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In Olympic years the paucity of U.S. medals in that most dangerous and dashing of winter sports—ski racing—invariably comes to public attention. Now once again it is being discussed, in terms of despair and frustration. Why can't Americans win? How can a country with the size, strength and smarts of the U.S. of A. constantly finish somewhere behind all those goulash-fueled peasant kids from Middle European countries that don't have as many people as Pennsylvania? How come U.S. skiers even wind up behind racers from Liechtenstein, which has a population of 12,000?
If one listens to the critics, it seems that U.S. Alpine ski racing is some kind of pitiful giant. It's as if all our myths have been turned inside out. As if Pecos Bill had been caught wearing a dress; or Paul Bunyan had become a habitual thumb-sucker; or Uncle Sam himself had grown so decrepit and sissified that he was forever getting his beard tweaked and his coattails set afire.
And the question is why? The U.S. is a vast land of purple mountain majesties, a country with a Snow Belt that wraps around no fewer than 125 million people, a nation encompassing huge areas in which the climate and topography make skiing a lovely and compelling pastime. Americans are loaded with money and leisure time, and their marvelously nourished children can learn to ski on slopes that stretch from the Cascades of Washington State to Mount Katahdin in Maine, from Mammoth Mountain in California to Beech Mountain in North Carolina. Skiing's 14 million practitioners in the U.S. spend $2.5 billion annually on their sport. Sure, many of those skiers are forever trapped in the snowplow turn, and millions more are well beyond the age or desire for 80-mph downhill runs, but hundreds of thousands of others are strapping young athletes of both sexes.
The U.S. has mountains and snow and first-rate facilities. It has technical expertise and lots of money—$777,000 for the national Alpine team alone. America pays its skiers every bit as much (well, almost) as the Europeans do. And, of course, U.S. skiers have that good old will to win, that indomitable national trait that drives Americans to be the best at whatever they do. Of course U.S. skiers have that. Or do they?
Well, the answer to the question of why the U.S. doesn't win more often at skiing is complex and intricate, with as many interpretations as there are people trying to answer it. But it may all boil down to a matter of character—the American character.
European coaches and critics are a bit skittish about addressing this point. Rolf Hefti, head coach of the Swiss ski team, says tentatively, "It's not that Americans don't have, ah, guts. Maybe they need a champion, one who can inspire. They seem to lack inspiration." Alois Bumberger, coach of the Austrian women's team, says, "In the U.S. perhaps the problem is that they lack the pressure to perform at their best. We always have to win, because we ski for Austria and there is great pressure from manufacturers and from the government. If a coach doesn't produce winners, he loses his job, which means that he puts pressure on his skiers to win. In the U.S. this does not seem to be the case."
The veteran downhiller Andy Mill, one of the most articulate of the American skiers currently competing, says, "It is a matter of survival of the fittest, and in Europe ski racing is survival to lots of people. It means a job if you win. This isn't true in the U.S. Survival of the fittest pushes the quality of ski racing in Europe to a higher level than we seem to reach for in the States." Billy Kidd, winner of one of the only two Olympic medals earned by a male American racer and now a public-relations man for the ski area at Steamboat Springs, agrees. "It's a matter of incentive," he says. "American kids have no really compelling reason to win as the Europeans do. An Austrian mountain peasant kid has no hope of changing his life-style except by ski racing. He has the incentive to push himself until he's doing 90 mph on the downhill, to push himself until his life is in danger and he gets that extra one-hundredth of a second that wins the race for him. An Austrian skier probably has the incentive to risk his life. Most Americans probably don't."
John Fry of Ski magazine wrote recently: "We seem to lack a winning attitude. Psychologically, we've developed a team that is well adjusted to losing. There aren't any tears, no tantrums by the coaches. No one gets kicked around. We're very graceful about it."
Well, over the years American skiers have had many opportunities to learn to be graceful in defeat. Let's pause and examine the record. Despite the general feeling that U.S. ski teams always have been abject losers, the fact is things could have been worse. Indeed, the women's results in the Olympic Games over the years could have been much worse. The first Winter Olympics were held in 1924, but no Alpine events were included until the Games of 1936, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps. There were no awards for the top three in individual events; a single set of medals was given for combined results in the downhill and slalom races. No Americans placed well. But in the next Olympics, in 1948 at St. Moritz, Gretchen Fraser, 29 years old and from Vancouver, Wash., stunned everyone by winning the gold medal in the slalom and the silver in the combined (for which medals were given for the last time in '48). Since her triumph only two Olympics (1956 and 1968) have gone by without an American woman winning at least one medal. These young ladies represent all that has stood between the U.S. and annihilation in Olympic ski racing. After Fraser, there was Andrea Mead Lawrence, who won gold medals in the slalom and the giant slalom at Oslo in 1952. In 1960, at Squaw Valley, Betsy Snite won the silver in the slalom, and Penny Pitou got two silvers—in the downhill and the giant slalom. In 1964, at Innsbruck, Jean Saubert tied for a silver in the giant slalom and won the bronze in the slalom. In 1972, at Sapporo, Barbara Ann Cochran got the gold in the slalom, while Susie Corrock won the bronze in the downhill. And in 1976, back at Innsbruck, the strong Minnesotan, Cindy Nelson, got a bronze in the downhill.
So American women have held their own in the Winter Games—indeed, their total of 12 medals in nine Olympics is exceeded only by Austria, with 20. German women also have 12, and the French are fourth with 11. This isn't bad, though it doesn't exactly denote any kind of American reign in women's ski racing. Outside the Olympics, no American woman has won a world championship. And in recent non-Olympic years, only Kiki Cutter, Barbara Ann Cochran and Cindy Nelson have ranked among the top five women racers on the World Cup circuit, and none of those three has come close to being No. 1.