SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
January 28, 1980
The U.S.A. has more skiers, more slopes, more leisure time and more money than just about any other country in the world, but Americans usually finish down the line in Olympic ski competition. Why?
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January 28, 1980

The Land Of The Also-rans

The U.S.A. has more skiers, more slopes, more leisure time and more money than just about any other country in the world, but Americans usually finish down the line in Olympic ski competition. Why?

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Still, compared to the record of American men, the women have been spectacular. In the nine Olympics since 1936—that would be a total of 25 races—U.S. men have won precisely two of the 75 medals awarded—Kidd's silver in the 1964 slalom and Jimmy Heuga's bronze in the same race. On the World Cup circuit, which has been operating annually since 1967, American men have won a grand total of 12 races—and four of the victories have been achieved by the best American skier in years, Phil Mahre, 22, of White Pass, Wash., and one by the other half of the Mahres' twin-brother act, Steve. Until Phil came along in 1978 and finished second in the overall World Cup standings, no American man had ever been among the top five in the lists. In 1979, despite a shattered ankle that made him miss the last three races of the year, Phil still had enough points to finish third in the overall standings, while Steve, the next-best American, ranked 10th. The best the U.S. team has done in overall World Cup standings was a distant third-place finish in 1969, '70 and '78. The team's worst ranking was eighth in 1977.

Again: Why isn't the U.S. better at w ski racing?

Let's put it in perspective with other sports. Believe it or not, U.S. athletes are not accustomed to excelling at every sport they choose to compete in. Quite the contrary. In world-class competition, Americans have performed poorly in soccer, volleyball, kayaking, competitive canoeing, luge, bobsledding, field hockey, table tennis, cross-country skiing and orienteering—to name only a few. What are the reasons for these shortcomings? Well, some experts say that there aren't enough American kids participating in these sports, that the U.S. has too small a reservoir from which to draw world-class athletes, that coaching is inadequate and that there is no incentive, no monetary reward on the horizon. Of course, several of these reasons are cited for America's skiing failures, too.

One might ask why it is not also this way with U.S. speed skating, which has been about as bereft of facilities, coaching, participants and public encouragement as, say, bullfighting. Yet American speed skaters have won more Winter Olympic medals than those of any other nation. One explanation is that speed skating is, like running, a relatively simple sport requiring a minimum of technique and/or technology and lends itself to mastery without a huge pool of talent or of coaching expertise. Maybe, maybe not. At any rate, no one has ever had to make excuses for U.S. speed skaters.

There are nothing but excuses for ski racing. One favorite is that the U.S. simply hasn't had the technological expertise of the Europeans. As Ski's Fry says, "It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the equipment." The Europeans have always been ahead of the U.S. in design development, and they have always been better waxers. Non-skiers might scoff at the idea that the design of something as simple as a ski can make the difference, but the fact is that ski racing is a sport almost as demanding of engineering perfection as auto racing. Jean-Claude Killy has said that his skis were the decisive element in his triple gold-medal triumph at Grenoble in 1968. And many people, including Killy, have wondered if the fine Austrian racer Karl Schranz might not have become the greatest skier of all time had he not been so inextricably bound to the Austrian-made Kneissl ski, which was considered inferior by many racers at the time. Part of the explanation for the overwhelming successes today of the nonpareil Swedish slalomist, Ingemar Stenmark, is the fact that the hitherto un-renowned makers of the Elan ski have somehow created a ski especially well-engineered for the giant slalom.

In a sport in which races are sometimes won or lost by one-hundredth of a second, skis can be the decisive factor. Americans, of course, have access to the same brands available to Europeans. Whether Americans get—or recognize—the best individual skis of those brands may be questioned. And there is little doubt that European skiers get more expert help from their "racer chasers"—the factory reps who prepare the skis for each race. For example, last winter at the women's World Cup downhill at Lake Placid, America's Nelson finished a disappointing eighth because the racer chasers for her European competitors knew of a modification that could be made to ski bottoms for new wet snow. Nelson's man had failed to make that modification.

The lack of technological expertise in analyzing the snow and weather conditions that give a racer the best possible advantage has long been one of the routine excuses for why Americans don't win. Graham Anderson, a Seattle insurance man who is vice-president of the Alpine Committee of the FIS and has been an official on the American ski scene for 20 years, says, "Our coaching quality is better than it has been, but we're still not doing it like the Europeans. I remember during the 1978 world championship at Garmisch, it snowed a foot or more the night before the women's downhill. The course was a mess. Early in the morning the U.S. sent two or three coaches up on the mountain to check snow depth and conditions and test waxes. I remember I felt such confidence, such a sense of well-being that here, at last, we were getting this kind of technical support for our kids. Then, on the way up the mountain, I saw how this sort of thing is really done. The Austrians had packed down a whole beginners' ski area which had a lift. They had a track laid out with electronic timing devices. They were testing every kind of wax combination they could think of. There were at least 15 guys there, each an expert, each doing his thing. And that was the degree of their support for their kids in a world championship."

The coaching of U.S. teams has gone through a series of convolutions over the years. The effervescent Bob Beattie (1964-69) was a professional enthusiast who led the world to believe his teams were on the brink of triumph when they were, in fact, mediocre. From 1970 to 1974 there was a revolving-door system of coaches. Then Hank Tauber, a young man with a managerial bent, took over and installed a smoother-running organization. But his teams, too, were less than impressive.

The new director of Alpine racing, Bill Marolt, who was the ski coach at the University of Colorado for 10 years, has begun an intense program meant to bring top coaching talent down to the level of children's skiing, where champions are made. "We're going to have a heavy emphasis on educating coaches so that they understand about equipment care, racer management and talent scouting," Marolt says. "We're going to begin scouting for kids like the pros do. We'll have a computer system, and we want to track not only race results, but physical characteristics. We're developing a sports medicine program like they have in Europe. That way we'll be able to spot promising kids early—when they're 10 or 11 years old. We'll test the body structure and psychological tendencies of these kids so that we'll be able, for example, to pick out a three-event skier or pinpoint a giant-slalom specialist at an early age. The Austrians and the Swiss are set up to get their very best athletes into skiing. We want our best athletes to at least consider becoming skiers rather than football players."

Kidd says, "I think Americans have tended to do well internationally in sports that came naturally to them. Swimming and running, for example. Skiing isn't something that comes naturally. You have to learn it. I didn't have much natural coordination. I was a poor athlete, but I was a good skier because I spent a lot of time analyzing what it took to do it well. I'd memorize racecourses and lie awake at night figuring out places where I could make up a hundredth of a second. I think there are people who do these things by reflex—on a relatively simple and undemanding level. But when you get to the World Cup or Olympic level of competition, you have to do it from learned responses."

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