The crisis has been coming on slowly for years. Everybody who skis knows about it, just as everybody knows that the hills have long been alive with the sound of money. But now, suddenly, maybe because this was the season that hit an alltime commercial high, the glamorous world of Alpine ski racing finds itself deep in trouble. The sport is on a certain downhill collision course with the oldtime principles of amateurism and maybe the biggest barrier of them all: the Winter Olympics.
The outlines of the conflict are clear—and colorful. The manufacturers have moved in with their labels, stickers, bright paint and big pay until all the best racers—and many of the mediocre—are now winding up a year in which they have been paid more than ever before for amateur competition. The price list varies, but it is not uncommon for a racer to draw a $5,000 salary for using certain skis, $2,500 for boots, $2,000 for bindings and $500 for poles—all this plus bonuses for placing high in the races. The whole scene has taken on a gaudy surrealism—the finish line of most any race now looks like billboard row, and the next step has got to be neon skis and boots as soon as somebody figures out a way to make them work.
If there was not so much at stake the whole picture would be pretty funny: every ski racer wears so many decals that he looks like an Indianapolis race car. There are the logotypes as big as sandwich boards across racing bibs, goggle straps, helmets and parkas, and at the finish line the racers thrust their skis eagerly into cameras and onto TV screens for easier reading by the millions. Until recently nobody, but nobody, could hope to outdo Fischer or Sideral for wild ski promotion on the slopes—not with that big black lettering streaming across blazing Day-Glo tangerine backgrounds. But next season America's own Head Ski Co., eager to gain notoriety in the racing world, will come on with its XR-1 slalom ski. The company name will scream forth in a type face usually reserved for a declaration of war—all this across a ski surface painted searing yellow, orange and red. And all the other skis also have distinguishing marks of their own; the idea is to get them into the pictures—and smile. One more season of this sort of thing and skiers will be selling ad space on their teeth.
Still, while fun and money games are one thing, the finances now involved in ski racing have grown beyond the locker-room tokenism involved in the Adidas-Puma track-shoe case. This is no mere $500 wad of bills stuffed into the toe of a ski boot in the dark of the moon. This is big business. The full payroll from factories to amateur racers on the World Cup circuit this season hit well over half a million dollars. And an icy irony of the sport is that much of this money came over, not under, tables all across the world; that is, with the knowledge and blessings of ski racing's governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Ski.
The FIS, which has provided technical supervision of the Winter Olympics since 1936, has thus steered the sport up against the International Olympic Committee, those Rocks of Ages who still stand guard over the tattered remains of amateurism as it came to be known and loved in the 19th century. The next sound you hear is likely to be the crash when the two meet next May in Amsterdam to talk all this over.
Clearly, the fate of the 1972 Sapporo Olympics is at stake. The FIS seems to be betting that the IOC won't arbitrarily throw out Alpine racing with the commercial wash water, thereby removing from the Olympics its most glamorous events. But even if the Games are held as scheduled, it would seem likely that all of the best racers on the FIS tour must be tossed out on their crash helmets under Olympic Rule No. 26. The rule says, in nice, clear words: "An amateur is one who participates and has always participated in a sport as an avocation without gain of any kind." Further "official interpretations" of the rule plug up all the other loopholes: no prize money over $50, no capitalizing commercially on products, no expense money over actual outlay, the works. So—presto!—scratch all the top ski racers whose names are now household words. No way they are going to be able to pass that amateur litmus test. Scratch Karl Schranz, with that great, big Kneissl Ski Co. star on his helmet, with labels plastered all over his gear and his appearance in newspaper and magazine ads. Scratch all the other big-name, high-paid amateurs.
How did skiing get itself into this mess? What happened is that, late last spring, delegates to the FIS from 33 nations convened in Barcelona. And amid the usual waterfalls of toasts and oratory, they voted in a new, surprisingly elastic rule defining eligibility of FIS ski racers. No longer would the FIS outlaw arrangements for payment between manufacturers and skiers. No longer would the FIS outlaw deals in which racers could appear in advertisements or promotions. To keep it all at least a little realistic, the FIS ruled that such arrangements would have to be approved by the national federation to which the racer belonged and that all money paid should pass through the federations before going to individual racers.
