In Olympic years the paucity of U.S. medals in that most dangerous and dashing of winter sports—ski racing—invariably comes to public attention. Now once again it is being discussed, in terms of despair and frustration. Why can't Americans win? How can a country with the size, strength and smarts of the U.S. of A. constantly finish somewhere behind all those goulash-fueled peasant kids from Middle European countries that don't have as many people as Pennsylvania? How come U.S. skiers even wind up behind racers from Liechtenstein, which has a population of 12,000?
If one listens to the critics, it seems that U.S. Alpine ski racing is some kind of pitiful giant. It's as if all our myths have been turned inside out. As if Pecos Bill had been caught wearing a dress; or Paul Bunyan had become a habitual thumb-sucker; or Uncle Sam himself had grown so decrepit and sissified that he was forever getting his beard tweaked and his coattails set afire.
And the question is why? The U.S. is a vast land of purple mountain majesties, a country with a Snow Belt that wraps around no fewer than 125 million people, a nation encompassing huge areas in which the climate and topography make skiing a lovely and compelling pastime. Americans are loaded with money and leisure time, and their marvelously nourished children can learn to ski on slopes that stretch from the Cascades of Washington State to Mount Katahdin in Maine, from Mammoth Mountain in California to Beech Mountain in North Carolina. Skiing's 14 million practitioners in the U.S. spend $2.5 billion annually on their sport. Sure, many of those skiers are forever trapped in the snowplow turn, and millions more are well beyond the age or desire for 80-mph downhill runs, but hundreds of thousands of others are strapping young athletes of both sexes.
The U.S. has mountains and snow and first-rate facilities. It has technical expertise and lots of money—$777,000 for the national Alpine team alone. America pays its skiers every bit as much (well, almost) as the Europeans do. And, of course, U.S. skiers have that good old will to win, that indomitable national trait that drives Americans to be the best at whatever they do. Of course U.S. skiers have that. Or do they?
January 28, 1980
Well, the answer to the question of why the U.S. doesn't win more often at skiing is complex and intricate, with as many interpretations as there are people trying to answer it. But it may all boil down to a matter of character—the American character.
European coaches and critics are a bit skittish about addressing this point. Rolf Hefti, head coach of the Swiss ski team, says tentatively, "It's not that Americans don't have, ah, guts. Maybe they need a champion, one who can inspire. They seem to lack inspiration." Alois Bumberger, coach of the Austrian women's team, says, "In the U.S. perhaps the problem is that they lack the pressure to perform at their best. We always have to win, because we ski for Austria and there is great pressure from manufacturers and from the government. If a coach doesn't produce winners, he loses his job, which means that he puts pressure on his skiers to win. In the U.S. this does not seem to be the case."
The veteran downhiller Andy Mill, one of the most articulate of the American skiers currently competing, says, "It is a matter of survival of the fittest, and in Europe ski racing is survival to lots of people. It means a job if you win. This isn't true in the U.S. Survival of the fittest pushes the quality of ski racing in Europe to a higher level than we seem to reach for in the States." Billy Kidd, winner of one of the only two Olympic medals earned by a male American racer and now a public-relations man for the ski area at Steamboat Springs, agrees. "It's a matter of incentive," he says. "American kids have no really compelling reason to win as the Europeans do. An Austrian mountain peasant kid has no hope of changing his life-style except by ski racing. He has the incentive to push himself until he's doing 90 mph on the downhill, to push himself until his life is in danger and he gets that extra one-hundredth of a second that wins the race for him. An Austrian skier probably has the incentive to risk his life. Most Americans probably don't."
John Fry of Ski magazine wrote recently: "We seem to lack a winning attitude. Psychologically, we've developed a team that is well adjusted to losing. There aren't any tears, no tantrums by the coaches. No one gets kicked around. We're very graceful about it."
Well, over the years American skiers have had many opportunities to learn to be graceful in defeat. Let's pause and examine the record. Despite the general feeling that U.S. ski teams always have been abject losers, the fact is things could have been worse. Indeed, the women's results in the Olympic Games over the years could have been much worse. The first Winter Olympics were held in 1924, but no Alpine events were included until the Games of 1936, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps. There were no awards for the top three in individual events; a single set of medals was given for combined results in the downhill and slalom races. No Americans placed well. But in the next Olympics, in 1948 at St. Moritz, Gretchen Fraser, 29 years old and from Vancouver, Wash., stunned everyone by winning the gold medal in the slalom and the silver in the combined (for which medals were given for the last time in '48). Since her triumph only two Olympics (1956 and 1968) have gone by without an American woman winning at least one medal. These young ladies represent all that has stood between the U.S. and annihilation in Olympic ski racing. After Fraser, there was Andrea Mead Lawrence, who won gold medals in the slalom and the giant slalom at Oslo in 1952. In 1960, at Squaw Valley, Betsy Snite won the silver in the slalom, and Penny Pitou got two silvers—in the downhill and the giant slalom. In 1964, at Innsbruck, Jean Saubert tied for a silver in the giant slalom and won the bronze in the slalom. In 1972, at Sapporo, Barbara Ann Cochran got the gold in the slalom, while Susie Corrock won the bronze in the downhill. And in 1976, back at Innsbruck, the strong Minnesotan, Cindy Nelson, got a bronze in the downhill.
