When Alpine ski racing has a Toni Sailer or a Jean-Claude Killy to mix in with the calendar art of its settings, there is rarely ever any talk about what the sport needs—except more police to keep the bunnies from ripping those dashing heroes to shreds. But when there is no such personality around, as right now, a sort of stem-funk, snow-plow haze takes hold of that tiny world and everyone in it sits back and wonders what has to be done to convince the Columbus Ski Club that Austria's Reinhard Tritscher was not hanged at Nuremberg and France's Henri Duvillard did not design the shirtwaist dress. These are the new stars, gang. What do we have to do to get you out of the lift line and make you watch them?
Up in the white-on-white glories of Vail, Colo. last week there were three days of racing between the five great Alpine nations, which should have had everybody mad with excitement, for Austria was beating France for the first time in four years, and the U.S., with Bob Beattie sinking slowly in the West, was beating Switzerland and Canada for third. Tritscher, a big, dimpled, handsome fellow on the order of Egon Zimmermann, was insinuating that he might become the next Killy as he won the giant slalom, finished second in the downhill, and third in the slalom and led his countrymen to a convincing victory. And at the same time, Duvillard, a grinning, acrobatic little man, sped to the downhill win and gave the hint that if Tritscher doesn't do it, he might. And in the midst of this were always those American girls—the Marilyn Cochrans, Kiki Cutters and Judy Nagels who keep Beattie wishing he weren't quitting and who keep the U.S. team from having to walk around town in disguise.
No American won an individual race, of course—that only happens every four or five centuries when Billy Kidd is out of traction—but these girls, Cochran, Cutter and Nagel, all grins, competitiveness and smart-alec, won an event, the ladies slalom, for the first time in the five-year history of the American International Team races. Bringing in another hopeful, Penny Northrup, with them, they finished 2,4,5,6 behind winner Gertrud Gabl of Austria and outpointed all the other countries.
There was only one small problem with the whole thing. Nobody watched any of it except a few off-duty bartenders and waitresses, a shivering band of reporters and some moody representatives of the U.S. Ski Association who were preoccupied with what will happen to the future of the sport now that Bob Beattie is giving it back to them. Thousands of people were in Vail all right, but they were tumbling down the mountains themselves, as if the whole of Chicago and Minneapolis had been parachuted into the Rockies.
"Don't you know there's a big race today?" a reporter asked a tanned, fit-looking gentleman in a lift line.
"Yeah," he said. "The St. Louis downhill on Riva Ridge. I'm going up to get in it."
There are two reasons why Americans don't flock to ski races to watch. First, you can't see them. Second, we haven't turned out a bunch of Killys not to see. All you can usually see is a hunched-over figure come out of the woods or over a knoll, having already won or lost the race in time, and lunge under a finish banner while a P.A. announcer says, "Eine Minute dreissig Komma achtzehn Sekunden."
Bob Beattie did his best to try to change the sport during the eight years he was wagon master of the U.S. team. The first few years he just coached—hard, grumpy and unbending. But he saw the need for more money and more exposure and more help. So he became more than a coach—unfortunately and by necessity; he became a fund raiser, a television dealer, an international rules spokesman, a ski-meet organizer, a junior-program organizer, an area developer, a speechmaker, lobbyist, commentator and the undefeated World Champion Crisis Causer of his decade.
Beattie survived two ski association presidents, any number of irate parents, hundreds of industry salesmen and several TV executives, and his record of achievement, like those of some politicians, may not be generally acclaimed for many winters. But if the USSA, as it may be of a mind to, fastens its boots, straps on its helmet and skis backward down the mountain into the past, all the good Beattie did will be lost.
By singlehandedly selling ski racing to television Beattie got the sport more exposure than it could ever have dreamed of (and it probably lends itself to TV watching better than standing in the snow wondering what happened). By working the team hard, he gave the U.S. a cause and a determination it did not have, and being on the national team got to mean more than putting on a blazer and shaking hands with Lowell Thomas every four years. He organized a U.S. tour and started bringing the Europeans over, and he had more of a hand in originating the World Cup than anyone else. What Beattie did not do was catch the French and Austrians in results, but no one could have, and he, like the single-wing guard he was, also played most of the cocktail party games that go along with amateur sport.
With Beattie's leave-taking due in the next couple of weeks, the USSA, now presided over by a man named Earl Walters, will make a decision. It can thoroughly sweep out the shack, removing all Beattie's coaches (mainly Gordi Eaton), slice the budget, hire new men and run the thing by committee. Or it can keep Eaton as the headman, push forward for more funds and keep Beattie around in a consultant position on matters regarding television, the Europeans, the circuit. This might not be so easy for a committee to do, for Beattie will soon be entering several commercial phases of ski racing, and everybody knows what Avery Brundage thinks of commercialism. Some committeemen also feel that if Beattie is around in any capacity, he might try to run the program in exile and they figure they could get Ho Chi Minh cheaper.
A graver problem than what Bob Beat-tie does or doesn't do faces ski racing. That is the fact that the FIS finally has admitted that no racer is truly an amateur, that he gets a lot of loot from the manufacturers of skis, boots, poles, sweaters, bindings, goggles, etc. The result of this during the 1969 season has been a gaudy display of labels on everything as the racers, some of them looking like swirling billboards, come through the gates. Racers used to have to sneak around to sell the skis companies gave them. Now they summon gatherings in main streets of villages and hold auctions. "It's a local problem," says the FIS, turning its head toward Bangkok.
But the Olympic people aren't so sure. Word keeps circulating through the industry that Alpine racing might be thrown out of the 1972 Olympics at Sapporo, Japan, which would be like throwing the touchdown out of football, and thus would end the Winter Olympics. No, that won't happen, one hears. They just won't give medals for the Alpine events. Well, that won't happen either, probably. The Olympic gentlemen will say the athletes are amateurs under the codes of their respective countries, so heck, let's light the flame and what time does the buffet line open at the Yugoslavian reception tonight?
A few things could happen to change the whole atmosphere of the sport. Head-to-head racing, or man against man, side by side, gives the sport the dimension it lacks for spectators. This was proved in a French-U.S. meet in Aspen, Colo. in December, which the U.S. deliriously won. The town was up-loose with the thrills provided and the racers themselves went crazy. Now add cash. Now add television. Now string together a tour. And what you've got is what professional golf did to amateur golf.
It may come to pass that open ski racing will be just that, an open race for pros and amateurs alike with all kinds of innovations, and only the amateurs, satisfied with cups and wristwatches, will remain eligible for the poor Olympics. The World Cup will be a real World Cup. And if a Pontiac or a United Airline, or an Evian, or a Rossignol ski or an Ovomaltine, wants to put up enough cash for the circuit, you could most likely get your Jean-Claude Killy out of retirement.
Come to think of it, if ski racing doesn't do something like this, the St. Louis downhills may overwhelm us all. It could be a long wait before any Killys and Beatties emerge to re-create that old excitement.