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Among the skiing nations of the world, the U.S. now ranks very near the top in number of skiers, number of ski clubs, and in enthusiasm. But its influence in the world councils, and its control of the sport has never reached a comparable level. Now, with an Olympic year ahead, the U.S. again finds its diplomatic position disproportionately weak in the field of international skiing.
This is not the fault of the individual representatives. The trouble stems partly from the rapid turnover in the National Ski Association, and partly from a philosophy developed long ago by certain European ski authorities.
The governing body of international skiing is the FIS ( Federation Internationale de Ski), to which the national ski associations of 36 countries belong. The biennial races of the FIS rate as world championships, and the FIS amateur code and rules of competition are the international standards. But the FIS, unfortunately, holds to the paradoxical rule that a professional ski instructor is a competitive amateur.
This whole idea is contrary to the American conception—by which anyone earning his livelihood in a sport is ipso facto a professional—and to Olympic ideals. However, during the '20s and '30s when these principles were taking hold in the FIS, the National Ski Association was only a quiescent member, and after World War II began, the U.S. formally resigned.
Immediately after the war, there was a great resurgence of skiing in America, and almost overnight, the U.S. became a skiing nation of international importance. This was the time—before rejoining the FIS—that the U.S. had its chance to come in with amateur principles intact. Russia was not yet a member; and the FIS's European mainstays were eager to have the U.S. back in the federation. But the U.S., for lack of men who were wise in the ways of international ski diplomacy, did not realize its strength.
We went back, but set no conditions whatever upon re-entry—not even on the recognition of the amateur code as understood by Americans, alongside the amateur code of Central Europe.
By contrast, Russia, when applying for membership in 1949, insisted on Russian being made one of the official languages, on having a place in the Council (central policy-making body of the FIS) and on the expulsion of Spain. The U.S.S.R. had never before been a member of the FIS, had no top-notch competitors and, for that matter, no real basis for its demands. Nevertheless, through sheer insistence, Russia gained its first two objectives.
Clearly, something must be done to correct this kind of diplomatic unbalance. And we can begin by making one important change within our own National Ski Association. An NSA president is elected for one year. It is customary to re-elect a man for an extra term, so actual incumbency amounts to two years. Each new administration sets up its own FIS delegation, retaining perhaps one man but generally replacing most of the delegates. The new men, like many of the past representatives, may be able individuals with a solid background in American skiing; but they are almost always handicapped by inability to speak or understand European languages, and their brief immersion in the international councils does not give them the understanding of the various national attitudes, the intimate personal contacts, and that fine sense of the proportion of strength to objectives which all experienced diplomats should have.
Count Aldo Bonacossa, who has been Italy's representative on the Council for many years, is an example of the perfect old-world ski diplomat. He has an intimate knowledge of skiing and mountaineering, and is respected for that. In addition, his long experience in the FIS has given him an understanding of, let us say, the attitude of the French in certain matters, or how the Austrians would probably react to a policy proposed by the Norwegians. In brief, when he wants to accomplish something for Italy, he knows how to bargain.