Alpine skiing: Picassos, slip crew ensure tip-top slopes

Thousands watch live or on television when Ted Ligety or Lindsey Vonn race down icy slopes at over 100kph, but without perfect courses -- and the preparation that goes into that -- there can be no competition.

Gone are the days when champions like Toni Sailer or Jean-Claude Killy bumped along irregular courses in top-level competitions.

Nowadays, race slopes are smoothed to perfection, lines in the snow indicate where the skiers -- hurtling down at high speeds requiring split-second decisions -- must turn and any tracks they leave behind are quickly ironed out before the next racer starts.

Generally unseen, an army of little elves in mint green works to make this possible at the World Ski Championships.

Among them are the vital 160-man slip crew.

Recognisable by the red bibs over their green volunteers' jacket, they slide down the course before and during each event, smoothing out irregularities where a racer's skis may have carved into the snow, in a bid to allow the next starter a spick-and-span run.

The only requirements for the job: "You have to be a good skier and your heart has to beat for these races. You have to enjoy doing this and be motivated to work at 4am with a helmet torch," says Matthias Buechle, from Sulzfeld, Germany.

When heavy snowfall threatened to delay the start of the championships, the slip crew worked all night in the dark and in less than ideal weather, going up and down the slope, relentlessly pushing the fresh powder off the course just using their skis.

All this, they do for free. Except for the ski outfit and bib, which are provided by the International Ski Federation, the equipment is their own, from skis to boots, helmet and gloves. Only food and accommodation are provided.

"It's tiring, of course. Due to the weather we were on the course for many hours and many days... But as volunteers we're not forced to do anything," says Buechle, who already worked at the last world championships in Garmisch and at last year's World Cup finals in Schladming.

As course workers, they also get to be close to the action and to the athletes, even if they rarely see the actual races.

"When you're here, it's not as a spectator but as a volunteer and to contribute to the world championships."

For the artwork -- the blue lines defining the course -- the Picassos are in charge.

The 14-man (and -woman) crew came specially from Garmisch where they already performed at the last worlds two years ago.

"And after this we're going straight home and doing (the World Cup races in) Garmisch again," said Robert Marka, as he refilled the large plastic container on his back before taking off again on skis to complete his paint job.

On the men's downhill race, the Picassos sprayed hundreds of litres of blue food colouring and anti-freeze onto the slope, repeating during the race as was necessary.

"You have to sacrifice some time," said Marka, who had to take two weeks off from his job with automaker BMW to come to Schladming. A keen ski racer himself, he insists however: "it's fun."

From installing the security nets to manning the Picassos' refueling station, much of the race preparation is done by volunteers like Gottfried Schwabegger, a recent retiree: "I go wherever they need me."

At any race, dozens of course workers on skis are dotted along the side of the course, ready to spring into action to flatten the snow with shovels or screw in slalom gates that might have come undone.

In total, some 500 volunteers are directly involved with the course, from slip crew to Picassos and gate-keepers.

The Austrian army was also roped in for some of the heavy work of clearing fresh snow, and helped set up perimeter fences.

A reminder of how dangerous the work of these volunteers can be, however, came in the men's super-combined race when a slip crew member found himself on the course as Switzerland's Sandro Viletta came speeding down at 110kph, narrowly missing him.

Another course worker had to be airlifted after falling and injuring themselves in the women's super-G in the opening race of the championships.