Wonderful. Everything was now up on top of the table where the FIS felt it belonged. But, as everybody now knows, the action opened a grand commercial Pandora's box of inequities, for each nation could bring to its bargaining its own sense of morality—which isn't exactly the same thing in every country.
It is noteworthy—and a little ironic—that the first nation to be caught in the commercial net was the U.S. Along came two ski racers—the marvelously promising Hank Kashiwa and Rick Chaffee—with signed contracts. Both agreements were made openly, with full approval of the naive U.S. Ski Association and the FIS. But when the U.S. Olympic Committee heard about the contracts it promptly declared both youths unfit for Olympic competition. Plainly, Kashiwa and Chaffee are the innocent victims of some bureaucratic bungling, some misunderstandings and an accident of history that puts them in the middle of the coming collision.
Meanwhile, having set the course for the crash, the FIS passed the buck to its president, Marc Hodler, a generally sensible and nicely polished attorney from Bern. Hodler would take on a mission of greatest import: he was to travel from Barcelona to Warsaw, find Avery Brundage and the IOC meeting there—and convince them that the FIS action was not only in the best interest of sport, but also that it would not shatter the fragile principles of amateurism as viewed by the IOC.
Perhaps this was a mission impossible to start with. But Marc Hodler can be a very wise man and when he made his case to Brundage, he presented it with aplomb, logic, even eloquence: "My policy to the committee was that skiing has time limits like no other sport," recalled Hodler. "Boys must leave home for 10 months a year, they must seek snow to train and they must buy high-priced equipment. They need time to excel, and I told Avery Brundage that we must have this point recognized and that the boys must be compensated for their time. I told Avery that a boy must be compensated for losing his career. While he trains and races, others of his age move ahead of him. But it is not like running track; a skier cannot work in an office by day and train after hours.
"I also tried to explain to Avery that the commercial interests are the reason skiing has so many problems. No other sport in the world has grown so fast; we have a civilization of millions who ski. No other sport in the world—not even yachting or golf—has so much money spent on it. I told Avery, 'Your theory of a sport is 100,000 people looking at an event in a stadium and the only ones running are 22 men and some referees and no one in the stadium is interested in doing anything but watching the game. They do not want to pay money to play the game, only to watch.' Our trouble, I told Avery, is that so many millions practice our sport and it is a massive industry now and the temptations for manufacturers are extreme. And I told Avery that if we could control the manufacturers' temptations by having them go legally through our national federations, we might do away with much of the hypocrisy that has plagued us. 1 told him that, with the federations' contracts, the manufacturers would feel secure that the boys would not run out on using their equipment. And if they felt secure, they would stop spending all Sundays and Mondays after the races in pure bribery to guarantee that they would keep their racers on their products."
Avery Brundage was not greatly moved by either the truth or the beauty of Marc Hodler's plea. However, Brundage did not immediately declare in Hodler's hearing that the entire statement was utterly heretical. Instead he harrumphed a bit. Thus was born the wishful delusion that perhaps Brundage had agreed.
And thus it was that the USSA, in good faith and only after ponderous huffing and puffing about the propriety of it all, went ahead and approved the contracts for Kashiwa and Chaffee. The organization had somehow convinced itself that the FIS ruling had really passed the IOC test for amateurism—although it failed to take the simple precaution of phoning the USOC and asking. Ironically, the Chaffee contract with A&T Ski Co., manufacturer of the K-2 Skis, provided $2,000 plus research facilities that would lead to Chaffee's master's degree thesis. The other was a $5,000 deal between Kashiwa and Head Ski Co. with no visible strings attached: Kashiwa was not required to race on Head Skis, only to test them.
