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When the skiers of the U.S. Alpine team took off November 27 for two final months of pre-Olympic training in Europe, they were by far the best-conditioned, most talented lot ever to represent this country in the sport. The promise of the men's team was particularly bright: three of the U.S. racers, Buddy Werner, Chuck Ferries and Jimmy Heuga, had beaten the very best European skiers in major international events; and two others—Billy Kidd and Bill Marolt—had finished in the top 10 in world competition. Yet before their plane had even touched down at the airport in Geneva, the U.S. Olympic men's team had suddenly been reduced to a pack of losers.
On that day the F�d�ration Internationale de Ski, governing body for all major international ski races, released its seedings for the 1963-64 season, i.e., for the Winter Olympics. These seedings rate the world's best skiers according to their performances in past major events. Even more important, they determine the order in which the competitors will be started in future races. Not one American made the top 10, and only two—Buddy Werner and Bill Marolt, tied for 12th in downhill—were awarded a spot anywhere in the top 15. All the rest were dropped down among the asterisks and the also-rans and thus, in effect, were dropped from any semblance of competition.
U.S. Ski Coach Bob Beattie reacted to the list with a formal protest, calling it "an unfair reflection on the ability of the American team." And J. Stanley Mullin, who represents the U.S. as a vice-president of FIS, fired off an agonized cable to FIS headquarters in Bern, Switzerland. Their complaint was based not so much on wounded feelings about Europe's opinion of American ski racers as on the rotten conditions under which U.S. skiers have now been sentenced to compete. Unlike a running track, a ski course does not stay constant for every man. The first competitors to go through a slalom get the good snow, an even surface with no bad ruts, no place to catch an edge. But as each succeeding skier twists his way down, he cuts up the course, making it treacherous and, inevitably, slower. In the downhill and giant slalom, the late starters are somewhat bothered by ruts but even more by changing snow conditions. As the day wears on, the sun and wind turn the track to an impossible combination of mush and ice. For example, at the 1962 world championships in Chamonix—where the U.S. team finished a strong third behind Austria and France—no racer seeded below the top 10 came in first, second or third. And at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, all the medalists came from the top 15 seedings.
Thus the crusade by the U.S. men's team to win medals in Innsbruck (SI, Jan. 14 et seq.) has run completely, unexpectedly and unfairly aground. The name of the particular obstruction on which American hopes are now stuck fast is Robert Faure, chairman of the FIS Downhill and Slalom Committee. It is his responsibility alone to produce the seedings, and last summer he worked three to four hours a day every day for three months—on his own, since Faure is a volunteer official—to produce what he considered a fair result. But Faure has other loyalties beside the FIS. He is president of the French Ski Federation's Technical Committee, and editor of its official periodical Ski Fran�ais. Above all, Faure is a chauvinistic European with pronounced views on the quality of American ski competition compared to that of the Continent. He is quite prepared to ignore races run in the U.S., particularly those in which Europeans have met defeat.
"I think this list is an accurate reflection of the position and quality of American skiing today," said Faure, as the dark clouds of protest began to swirl around him. '"The Americans have never had so many in the first 15 as they have now."
Well, that's true. At the last Olympics there were no American men seeded in the first 15. Now there are two, and you can't knock progress. But this bit of progress was arrived at through some astonishingly reactionary logic. In the early days of international ski racing, starting positions were thrashed out at a meeting of team captains before each race. "It was like a mass trial with everybody speaking for his clients," recalls one FIS official.
Eight years ago this drumhead method was scrapped in favor of the present seasonal system. In it the winner of every recorded race is given zero points: those that follow are penalized according to the difference between their times and the winner's, the points marked against them derived from a standard—and very sensible—set of tables. The average of a skier's two best results count for seeding, so the competitor with the lowest total is listed first.
If all races were rated equally, this would be a splendid system. But naturally the winner of a small race with a local field should not get the same advantageous rating as the gold-medal winner in a prestigious event like Austria's Hahnenkamm or Switzerland's Lauberhorn. Therefore, winners of local races are assessed penalty points, and their seedings drop accordingly.
Eight years ago when the system first went in, all U.S. races, even the national championships, could by world standards be fairly assessed as local races. American skiers—especially the men—just were not very good. But by 1962 they had surged forward, past Germany, Italy, Norway and even Switzerland to rank third at the world championships, just behind Austria and France. By now American races, with or without foreign entries, are as tough to win as European meets.
But not in the mind of M. Faure. In assessing the 1962-63 season, he levied penalty points against every single event held in the U.S. Since the American team trained and raced exclusively at home last season that means the Americans piled up nothing but penalties.