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The crisis has been coming on slowly for years. Everybody who skis knows about it, just as everybody knows that the hills have long been alive with the sound of money. But now, suddenly, maybe because this was the season that hit an alltime commercial high, the glamorous world of Alpine ski racing finds itself deep in trouble. The sport is on a certain downhill collision course with the oldtime principles of amateurism and maybe the biggest barrier of them all: the Winter Olympics.
The outlines of the conflict are clear—and colorful. The manufacturers have moved in with their labels, stickers, bright paint and big pay until all the best racers—and many of the mediocre—are now winding up a year in which they have been paid more than ever before for amateur competition. The price list varies, but it is not uncommon for a racer to draw a $5,000 salary for using certain skis, $2,500 for boots, $2,000 for bindings and $500 for poles—all this plus bonuses for placing high in the races. The whole scene has taken on a gaudy surrealism—the finish line of most any race now looks like billboard row, and the next step has got to be neon skis and boots as soon as somebody figures out a way to make them work.
If there was not so much at stake the whole picture would be pretty funny: every ski racer wears so many decals that he looks like an Indianapolis race car. There are the logotypes as big as sandwich boards across racing bibs, goggle straps, helmets and parkas, and at the finish line the racers thrust their skis eagerly into cameras and onto TV screens for easier reading by the millions. Until recently nobody, but nobody, could hope to outdo Fischer or Sideral for wild ski promotion on the slopes—not with that big black lettering streaming across blazing Day-Glo tangerine backgrounds. But next season America's own Head Ski Co., eager to gain notoriety in the racing world, will come on with its XR-1 slalom ski. The company name will scream forth in a type face usually reserved for a declaration of war—all this across a ski surface painted searing yellow, orange and red. And all the other skis also have distinguishing marks of their own; the idea is to get them into the pictures—and smile. One more season of this sort of thing and skiers will be selling ad space on their teeth.
Still, while fun and money games are one thing, the finances now involved in ski racing have grown beyond the locker-room tokenism involved in the Adidas-Puma track-shoe case. This is no mere $500 wad of bills stuffed into the toe of a ski boot in the dark of the moon. This is big business. The full payroll from factories to amateur racers on the World Cup circuit this season hit well over half a million dollars. And an icy irony of the sport is that much of this money came over, not under, tables all across the world; that is, with the knowledge and blessings of ski racing's governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Ski.
The FIS, which has provided technical supervision of the Winter Olympics since 1936, has thus steered the sport up against the International Olympic Committee, those Rocks of Ages who still stand guard over the tattered remains of amateurism as it came to be known and loved in the 19th century. The next sound you hear is likely to be the crash when the two meet next May in Amsterdam to talk all this over.
Clearly, the fate of the 1972 Sapporo Olympics is at stake. The FIS seems to be betting that the IOC won't arbitrarily throw out Alpine racing with the commercial wash water, thereby removing from the Olympics its most glamorous events. But even if the Games are held as scheduled, it would seem likely that all of the best racers on the FIS tour must be tossed out on their crash helmets under Olympic Rule No. 26. The rule says, in nice, clear words: "An amateur is one who participates and has always participated in a sport as an avocation without gain of any kind." Further "official interpretations" of the rule plug up all the other loopholes: no prize money over $50, no capitalizing commercially on products, no expense money over actual outlay, the works. So—presto!—scratch all the top ski racers whose names are now household words. No way they are going to be able to pass that amateur litmus test. Scratch Karl Schranz, with that great, big Kneissl Ski Co. star on his helmet, with labels plastered all over his gear and his appearance in newspaper and magazine ads. Scratch all the other big-name, high-paid amateurs.
How did skiing get itself into this mess? What happened is that, late last spring, delegates to the FIS from 33 nations convened in Barcelona. And amid the usual waterfalls of toasts and oratory, they voted in a new, surprisingly elastic rule defining eligibility of FIS ski racers. No longer would the FIS outlaw arrangements for payment between manufacturers and skiers. No longer would the FIS outlaw deals in which racers could appear in advertisements or promotions. To keep it all at least a little realistic, the FIS ruled that such arrangements would have to be approved by the national federation to which the racer belonged and that all money paid should pass through the federations before going to individual racers.
Wonderful. Everything was now up on top of the table where the FIS felt it belonged. But, as everybody now knows, the action opened a grand commercial Pandora's box of inequities, for each nation could bring to its bargaining its own sense of morality—which isn't exactly the same thing in every country.
It is noteworthy—and a little ironic—that the first nation to be caught in the commercial net was the U.S. Along came two ski racers—the marvelously promising Hank Kashiwa and Rick Chaffee—with signed contracts. Both agreements were made openly, with full approval of the naive U.S. Ski Association and the FIS. But when the U.S. Olympic Committee heard about the contracts it promptly declared both youths unfit for Olympic competition. Plainly, Kashiwa and Chaffee are the innocent victims of some bureaucratic bungling, some misunderstandings and an accident of history that puts them in the middle of the coming collision.
Meanwhile, having set the course for the crash, the FIS passed the buck to its president, Marc Hodler, a generally sensible and nicely polished attorney from Bern. Hodler would take on a mission of greatest import: he was to travel from Barcelona to Warsaw, find Avery Brundage and the IOC meeting there—and convince them that the FIS action was not only in the best interest of sport, but also that it would not shatter the fragile principles of amateurism as viewed by the IOC.