But one should not bet against the Victorian instincts rampant among Olympic officials. Word of the contracts last October was passed to Arthur Lentz, executive director of the Olympic Committee. Lentz went to Brundage to ask if there had been some misunderstanding—could these contracts in any way meet the Olympic eligibility rules? Of course not, replied Brundage, and he fired off a doughty directive saying that in no way had there been any change in the standards of Olympian amateurism.
So Lentz had the word straight from the source and his course was clear: "Hank Kashiwa and Rick Chaffee are ineligible for the 1972 Olympics at this moment. We are proceeding under strict interpretations of the IOC eligibility rules. We will not equivocate. We cannot do it for skiing or we will have to do it for all sports. I'm sorry. It is unfortunate about Kashiwa and Chaffee. I have other names, too, of American skiers who will have to be thoroughly investigated before I will sign to certify their Olympic eligibility. I certainly will not perjure myself. These are the rules and if no one—Mr. Hodler or Mr. Walters [Earl Walters, president of the USSA]—made any attempt to get things clear before this happened, that is really too bad."
The USSA reaction to this decision also was too bad. Predictably panicky and resolutely unrealistic, the association promptly stuck its head into the snow last fall and now refuses to even discuss any contracts with U.S. team members. It has been reported that several pending contracts have now disappeared from the USSA files in Denver. And what has been the result of it all? Are U.S. ski racers now clean of manufacturers' cash and shorn of illicit income?
"Hell, no," says Bob Lange, the outspoken president of the super-booming Lange Co. of Broomfield, Colo. "The only skiers on the whole FIS circuit that I have to pay under the table are Americans. They deserve the dough as much as anyone else but, by God, the only way to pay them is on the sly. Talk about hypocrisy."
Lange, incidentally, is that rarest of birds among ski equipment manufacturers—a man willing to freely discuss the shadowy details of paying amateurs. Effusive and ambitious, Lange, 42, has a restless, dashing mien that falls just short of an Errol Flynn swashbuckle. A nouveau millionaire as a result of the wild success of his plastic boot, he is currently deeply involved in a professional skiing circuit, having contributed $50,000 for prize money in a race at Vail this month. Even if his experiences are not perfectly typical of the chaotic milieu in ski racing today, they offer a fascinating insight into the realities of it all:
"During the 1968 Olympics I was paying no one at all. And there were maybe 50% of the kids on my boot. Karl Schranz came on for nothing—not one farthing—he just came and asked to use the boot. We said no pay and he said he had to have it even though it meant sending several thousand dollars back to another ski boot company to get out of his contract. Until this season I never had to pay anyone to use my boot. Well, I did give Nancy Greene a $1,000 bonus after the World Cup in 1968. 1 don't think I ever paid anyone before that. But in the last couple of years everyone started paying so damned much that I started losing racers and I had no choice but to get in and compete with a bankroll.
"Now, of course, you have no guarantee that there'll be anybody using your equipment unless you pay the price. The basic price for a fairly good male skier on a boot is $2,500, plus prize money. There is a base of about $750 for first place, $500 for second, $300 for third. Some—like Schranz—cost a lot more. I remember I offered Karl $5,000 in Waterville Valley last year. He said, 'I like your product and I'd like to, but....' I offered him a hair more than the $5,000, but, no, he went back to his old company again for a lot more. We pay something like 30 different guys. Generally, they average $2,000 or so for using the boots. I go down the FIS points list, looking at the standings, and say go or no-go on skiers I want on the boot. To get a really top guy on boots runs $5,000 and about the same—maybe $1,000 or so more—for skis.
"I guess our whole racer program, including free equipment and service people, costs $250,000 a year. People wonder why we go to such trouble and expense to get kids on our products. Partly it's the implied—or real—endorsements. But don't forget our racers are testing our products and we can't improve without them."