So American women have held their own in the Winter Games—indeed, their total of 12 medals in nine Olympics is exceeded only by Austria, with 20. German women also have 12, and the French are fourth with 11. This isn't bad, though it doesn't exactly denote any kind of American reign in women's ski racing. Outside the Olympics, no American woman has won a world championship. And in recent non-Olympic years, only Kiki Cutter, Barbara Ann Cochran and Cindy Nelson have ranked among the top five women racers on the World Cup circuit, and none of those three has come close to being No. 1.
Still, compared to the record of American men, the women have been spectacular. In the nine Olympics since 1936—that would be a total of 25 races—U.S. men have won precisely two of the 75 medals awarded—Kidd's silver in the 1964 slalom and Jimmy Heuga's bronze in the same race. On the World Cup circuit, which has been operating annually since 1967, American men have won a grand total of 12 races—and four of the victories have been achieved by the best American skier in years, Phil Mahre, 22, of White Pass, Wash., and one by the other half of the Mahres' twin-brother act, Steve. Until Phil came along in 1978 and finished second in the overall World Cup standings, no American man had ever been among the top five in the lists. In 1979, despite a shattered ankle that made him miss the last three races of the year, Phil still had enough points to finish third in the overall standings, while Steve, the next-best American, ranked 10th. The best the U.S. team has done in overall World Cup standings was a distant third-place finish in 1969, '70 and '78. The team's worst ranking was eighth in 1977.
Again: Why isn't the U.S. better at w ski racing?
Let's put it in perspective with other sports. Believe it or not, U.S. athletes are not accustomed to excelling at every sport they choose to compete in. Quite the contrary. In world-class competition, Americans have performed poorly in soccer, volleyball, kayaking, competitive canoeing, luge, bobsledding, field hockey, table tennis, cross-country skiing and orienteering—to name only a few. What are the reasons for these shortcomings? Well, some experts say that there aren't enough American kids participating in these sports, that the U.S. has too small a reservoir from which to draw world-class athletes, that coaching is inadequate and that there is no incentive, no monetary reward on the horizon. Of course, several of these reasons are cited for America's skiing failures, too.
One might ask why it is not also this way with U.S. speed skating, which has been about as bereft of facilities, coaching, participants and public encouragement as, say, bullfighting. Yet American speed skaters have won more Winter Olympic medals than those of any other nation. One explanation is that speed skating is, like running, a relatively simple sport requiring a minimum of technique and/or technology and lends itself to mastery without a huge pool of talent or of coaching expertise. Maybe, maybe not. At any rate, no one has ever had to make excuses for U.S. speed skaters.
There are nothing but excuses for ski racing. One favorite is that the U.S. simply hasn't had the technological expertise of the Europeans. As Ski's Fry says, "It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the equipment." The Europeans have always been ahead of the U.S. in design development, and they have always been better waxers. Non-skiers might scoff at the idea that the design of something as simple as a ski can make the difference, but the fact is that ski racing is a sport almost as demanding of engineering perfection as auto racing. Jean-Claude Killy has said that his skis were the decisive element in his triple gold-medal triumph at Grenoble in 1968. And many people, including Killy, have wondered if the fine Austrian racer Karl Schranz might not have become the greatest skier of all time had he not been so inextricably bound to the Austrian-made Kneissl ski, which was considered inferior by many racers at the time. Part of the explanation for the overwhelming successes today of the nonpareil Swedish slalomist, Ingemar Stenmark, is the fact that the hitherto un-renowned makers of the Elan ski have somehow created a ski especially well-engineered for the giant slalom.
In a sport in which races are sometimes won or lost by one-hundredth of a second, skis can be the decisive factor. Americans, of course, have access to the same brands available to Europeans. Whether Americans get—or recognize—the best individual skis of those brands may be questioned. And there is little doubt that European skiers get more expert help from their "racer chasers"—the factory reps who prepare the skis for each race. For example, last winter at the women's World Cup downhill at Lake Placid, America's Nelson finished a disappointing eighth because the racer chasers for her European competitors knew of a modification that could be made to ski bottoms for new wet snow. Nelson's man had failed to make that modification.
The lack of technological expertise in analyzing the snow and weather conditions that give a racer the best possible advantage has long been one of the routine excuses for why Americans don't win. Graham Anderson, a Seattle insurance man who is vice-president of the Alpine Committee of the FIS and has been an official on the American ski scene for 20 years, says, "Our coaching quality is better than it has been, but we're still not doing it like the Europeans. I remember during the 1978 world championship at Garmisch, it snowed a foot or more the night before the women's downhill. The course was a mess. Early in the morning the U.S. sent two or three coaches up on the mountain to check snow depth and conditions and test waxes. I remember I felt such confidence, such a sense of well-being that here, at last, we were getting this kind of technical support for our kids. Then, on the way up the mountain, I saw how this sort of thing is really done. The Austrians had packed down a whole beginners' ski area which had a lift. They had a track laid out with electronic timing devices. They were testing every kind of wax combination they could think of. There were at least 15 guys there, each an expert, each doing his thing. And that was the degree of their support for their kids in a world championship."
