Commentary Economic Justice

Why I’ll Never Warm Up to the Winter Olympics

Karen Craigo

All of those Appalachian kids like me—geographically outside of the snow belt, and economically on the moon—will never know the exhilaration of a ski slope or the flawless ice of a skating rink.

I’m as astute a critic as anyone watching the Winter Olympics. I note the poise of the upper body as the wild-legged skiers take the mogul course. I assess the astonishing feats of snowboarders. I appreciate the temerity of the athletes in luge and skeleton and bobsleigh.

But although I watch and marvel, I’ll never really warm up to the Winter Olympics. It’s about economics. With a few exceptions—such as cross-country skiing, which you can pull off with secondhand equipment and without costly lift fees—these sports are not for lower- or middle-income kids to try. Unlike Summer Olympic sports like soccer, running, or wrestling, which can be pursued cheaply or at no cost by almost anyone, winter sports are the domain of the privileged—and they’re not for me.

Ponds didn’t really freeze much when I was growing up in the Appalachian part of Ohio, and never to the extent that I would dare walk out onto one.

We had hills, of course—a few of them good for sledding, but most covered in overgrown trees and brambles, so downhill skiing was never an option.

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Maybe there was an ice rink within an hour’s drive, but there wasn’t one in my town. Like anywhere else, some people of means, generally the children of doctors, came back from winter break with ski lift tickets attached to the zippers of their puffy coats.

But I was about 22 when I went skiing for the very first time. I was far from home, in Montana. And it was a disaster. My boyfriend and I were driving around on Thanksgiving Day and fighting, our families far away, and on a whim he suggested we go skiing at a popular ski resort, whose season opened that very day.

I didn’t know anything about skiing, but I was always up for an adventure. My boyfriend, who had often skied with his family on vacation, rented my boots, skis, and poles. I felt some sticker shock as he paid for the equipment and the lift pass, but he took it in stride. He told me, “The only way to learn is to go to the top of a mountain and work your way down.” I made it onto the terrifying lift, but felt misgivings about how to get off. At the top of the mountain, he jumped, gave me a wave, and shussed away.

I grew up in Gallipolis, Ohio, an economically depressed town on the Ohio River. Industry was already fading when I was a child. The coal-driven power industry was a major non-service employer, but manufacturers—the plant that made boat motors, for instance—disappeared one by one.

While Gallipolis was part of the foothills of the Appalachians, it was not mountainous. Those friends who skied usually drove four hours to Snowshoe, West Virginia, which today posts a weekend and holiday rate of $99. My family was not poor, and we could have taken the occasional skiing holiday, but it would have been impossible to make a habit of it.

Strangely, no one bats an eye when you suggest that golf is off limits to a lot of would-be athletes. It turns out that 150 acres of thirsty, meticulously tended courses cost quite a bit to maintain, and greens fees keep the poorest people outside the gate (and there’s always a gate). A handful of incentives to introduce lower-income people to the sport have done little to make it more inclusive.

But friends in cold-weather places have tried to persuade me that I’m mistaken about similar class barriers to winter sports. These Winter Olympic sports are just outdoor fun for your average Mainer or Coloradan or Minnesotan, they tell me.

The thing is, I lived in Montana too, and a day pass to a ski area was expensive anywhere. Only someone whose life is comfortable would suggest otherwise. On the Snow, a website that features lift ticket prices, lists one adult weekday lift ticket for $38 (Maverick Mountain)—significantly cheaper than the next one up. The same ticket is $46 at Discovery, where I went, and a whopping $139 at Big Sky.

Not everyone can even try downhill skiing, just to see if they might have an affinity for it. In terms of necessary equipment, many of us can pick up a basketball right now, or run down the road right now, or kick around a soccer ball right now. Borrow a ball or wear your regular athletic shoes, and the cost is zilch. But some people never have the opportunity to ski. Lift tickets, plus gear and specialized wear, are prohibitively expensive. Appalachia may have mountains, but it is not rife with ski resorts, perhaps because the impoverished local communities can’t sustain the cost.

When I was growing up, my town had some of the hardest workers I knew—yet famously, the region is recognized for a high obesity rate; the nearest city of note, Huntington, West Virginia, has been named America’s fattest. Although the causes of obesity can vary, a lot of people conveniently ignore that leisure activities require leisure time. It’s hard to get to the gym when one must work two jobs to support a family. Ski trips are a luxury, but for the working poor, participating in any sport can feel out of reach. There’s little money, little time, and little leftover energy for fun.

Lack of access also has clear ramifications for winter sports themselves. Isn’t it safe to presume that we don’t get the very best skiers, since most of us—and certainly most of us in Appalachia—have a hard time getting to the slopes on a regular basis? I’m not the first to point out that our best ski-jumper might be whiling away time flexing her powerful calves in a bayou somewhere, and may never encounter a mountain, much less a jumping ramp, a take-off table, and a landing hill.

Some slopes offer free skiing for children, and clearly, if one is to reach Olympic-level dominance, one will have to start young and practice daily. So we might envision that world where we let our 5-year-old out at the door of the ski lodge and promise to pick her up at the same spot in a few hours. Since my own 5-year-old would destroy a mountain if left to his own devices for three or four hours, that’s out for me. Realistically, a child skiing is accompanied by a parent doing the same, a parent who has the time and means to do so.

Liftopia points out that the price of skiing can vary widely based on factors like location, day of the week, time of day, and when tickets are purchased. Skiers will tell you that there are matchless days on the slopes where the sky is sunny and the trails have great snow cover, and that’s when most people want to be out there.

On Liftopia, Evan Reece writes that skiers who don’t go last minute and who plan multi-day visits can economize. “[I]n many ways skiing is more affordable than ever. And if you are willing to be flexible when you ski, where you ski, what you buy, and most importantly when you buy—you will be able to make good on what we all say we’ll do every season: ski more than we did last season.”

It strikes me that in reading between the lines, even this ski blogger admits what I’m saying: This is expensive.

It’s not just skiing. Skaters may get the fever on a frozen cow pond, but figure skating requires paying for lessons and ice time in a rink for those who are serious. Interested in luge? You’ll probably have to leave your state to find a course. The U.S. has only two competition tracks: one in Lake Placid, New York, and one in Park City, Utah, and two natural tracks, both in Michigan (Muskegon and Negaunee).

My topic here is not the cost of becoming an elite athlete: Equipment, coaching, and training are expensive in every sport, once we move past the basic levels. Rather, I’m lamenting all of those Appalachian kids like me—geographically outside of the snow belt, and economically on the moon, for all it matters—who will never know the exhilaration of a ski slope or the flawless ice of a skating rink. Maybe there could have been champions among us.

What’s the solution? I’m not sure. Appalachia needs much more than a luge course or a few more ski slopes. My region currently has a food insecurity rate of near 30 percent. Still, I’d love to see some recognition, as we cheer on those Americans who do astonishing things on the slopes, courses, and ice of Pyeongchang, that these elite athletes who are the best of us may not be the best of all of us.

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