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There it was in "Ski Racing," North America's bible of the sport: the cruel verdict on what's wrong with the U.S. Alpine ski team, as delivered by Phil Mahre, the greatest American ski racer ever. "It's the kids, not the team," said Mahre, who won two Olympic medals and three overall World Cup titles before retiring in 1984. "We always hear about how the ski team doesn't do this, the ski team doesn't do that. There's nothing wrong with the team. It's the kids on the team. They give them all the best opportunities and they don't take advantage.... I grew up on a mountain and I grew up with a work ethic. These are rich kids who have always had everything handed to them."
Now, those are fighting words, churlish and ugly, and sooner or later Mahre will probably have to eat them. Common sense says that on average, the U.S. ski team now is neither richer nor more spoiled than it was in Mahre's day. But the fact remains that in the last six years the team has been so inept that anger and insult seem to be the only suitable responses to its performance.
For example, the last time an American woman won a World Cup Alpine race was three years ago, when the often-injured Tamara McKinney finished first in the slalom in Mellau, Austria, for her 18th World Cup victory since she started on that circuit in 1978. The last time an American man won a World Cup race was six years ago, when Bill Johnson, the single-season flash, came out on top in a downhill at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia.
That same year, 1984, at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, the U.S. men and women together collected five medals—three golds and two silvers—but four years later, at the '88 Games in Calgary, the highest any U.S. Alpine skier finished was a lowly ninth, in the women's Super G. In 1982 the U.S. team won the Nations Cup, which is awarded to the team with the highest number of World Cup points at the end of the season. Last season the U.S. team plunged to 11th in World Cup points, its worst finish ever.
This list of failures could go on and on. However, the question of where the dead weight of blame should be placed matters less than the question of what comes next. And rich or not, a bunch of kids may at last be pulling the U.S. team out of the pits.
This season has been slightly better than 1988-89. Still no individual World Cup victories. Still only eighth in the Nations Cup standings. Still no one leading in a single World Cup discipline, let alone in the overall World Cup standings. Worse, the best U.S. skier, the effervescent McKinney, 27, has missed the entire season with a broken leg and may retire this year.
That would be a loss of cosmic proportions. Not only did McKinney produce the only medals for the U.S. at the '89 world championships, in Vail (a gold in the combined event and a bronze in the slalom), but she also has been a major U.S. producer of World Cup points for several seasons. Last year, when the whole team, men and women combined, collected a pathetic 232 points, the indomitable Miss McK accounted for exactly half of them.
John McMurtry, director of the U.S. Alpine team, is quick to point out that even without McKinney, the American team has already gotten more points this season, 262, than it did all of last season, with 20% of the current schedule remaining. This is pretty thin gruel for anyone who's truly hungry for success, but it is a measurable improvement that at least upgrades the team from malodorous to mediocre.
McMurtry, 39, is a smart, soft-spoken, relentlessly optimistic coaching veteran who directed the brilliant women's slalom team between 1976 and '84, then left the organization. He returned in '87, just in time to watch the U.S. bottom out. "What happened to us—dropping all the way to 11th in the Nations Cup—should never have happened," says McMurtry. "Coming from a country with 11 million skiers, how could that happen? It indicated a lack of structure, a severing of continuity in the administration of the team, a massive vacuum between the ski team and the local clubs, where our bright young kids come from. That will not happen again. We are laying the groundwork for continuity into the 21st century."
Continuity? Into the 21st century? The U.S. ski team? Such a statement is almost beyond belief, for this has long been a revolving-door operation, with major changes coming at least every four years. The most devastating example occurred at the end of the golden 1983-84 season. First, Phil Mahre and his twin brother, Steve, retired. They had finished one-two, respectively, in the slalom at the Sarajevo Olympics and had racked up a total of 23 World Cup victories between them. Christin Cooper, a silver medalist in the GS in Sarajevo, a triple medalist at the 1982 world championships and winner of four World Cup races, quit too. So did many members of the men's and women's coaching staffs, as well as the top executives who had raised funds for the team, set policy and run the administrative machinery. Among the executives was Alpine director Bill Marolt, who became athletic director at the University of Colorado.