The coaching of U.S. teams has gone through a series of convolutions over the years. The effervescent Bob Beattie (1964-69) was a professional enthusiast who led the world to believe his teams were on the brink of triumph when they were, in fact, mediocre. From 1970 to 1974 there was a revolving-door system of coaches. Then Hank Tauber, a young man with a managerial bent, took over and installed a smoother-running organization. But his teams, too, were less than impressive.
The new director of Alpine racing, Bill Marolt, who was the ski coach at the University of Colorado for 10 years, has begun an intense program meant to bring top coaching talent down to the level of children's skiing, where champions are made. "We're going to have a heavy emphasis on educating coaches so that they understand about equipment care, racer management and talent scouting," Marolt says. "We're going to begin scouting for kids like the pros do. We'll have a computer system, and we want to track not only race results, but physical characteristics. We're developing a sports medicine program like they have in Europe. That way we'll be able to spot promising kids early—when they're 10 or 11 years old. We'll test the body structure and psychological tendencies of these kids so that we'll be able, for example, to pick out a three-event skier or pinpoint a giant-slalom specialist at an early age. The Austrians and the Swiss are set up to get their very best athletes into skiing. We want our best athletes to at least consider becoming skiers rather than football players."
Kidd says, "I think Americans have tended to do well internationally in sports that came naturally to them. Swimming and running, for example. Skiing isn't something that comes naturally. You have to learn it. I didn't have much natural coordination. I was a poor athlete, but I was a good skier because I spent a lot of time analyzing what it took to do it well. I'd memorize racecourses and lie awake at night figuring out places where I could make up a hundredth of a second. I think there are people who do these things by reflex—on a relatively simple and undemanding level. But when you get to the World Cup or Olympic level of competition, you have to do it from learned responses."
Yet physical coordination is the foundation upon which top skiers are built. If they'd been raised in the States, Franz Klammer or 1979 World Cup winner Peter Müller of Switzerland or Killy or Schranz or any of the other great ski champions probably would have become quarterbacks or playmaking guards or shortstops.
Which brings us back to incentive: the drive to win simply hasn't been there. As Austrian-born Ernst Hager, who now coaches the American women's downhill team, puts it, "In the U.S. skiing is a strictly personal sport. In Europe skiing not only means money, but it also determines your social standing. If you are a ski racer, you have a position in life." John Bower, director of the U.S. Nordic ski program, says, "In Alpine skiing, there just isn't the national intensity that they have in European countries. It's a different form here in the States—a leisure form. This seems to discourage the kind of drive and intensity and economic support for skiing that you find over there. One of our big problems is that, even in the U.S. Snow Belt, the best athletes simply cannot afford Alpine skiing. But in Austria, you never find a talented athlete who misses the opportunity to become a good skier just because he can't afford it. The money will be there."
In the past, the argument was that too many U.S. racers were un-motivated to win because they came from middle-class families where there were too many comfortable options open, where ski racing was considered a nice little recreational pastime but nothing to be taken too seriously. "Parents not only didn't drive their kid to excel at ski racing," Fry says, "they were probably very ambivalent about having a kid race at all. They probably would have preferred the child to go to college. Beyond that, in the kind of affluent home that could afford to produce a skier, it wasn't considered 'nice' to scold a kid for losing. Parents thought it might scar him."
But times appear to be changing—in Europe as well as here. Anderson says, "The cultural differences between the U.S. and Europe aren't so big anymore. If you're talking to a ski racer from West Germany these days, you're probably going to be talking to a kid who's educated, affluent—and probably even a hell of a lot more sophisticated than an American kid from White Pass, Washington, for example. So we can't hang our hat on the excuse of the Affluent American any more. It's not that valid." And the Austrian women's coach, Alois Bumberger, says, "We no longer find the talents only among farm boys and farm girls who grow up skiing to school as it was in the old days. To the contrary, farmers don't want their kids to become ski racers any-more because today it costs too much money. Today there are more middle-class kids who are sent to special schools where they do a lot of ski racing. And they come from all regions, even from flat country."
So, just possibly, the worm may turn in the years to come. Austrians will be decrying their soft and losing skiers, and a new American ski-racing machine will be grinding out flocks of winners.
Ah, but in the long run this is still a sport of individuals in which a lone young man or young woman who has the talent and heart prevails despite all odds and handicaps. Who would have predicted that a Spaniard, Francisco Fernandez Ochoa, would win the gold medal in the 1972 Olympic slalom, and a Pole named Andre Bachleda a World Cup slalom in 1972? Suddenly this year there are two budding champions from Yugoslavia and one from Bulgaria on the World Cup circuit. It is only a matter of time before an American or two or three will stand on the pinnacle of ski-racing success. Even though the myriad, complex explanations and excuses and arguments for why Americans haven't won consistently over the years are interesting and logically sound, perhaps the best one is entirely too simple and too thin: we have never been lucky enough to produce a few supreme individual talents.