It doesn’t really matter whether you were from a family that went on ski holidays back in the 1980s, or, like me, you weren’t: everyone knew who Konrad Bartelski was. For 36 years he was Great Britains best performing skier, having finished second at the Val Gardena World Cup in 1981. It’s a legacy that was only equalled in 2017 by Dave Ryding, and only surpassed, once again by Dave Ryding, in 2022. The fact that so many of us Brits love the mountains in winter can be credited to Konrad Bartelski.
“I’d always like to do more skiing,” the 68 year old tells me. “I could never do enough,” he continues. “I love exploring the world on my skis, that’s probably the best way to describe it; they’re a means of transport and I put together a number of adventures for my friends and I each winter.” Konrad has always had a passion for photography and hosts exhibitions across the globe. “My photography is of what I see in the mountains, although the disadvantage is that, because I like doing large prints, I need good quality lenses and cameras, which tend to be quite heavy. Getting older and skinning up with five pounds of equipment, on top of everything else… it’s never easy.”
Konrad learned to ski in Kitzbuel when he was just three years old, “Kitzbuel has always been my home from a skiing point of view,” he explains. “I went there in May when they dedicated the gondola to Dave Ryding following his win, we had a huge celebration in The Londoner pub, which is a tradition that I started back in 1975. We always had a party there after the downhill race and I still think its probably Britains biggest contribution to World Cup skiing, that party.”
Having held the title of ‘Great Britains best skier’ for so long, and especially during the years when British skiers have made some serious progress in the sport, I wonder if it felt strange to be elapsed by Dave Ryding. “I was actually in Spain when Dave won in Kitzbuel, so I couldn’t watch it on television. Winning in Kitzbuel was something I always wanted to do.
I used to persuade my parents to let me stay up late during our holidays so I could watch the racers and I think that was my motivation to get into ski racing. Dave is such a great person, a great human and he’s worked so hard. To beat the Austrians in their home of ski racing, if I could’t do it then I was very happy that Dave did.”
“To beat the Austrians in their home of ski racing, if I could’t do it then I was very happy that Dave did.”
Konrad was just 11 years old when his skiing skills came to the attention of Karl Schranz, the champion Austrian ski racer. “I was skiing with my instructor, she put some poles in the snow next to the slalom course so I could practise my turns; I wasn’t training for a race or anything, just to get better at skiing. The Austrian team were training on the course next to us and as we joined the lift queue, Karl Schranz accosted my instructor, she was very beautiful and went up the lift with her. He told her ‘that kid looks good, he’s quite talented.’ To hear that from the god of the Austrian ski team was something that sparked me and motivated me to ski better.”
In the years that followed, Konrad honed his skills at the Dutch Junior Championships, coming second to his brother – “It was a race for under 18s, I was 12 at the time,” he laughs, “and I was mega pissed off!” Later that year Konrad and his brother joined the British Junior Championships in Cairngorm. “My Grandad took us in a green caravan, we drove up, lived in the caravan and our budget for the whole week was £75 for the three of us. We didn’t buy lift passes for the first few days, we’d climb up and ski down, just to save money,” Konrad remembers. “In the slalom I came 10th, again this was a race for under 18s, I saw that I was competitive and that really was my debut into ski racing.”
“Another thing that motivated me,” Konrad continues, “was watching a downhill race with my ski instructor, I must have been aged 10 or 11 at the time. The British racer came down 15 seconds behind the leader and the instructor said ‘after the show, we bring on the clowns’. Being fiercely patriotic, that got me quite upset.”
Konrad was just 17 years old when he was selected to join the British team at the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics in Japan. “I remember being at the opening ceremony, in the speed skating rink, a beautiful, cold, sunny day. We had one of the biggest teams at the Games, and we came back with no medals. The others went there for a good time, they had double-barrelled surnames and I vowed I’d never go to another Olympics unless I could actually compete and be competitive. The idea of ‘taking part’ meant nothing to me.”
“I vowed I’d never go to another Olympics unless I could actually compete”
In an effort to once again hone his competitive instinct, Konrad and a couple of friends returned to Cairngorm, trained exceptionally hard and raced against a group of famous international racers. “We were competitive against them after two weeks of working hard,” Konrad remembers. “The visits to the whiskey factory probably helped.” Two years later there were two British skiers in the top 20 at the World Championships in St Moritz. “These were the building blocks,” Konrad believes.
You’ll read elsewhere in this magazine about the chaos surrounding funding for the current generation of Team GB ski racers. All of which begs the question, who paid for Konrad? “My father worked for KLM, so I got cheap tickets. I’d combine this with ski testing for some of the brands, I’d take photos while I was away, I’d scramble together another few hundred quid, and before you knew it, I’d have what I needed for a four week training camp in Argentina or New Zealand,” Konrad explains. “These trips wild cost me around £1000 and the four weeks on snow would be so helpful but we had nothing, we spent nothing and we survived on nothing,” he continues. “We’d call up factories, tell them we were driving passed in our van – we’d painted a Union Jack on it – and ask for free goggles, sunglasses, and some spare ones so we’d get cheaper rates in hotels. We were the kings of the road, and it was a privilege. We were 18 years old and responsible for our own destiny.”