Whatever a manufacturer's justification for paying racers, it can be quite a prosperous scene for any young man who can race like a dream. It is a bit iffy to generalize on amounts earned, but it is certain that none of the top 15 or 20 racers on the FIS World Cup tour are paid less than $6,000 a year. The top half dozen get between $10,000 and $25,000. Austria's splendid Spartan, Schranz, who has won more races than many youths now competing against him have entered, is simply in a class by himself. Some guess his income as high as $60,000 a year, plus stock options in the ski firm of Franz Kneissl, plus a low-interest government loan on his lovely hotel in St. Anton. But no one knows, and Schranz, who has said he will retire this year, will only admit to making $200 a month from Kneissl.
Except for the Americans, hapless and perhaps conscience-stricken, each national federation has some kind of channel for arranging its deals between manufacturers and skiers. Perhaps the French have the best system, but penetrating their network is about as tough as cracking the NKVD squad at the Kremlin. ("Eef I tell you about money, monsieur," said a saucer-eyed French lady in the know, "they will bring back the guillotine.") Anyway, the French are rigid in their restrictions of equipment brands their skiers may use (French-made products only, if you please). The kids are paid a base salary, plus a little more for each FIS standing, plus some prize money. The average annual income for a good (but not great) French racer is $7,500. Some, such as Patrick Russel or Jean-N√∂el Augert or Alain Penz or perhaps Henri Duvillard, who have fashioned a long string of victories or have struck a particularly good deal with a manufacturer (one of them gets $8,000 for his skis alone), can take in perhaps twice that much in a year.
Swiss skiers make their own deals and are famed for jumping products, depending on price; one top Swiss changed bindings recently when he was offered more money than he was getting for both skis and bindings (meaning, on the average, $7,000).
Italian skiers can negotiate only through their federation and they are summarily fired from the team if they do not use the equipment they contracted for. Gianni Munari, a boot manufacturer who is one of nine board members of the Italian federation, said that young Gustav Th√∂ni should easily collect $10,000 through the federation this season. However, given the Italian incentive formula for FIS points and high-placement prize money, Munari said Th√∂ni might have won $20,000 if he had done better at the Val Gardena world championships and if he had won a couple of other races this year.
The Austrians, it is said, strike their own bargains—just so the home ministry is guaranteed its cut. Austria, of course, is the turf of Franz Kneissl. "I employ eight racers and they get a very good salary, but I would never tell anyone how much it is," he said. "They test skis for me because ski racing and development go hand in hand. I pay them well, but the FIS should officially recognize this situation and just not allow it to be this way. I would say I spend 10 million Austrian schillings [about $400,000] on ski racing and promotion."
These are weird and demented days along the old downhill trails. There seems to be a salesman behind every tree, a cash register at every slalom gate. Never have the gaudy forces of commercialism been quite so incessant or so strong—or so blatantly undisguised. As a result, every racer has become a finish-line shill.
But the pervasive influence of the manufacturer has imbedded itself even deeper in ski racing than the banners on the mountain show. For there also is the Racer-Chaser.
Once upon a time, when symbols were simpler and words meant what they seemed to mean, the term referred to flocks of silly, lovely girls who followed ski racers around Europe. Now, a Racer-Chaser is a man—one of a battalion of factory-dispatched agents who tags along from summer camp to summer camp, from mountain to mountain, to do the technical work of servicing the equipment that racers use. In all, there are perhaps 100 Racer-Chasers at all major competitions. They are easy to spot, for they tend to travel with product names printed in large letters across their backs. They also create a full street clutter of garishly painted trucks, vans and wagons whenever they descend. Easily the most obtrusive vehicle among them belongs to the Head Ski Co. It is a large, house trailer-size van that is painted with the same blazing yellow and orange stripes as the new XR-1 ski. When parked in one of those quaint villages of the Alps it stands out like a fire truck in the churchyard.
