Competitors in this week’s Denver Big Air competition may think they live on the cutting edge of cool, but the ultimate old-school ski sport was putting on urban exhibitions when big-band swing music was in vogue and dancers did the jitterbug.
Chicago’s Soldier Field hosted annual ski jump competitions in the 1930s on ramps supported by wooden scaffolding, much like the steel structure that has risen on the west end of Civic Center Park. Ski jumping also came to Wrigley Field, the old Madison Square Garden, the Boston Garden and the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The Metro Denver Sports Commission is using Big Air to promote Denver and Colorado skiing while impressing visitors from the ski industry trade gathering, the SIA’s “Snow Show” at the Colorado Convention Center. Denver Sports is building a track record of hosting national and international sports events to foster goodwill, should it choose to bid for an Olympics someday.
“We fancy Denver as the premier global sport host city,” said KieAnn Brownell, president of the commission. “We think that by hosting an event like this, we’re showing the world that not only are we a great host city but we’re innovators in sport production.
“The other piece is to bring fun and interesting events to Denver, to help grow the sport, to help accomplish our mission, which is to elevate people’s lives through sport. And to give people the opportunity to come downtown to one of the coolest sporting events they’re ever going to see.”
Big Air events in recent years have come to Rotterdam, Moscow, London, Stockholm, Seoul and Barcelona. The Denver event will be the first of its kind in the U.S., which is exciting to officials of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. Traditional alpine ski racing is still seeing increasing numbers of participants, USSA officials say, but the USSA sees “action” sports as a growth opportunity.
“Much of what we’ve done over the last few years as a national governing body is to look at how we can change our landscape, how we can become more relevant to the younger generation,” said Bill Marolt, USSA president and chief executive. “This event in Denver really represents a commitment on our part, a commitment on the part of the International Ski Federation, to try to bring our sport to the city; to bring our sport into capitals and city centers around the globe to show what we are all about and what our athletes are all about.”
But the massive snow ramp that will send new-school “freeskiers” and snowboarders spinning, inverting and revolving in the air over Civic Center comes a century after the first ski jump was built in Denver. Norwegian immigrant Carl Howelsen (“The Flying Norseman”) moved to Denver in 1909 and built a ski jump near the Willis Case Golf Course on Inspiration Point. Two years earlier, Howelsen toured with the Barnum and Bailey circus, ski jumping over a pair of pachyderms under the big top.
Nor is Big Air the first time skiing in downtown Denver was used to promote the sport. In November 1964, May D&F built a carpeted “ski” ramp from the third floor of its downtown store at 16th and Tremont to an ice rink at ground level. The store was located where the Sheraton Denver Downtown stands today.
May D&F was a major department store that sold skis in its ski shop, along with ski apparel. In the store’s Wonderful World of Winter, each Colorado ski area got a day to put on shows and spread the word.
That show also was a production of Colorado Ski Country USA, which was formed the previous year.
“Sherry O’Keefe, Miss Colorado Ski Country, drew a cheer when she christened the ski ramp with a bottle of champagne,” according to a Denver Post story describing the “opening ceremonies.”
The first two skiers down the ramp were Marolt and Billy Kidd, who were described in the story as “students at the University of Colorado.” That was true, but Kidd also happened to win a silver medal in slalom at the Olympics nine months earlier.
The May D&F show, which lasted two weeks, was not without mishap. One day, George Engle, the ski school director at Winter Park, got attacked by the carpet.
“As he got just to the bottom where the transition was, the wind picked up the carpet, blew it up in front of him and he stuck both ski tips right through the carpet,” recalled Jerry Groswold, who managed Winter Park for 22 years. “Why he didn’t break himself in half is beyond me.”