Woeful. That sums up the early-season performances of the U.S. Alpine ski team in this Olympic year. America's best racers have not just been getting smoked by skiers from traditional powers like Austria in the World Cup, they're also being drubbed by skiers from countries that weren't even countries the last time U.S. Alpinists were a force—1984, when the Mahre twins, Phil and Steve, led U.S. racers to three golds and two silvers in Sarajevo.
Those days have gone the way of the rope tow. Slovenia, Luxembourg and New Zealand all have better chances to take home Alpine medals from Lillehammer than Uncle Sam's lead-footed snowplow brigade. Norway, which doesn't have a world-class ski area, has four skiers ranked ahead of the top U.S. man, Tommy Moe, who was 16th in the overall World Cup standings as of last Friday. The second-best U.S. man checked in at...scroll faster, please...51st.
Even the American women, traditionally a notch better than the guys, have only one bronze to show for 23 World Cup events—Heidi Voelker's in the giant slalom at Morzine, France. Julie Parisien, 22, who had two top-five finishes in the '92 Games in Albertville, has regressed badly this season, slipping to 58th overall, and can no longer be considered a serious threat to gain the podium. Only Moe and a miracle stand between this team and a repeat of the 1988 Games in Calgary, where the top U.S. skier finished ninth, just ahead of the lift operator.
The cold truth is that U.S. Alpine skiing—slalom, giant slalom, downhill, Super G and combined—has been lousy for the better part of a decade. Since 1984, U.S. men have won exactly one race on the World Cup circuit, AJ Kitt's downhill victory in Val d'Isere in 1992. The U.S. women have just three World Cup wins since 1987, all by Parisien. (Between 1968 and '74, the U.S. team averaged three World Cup wins per year.) This despite the fact that no country has better ski areas than the U.S., and no nation other than Japan has more skiers. We're not talking the Jamaican bobsled team here, folks. Some 10 million Americans go downhill skiing at least three times a year—which is three million more people than live in Austria. Why, then, do all seven million Austrians and half of the cows in Switzerland ski faster than the entire U.S. ski team?
Let us count the ways.
1. Howard Peterson. A fish rots from the head, as Norwegian fish merchants like to say, and Peterson has been head of U.S. Skiing since May 1988, when the U.S. Ski Association, the U.S. Ski Team, and the U.S. Ski Educational Foundation merged. Ever since, instability has reigned in Park City, Utah, on the slopes and in the administrative offices. The dizzying turnover of coaches, program directors and fundraisers during the Peterson regime has left morale at U.S. Skiing at an alltime low. "Working here, you learn to stay real close to the walls," a veteran office worker once said. "That way, Howard Peterson can't get behind you with his knife."
Ouch. As an example of the internal politics that are ruining U.S. Skiing, we present the case study of former Alpine director John McMurtry. "John McMurtry is flat-out the most successful American Alpine coach we've ever had, including Bob Beattie," says John Atkins, head conditioning coach and trainer of the team during the glory years of 1978 to '84 and now director of rehabilitation at the Caremark Sports Center in Vail. "When John was the head technical coach for the women [1980-84], he was personally responsible for 23 World Cup wins. That's just the women. John was the technical genius behind the best women's team we ever had."
The much respected McMurtry was recruited from the Stead-man Clinic, where he was a fitness consultant, to head U.S. Skiing's athlete development program in 1987 and, in 1988, after the team's miserable performance in Calgary, was named Alpine director (in effect, head coach). McMurtry was given a four-year contract and told by individuals on U.S. Skiing's board of directors to be patient and that no one expected an overnight cure.
Progress, in McMurtry's estimation, was being made. In 1989-90 the team scored 58% more World Cup points than it had the year before. But in September 1990 he met with Peterson and was told that one of the coaches working under McMurtry, Georg Capaul, had had a temper tantrum at a race in Las Lenas, Argentina, and offended some Argentine officials. McMurtry had already talked to Capaul about the incident, but according to McMurtry, Peterson insisted that he fire Capaul.
"Howard told me to take care of it before the next board meeting," McMurtry recalls. "He said, do it and do it now. He was my boss, so I did it."