World Cup, and Serena Williams was named Associated Press female athlete of the year and Shiffrin didn’t even crack the top five is just plain …
In the final event of 2018, Shiffrin, skiing in Semmerlng, Austria, set not just one but two milestones:
1. She won her 36th career slalom race. That is a new record. She had been tied at 35 with Austria’s Marlies Raich who, competing as Marlies Schild, won 35 times from 2001 through retirement in 2014.
Only Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark has more slalom wins, 40, in a career that spanned the 1970s and 1980s. He is No. 1 in all-time wins, with 86. Lindsey Vonn is No. 2, with 82.
Shiffrin now has 51. Shiffrin is 23. No one has had this many wins at this age.
2. Shiffrin became the first skier, male or female, to win 15 World Cup races in a calendar year. Men’s overall champion Marcel Hirscher of Austria won 14 times in 2018.
Shiffrin has won 11 of the last 12, and 27 of the last 33 World Cup slaloms in which she has raced. She has a massive lead in this season’s women’s World Cup overall points derby.
All of this says two things.
1. The AP award is messed up.
What, did voters transmogrify Shiffrin into a Rodney Dangerfield act?
For good measure: you know who else didn’t make the women’s top five? Jessie Diggins or Kikkan Randall, who won the first-ever medal for the United States in women’s cross-country skiing at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. Which was gold. Since, Randall has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
That’s not a top five, either? Really?
The 2018 award was Williams’ fifth from AP.
On the men’s side, LeBron James was named the winner, for the third time. Commence the debate about whether James is the best player in the NBA. All the same, he didn’t win the 2017-18 NBA title.
And in fifth place in the AP male athlete contest, what do we have here? Justify.
Justify is a horse.
The whole Triple Crown thing? American Pharoah won in 2015.
Come on, people.
Here is what James had to say about winning the award, per AP:
“I would describe it as a success because I was able to inspire so many people throughout the year. I got to go back to China, to Paris, to Berlin. I opened up a school. And all these kids I was able to see, all over the world and in my hometown, I was able to inspire, to make them think they can be so much more than what they think they’re capable of being. That was my outlook for 2018.”
If inspiration is the criterion for this award, consider Shiffrin’s remarks post-race Saturday, on her Facebook page, referring to Raich, her childhood slalom idol:
“I hope someday somebody breaks my record. Because maybe that means that somebody out there was as inspired by me as I was by Marlies. And that would be just a dream come true. So to whoever you are, wherever you are, keep working, It seems far — but maybe, who knows, seven years from now or whatever, you’re going to be making one of these videos and speaking to the next generation of athletes.”
It’s hard to argue, though, that the basis for the award is genuinely keyed primarily to inspiration. Justify Justify. Who is Justify inspiring? Gamblers? State legislators across America pumped up by visions of revenue streams sparked by the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing sports wagering? Better: what middle-school kid got up today and said, I want to be like Justify! Said no one.
You want inspiration? Jessie Diggins! Kikkan Randall — gold medalist, mother of a little boy, breast-cancer fighter (10 radiation treatments down as of Dec. 26, 23 to go)!
People. Come on.
2. In a significant sense, skiing, and especially alpine skiing, is like track and field, or swimming; if you are a ski geek, it’s awesome; if not, well, this is the challenge in going mainstream, the code that gold medal-winning teenager Chloe Kim — fourth in the AP balloting — can crack, because snowboarding is uber-cool, which is why the IOC has gotten big on jamming as many snowboarding events as it can on to the Winter Games program.
Also a challenge: as for the U.S. alpine team, there’s Shiffrin, and — who?
Since the 2018-19 World Cup season began on the glacier in Soelden, Austria, back in October, no one except on the American team except for Shiffrin — no one — has made it onto the podium. On the men’s team, Bryce Bennett has taken fourth in two Italian downhills, two weeks ago in Val Gardena and again Friday in Bormio.
The alpine World Cup is terrific stuff. It is cool. It is. More than 10,000 people showed up to Saturday’s event in Austria.
For all that, a ski race on a Saturday on a mountainside in Europe — at least six and maybe nine time zones away from the United States — can make for a formidable sell. Semmering is not a known entity along the lines of Wimbledon, or Roland Garros. Beyond, tennis is one-on-one theater; alpine racing is you against the others, yes, but it’s mostly you against the clock and a river of ice. It’s typically thrilling, races decided by literally hundreds of seconds. Shiffrin won Saturday’s slalom by 29-hundredths over Petra Vlhova — who on Friday had won Slovakia’s first World Cup giant slalom. Vlhova has finished second to Shiffrin in every two-run slalom this season.
Megan Harrod, the U.S. alpine team’s communications manager, is one of the most entertaining (meant as a compliment) and informative pros in the business. And Shiffrin clearly is not lacking when it comes to commercial appeal. Same as Serena Williams.
“I’m still on the way up,” Williams told AP in the story announcing her award. “There’s still much more that I plan on doing.”
Still on the way up is no substitute for being at the top. The AP award reflects balloting by U.S. editors and news directors. Again, no disrespect. But clearly there’s a disconnect.
And that sort of disconnect should prompt a lot of well-meaning people — in the ski biz, the Olympic biz, the news biz — to ask what’s going on. And why. And what to do about it.
Let’s ask Lance Armstrong. He won the thing four times in a row.