Racer-Chasers have gained astonishing influence on the circuit. "I choose all the waxes for my racers," said Gérard Rubaud, chief Chaser for Rossignol skis. "I have my own instruments for testing the snow, and I do not consult about wax with the racers or their coaches." In the dear dim days past, serious racers refused to let anyone else even touch their skis—let alone share in the mystical secrets of choosing wax. Nowadays, kids simply drop their skis off at dusk with the cheerful Chaser, who then slaves far into the night, laboring over a hot pot of wax like a well-paid Rumpelstiltskin to prepare the skis for the next day.
During race starts the mountainsides simply swarm with manufacturers' representatives. Their sheer numbers are stunning enough. But it is also as often as not a man from a boot or binding factory who whispers last-second instruction and inspiration to a skier—not the skier's coach. Chasers claim they stay away if a team coach insists, but there is often a clear conflict of influence around a team, especially since many of the factory agents are ex-coaches. During part of the World Cup tour last month the U.S. team was snarled in a difficult situation in which the official coaches for this season—Don Henderson for the men and Dennis Agee for the women—were outnumbered by 1968 U.S. coaches who now represent commercial concerns—Gordi Eaton, Chuck Ferries and Hank Tauber. Each of them quite openly advised and coached members of both the men's and girls' teams.
Perhaps all this commercialism on the slopes wouldn't seem so bizarre if everyone would speak right out and admit what it means: open exploitation of the sport by manufacturers. Some do. H. Kent (Bud) Stanner, marketing manager of Head, is an outspoken sort of salesman and he declares quite flatly: "Every move we make—including our contracts with skiers and the promotions we can generate out of them—is designed to make a profit."
Billy Kidd, America's fine gold medalist at Val Gardena, now turned pro, says, "What I am afraid of is that young kids might become confused and hurt themselves by the decisions they are forced to make with all these temptations around. When a manufacturer tries to get you on his skis by offering a few thousand dollars more, you have to keep it in perspective. You have to remember that it's only a few thousand bucks. You have to remember that you are skiing to win races, because skiing is your life and it's all you know. And, after all, a few thousand bucks can't be enough to buy that from you."
The FIS does not like to put things quite so boldly. Marc Hodler now prefers to define the situation as representing "new principles of amateurism"—which is as gutsy a bit of euphemistic acrobatics as anyone has failed to get away with in a long, long time. To compound the absurdity, Hodler speaks wishfully of a day when a "strong professional ski circuit" will come along to "skim off our older amateur champions to make room for younger men at the top." Well, Bob Beattie, tireless promoter and former U.S. ski team coach, has just launched what he hopes will become precisely that kind of pro circuit. Though Beattie has the essential support of ABC-TV, the project has not come without pain. He is quick to perceive the ironies inherent: "Isn't it a hell of a note when you have to work like a dog to make a professional sport out of a professional sport?" It happens that one of the possibly immovable obstacles to a viable professional ski program is the fact that Beattie may have trouble raising enough money to guarantee pro skiers as much as they have become accustomed to earning as amateurs.
Perhaps as sensible and lucid as anyone on the ski scene is Dr. Amos R. Little, a doughty general practitioner from Helena, Mont. For nine years he has been a U.S. delegate to the FIS and he has watched this situation grow from its beginning. Dr. Little puts it this way: "It's a mess now, I'll tell you that. But in the FIS we have turned our backs on reality almost as much as the IOC has. We go around calling them names, but we have passed the buck to the national federations and let them set eligibility standards we should set ourselves. Sure, we're facing a schism. Should we be in the Olympics because of their beautiful tradition and beautiful idealism? And do we have to stay in this condition of hypocrisy and self-delusion to do it? Or do we stand up and be counted? Look: the only reason the FIS won't declare what we're doing as 'open racing' is because we're afraid of what the IOC will say. It looks like a confrontation is inevitable...and I really don't think we should try to avoid it any longer. Maybe we'll end up with something like FIS amateurs and Olympic amateurs and we'll just ask everyone to declare themselves before they race. I don't know what we should do. Except there's no point in letting all this hypocrisy go on."
True enough—even if the price is the Winter Olympics of 1972.