When researching Konrad Bartelski for this interview, I’d come across several references to the BBC’s Ski Sunday, with many crediting him as the man who kept the programme on TV. “Ski Sunday was so significant,” Konrad believes. “Their coverage of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, the drama and excitement around ski racing, it caught the imagination of the British population. David Vine was a very clever presenter, he talked to everyone in Great Britain, not just the skiers, he drew the audience in and the viewing figures got bigger and bigger. Coverage of the 1985 World Championships drew in eight million viewers, more than a Grand Prix!” Yet I can’t imagine Konrad tuning in to watch it these days, and I can’t put my finger on why. “Sport is the greatest unscripted drama, viewers admire seeing genius on a football pitch for example. Ski Sunday has, in my view, lost the ability to highlight skiing – it has no impact. Those skiers, Bode Miller, Mikaela Shiffrin, they are the heroes of skiing, not the people who present the programme.”
And so we arrive at the start gate for Konrad’s most famous race at the 1981 World Cup in Val Gardena, Italy. You’re imaging years spent visualising what an incredible performance might look and feel like, supreme focus, unwavering attention as the skier waits his turn. “Not at all. To the contrary,” Konrad tells me. “It was the first time in my life that I didn’t stand in the starting gates, gritting my teeth and being ready to die for my country,” he explains. “Usually I’d get there, throw my neck on the line, try my hardest. This race was the first time I felt like shirking my responsibilities, all I wanted to do was get to the bottom. I mean, I didn’t want to stand up all the way to the bottom, only for my coaches to call me a chicken, so I got as low as I could, I just wanted to keep my head down and get it over with. I didn’t try to go fast, I suppose there’s a life lesson there.”
“It was the first time in my life that I didn’t stand in the starting gates, gritting my teeth and being ready to die for my country”
“So, I cross the finish line, I’d made a little mistake on the last jump but whatever, and I knew the fastest time was 2.07. I didn’t really want to look up because if I was way off, I didn’t want to know and I’d have got quite depressed. But at the same time, instinctively, I felt I’d got the line right, and a lot of other things. I looked up and saw 2.07, I thought great, I’ll be in the top 10 with that. To try and avoid being boring I put my hands in the air, not having a clue what I’d done. Peter Müller, the Swiss skier ran over and said ‘you idiot, without that mistake at the end you’d have won, but you’ve come second!’ and that was, quite honestly, a relief more than anything.” I’m keen to return to the life lesson Konrad mentioned earlier. “I always thought I had to do something more to ski faster. It turns out, what I actually needed to do was relax.” “It was quite funny actually, I was on the podium and they didn’t have a record of the British national anthem, so they just sort of apologised and that was that.”
Meanwhile, elsewhere, as Konrad crossed the finish line, a TV commentator was sharing the race with a global audience. “Ce n’est pas possible!” he screamed. “C’est un anglais?” he questioned. “It was funny!” says Konrad. “In my favourite pictures from that race, I’m wearing the Union Jack on the podium. Of course the next race was more difficult, I needed to substantiate what I’d done. I came 15th in Crans Montana, which did substantiate things, it was the first time I’d had World Cup points in my life.”
“It was quite funny actually, I was on the podium and they didn’t have a record of the British national anthem, so they just sort of apologised and that was that.”
Konrad retired from World Cup racing in 1983, moving into television, broadcasting and his photography work. Having proven that he had what it took to be a world class ski racer just two seasons previously, this can’t have been an easy decision. “I’d trained harder and better than ever,” Konrad remembers. “Warming up for the second race of the season, I caught an edge, flipped over into the trees and landed with my back on a tree stump. For a second, I thought I’d broken my back, it was awfully painful,” Konrad remembers. “I managed to ski down, get back to the hotel, my coach came and told me to take painkillers and get up to the start. I was in serious agony, he was so ridiculously bad and ignorant. I saw an American doctor, he gave me some mega painkillers and told me not to ski. I drove home, recovered slightly and went to race in Val d’Isere two weeks later. My back never felt strong enough, my skis weren’t running well and I decided it was time to start earning a proper living and supporting myself. It was too much of a gamble to try and go on for another year. But when you stop doing what you love, it’s the most difficult decision you’ll ever make.”
Since retiring from competition (because you never retire from skiing) Konrad has worked behind the scenes, securing private sponsorship and government funding for a new generation of ski racers. “Ultimately, if you commit your life to something, life is supposed to get better, not worse. There was never enough money,” he concludes.
“Take up golf,” is Konrad’s answer to my final question. I asked him what advice he’d give to aspiring ski racers and he’s brutally honest. “The sport has changed and it’s horrendously expensive now. There’s too many people in the food chain, all these ski academies. Martin Bell (the former British World Cup racer) told me about kids turning up for training on their private jets, it’s insane. Skiing used to be a farmers sport, a means of getting down the mountain, now everyone’s got six pairs of skis, two pairs of boots, it’s out of control and detrimental to the sport.” But for those kids who have a genuine passion and talent? Aside from the finances… “It needs to be your choice, your decision. You need to take responsibility from the very beginning. Dave Ryding is the best example of this. Ten years ago someone asked him and a panel of other skiers what they needed to be better. Some said ‘more money,’ others ‘better equipment’, Dave said ‘I need to finish my turns better’. This one sentence is why he is world class.”
At the top of this interview I was sure that you’d all heard of Konrad Bartelski. Now I realise that even if you hadn’t, his career, the ensuing media coverage, his impact on competitive skiing in the years that followed his professional career, even his photography, will surely have influenced you in some subtle way to join us here in the mountains.
You can view Konrad’s photography at konradbartelski.photography