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U.S. Ski Team off course (cont.)

Posted: Thursday February 23, 2006 12:56PM; Updated: Thursday February 23, 2006 9:14PM
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Earlier this week I talked with U.S. racer Chip Knight, 31, who will race in the slalom on Saturday (and whose journey to his third Olympics is quite remarkable; I'll detail it tomorrow). Knight is squarely in the same generation as Rahlves and Miller. He was named to the ski team 13 years ago, in the same season as Rahlves, three years before Miller. His thoughts parallel Fleischer's, albeit in a more measured tone.

"There's definitely been a focus on a couple of guys, Bode and Daron, and rightfully so," says Knight. "And maybe in terms of medals, you might be able to say you're the 'best in the world' [here, Knight invokes the team's marketing slogan], with just a few superstars. But if they truly want to be the best in the world, they need to have a bigger team. The team needs to grow and the budget needs to grow.''

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This is a huge suggestion. The U.S. Ski Team raises money aggressively and successfully. Its biggest donors are housed in Sestriere in one of the best hotels in the city.

But let's step back and assess the particulars of the medal failure:

Officials never broke down where they expected to get eight medals, but it's safe to assume that Fleischer and Knight are correct in guessing that Miller and Rahlves were expected to account for many of them. (Last year at the world championships in Bormio, Italy, Miller won two golds and Rahlves a silver and a bronze; it should have been more, because Rahlves skied poorly in Super G and Miller lost a ski in the combined downhill and failed to finish the giant slalom. They could have conceivably won seven medals between them.)

Six months before the Olympic Games, it would have been reasonable to guess that Miller and Rahlves would combine for at least four medals. Other possibilities: Mancuso won two bronzes last year in Bormio, Kildow has won two World Cup downhills, and Ligety is a top three threat in every slalom. Eight looks silly now, but a year ago it wasn't silly at all. It was sensible.

Ultimately, the failure of the team is a failure of individuals. In setting its Olympics goals, the U.S. Ski Team threw the bulk of its hope behind two skiers: Rahlves, who is the best downhiller in U.S. skiing history but who hasn't performed at his best under Olympic pressure (sorry if that sounds harsh, because Rahlves is a good guy and a terrific athlete, but his Olympic record speaks for itself: no finish higher than seventh in eight Olympic races over three Games), and Miller, who is probably the most gifted racer in any country's history but who doesn't value medal counts enough to train or, frankly, to care.

That's a roll of the dice. Throw in Kildow's injury and downhill and Super G courses that didn't favor the lightweight Mancuso and you start to get a recipe for what Fleischer called "implosion."

Yet, is this a failure of the system? Do Rahlves' and Miller's shutouts reflect on the U.S. Ski Team or on Rahlves and Miller? It's a very delicate point. Sure, the ski team threw its might behind the big guns. They are two of the best skiers in history. In an individual sport like ski racing (or swimming or track and field or any one of many other Olympic sports), the success of the federation is judged on the success of its individuals.

In 1994 the United States won four medals in ski racing and celebrated the success of the U.S. Ski Team. But those medals were won by individuals -- Tommy Moe (two), Diann Roffe and Picabo Street -- who performed spectacularly on a given day.

Knight suggests that the team can increase its chances of producing champions and medalists by broadening its program. "They need to build a team that is spread across several generations of skiers,'' says Knight. "Work on developing young skiers, but try to keep older guys in the sport too.''

Ideas like this are worth exploring. Given the program's Olympic record (and the only Olympic statistic that matters is medals, regardless of how unfair that sounds), CEO Bill Marolt will surely consider changes to the status quo. But success will always come down to the performance of individuals. The U.S. brought talented people to Italy. Those people didn't win medals. As complicated as this issue can seem, it can also be painfully simple.


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