Killington, Vt. — The big question for the United States ski team in this post-Olympic winter is the same as always: Will the Americans ever start catching up to the Europeans who have dominated the sport for so long?
"We're working on it, but obviously we have a long way to go," said head men's coach Konrad Rickenbach as his racers put in two weeks of rugged training here before heading for Val d'Isere, France, to begin the World Cup season next week.
"We have a lot of young kids this year, so it will be slow progress," Rickenbach said in assessing the team's 1980-81 chances. "Our goal is to improve our rankings each year."
Even by European standards, the United States does have one superstar in Phil Mahre, who won a silver medal in the Olympic slalom at Lake Placid and has been either second or third in the World Cup standings for the last three years. Steve Mahre, though not able to match his twin brother's record, is a solid World Cup competitor in his own right -- as shown by his 10th and 12th place overall finishes the last two years. But after this duo, the cast consists mainly of veterans who have only occasionally cracked the top ranks or youngsters who are still unknown quantities.
No wonder the new overall head of the proram, Alpine Director Bill Marolt, prefers to talk in terms of more than one year.
"Our immediate goals will be set at a high level as we start a new four-year program leading to the 1984 Olympics," Marolt has said. "Because we are looking to the future, our development program will continue to expand. . . .Our youth is our future, and we must do our best to find and to work with the most talented skiers in the country."
Certainly the makeup of this year's national team reflects the emphasis on youth, with four "rookies" and two more second- year men among the 12 members.
But this has happened over and over again through the years, of course, with relatively little to show in terms of results for all the time, effort, and money expended. The entire history of US success in men's Alpine skiing in the Oympics boils down to two slalom races -- at Innsbruck in 1964, when Billy Kidd won the silver medal and Jimmy Heuga took the bronze, and at Lake Placid in 1980 , when Phil Mahre won his silver. That means not a single medal in either the giant slalom or the big glamour event of the Winter Games, the downhill, where Pete Patterson's fifth place finish at Lake Placid equaled the best-ever US men's showing. World Cup results, except for Mahre's recent success, have been equally disappointing. So its certainly reasonable to wonder whether there is any realistic hope that things will be different this time around.
It might seem on the surface that a country the size of the United States, with so much mountainous terrian and so much winter sports activity, should be able to easily compete on at least equal terms with these other, smaller nations. It's not that simple, though, because offsetting these apparent advantages is the tremendous disparity in emphasis on skiing between this country and such European hotbeds of the sport as Australia, FRance, Switzerland , and Italy. Skiing is second only to soccer, if anything, in these countries, and is thus a "No. 1" sport during its own season. But in the United States, of course, it has never achieved such status as far as the general public is concerned.
"Our problem is the whole attitude toward skiing in this country," Rickenbach said. "Look at the TV coverage. In Europe it's like football. Here we get 10 minutes on Saturday afternoon -- when everbody is out skiing."
But of course everybody isn't skiing -- which is another part of the problem. Football, basketball, baseball, and other sports draw off the lion's share of the very best American athletes -- while in Europe the only major competition is soccer. Ski racers over there are national celebrities with ample opportunities for monetary rewards -- which of course adds up to a lot more motivation, and perhaps at least subconsiously a greater willingness to take risks in quest of victory.
"When it's all on TV, when you see 40,000 people out on the hillside cheering , when you can become a national hero by winning a big race -- sure there's a big difference," Rickenbach said.
So those are some of the osbtacles which must be overcome, but today's US ski racing scene does have some positive signs. For one thing, the more liberal rules under which amateur sports now operate seem to have ended the frustrating cycle in which America's top racers were always turning pro or finding some other way to make a living just as they were reaching their peaks. In th eold days, for instance, skiers like the Mahres, Patterson, etc., would probably have retired after Lake Placid, but now they're still on hand to score points of their own and also to serve as role models and competitive standard setters for the up-and-coming youngster.
Also, there is the promise of the current crop of prospects -- third year downhiller Doug Powell, second year men Billy Dorris (slalom) an dMike Farney (downhill), and "rookies" John Buxman, Hansi Standteiner, and Mark Tache, all primarily slalom skiers, along with Dave stapleton, another downhill specialist. They're all products of the everincreasing empahsis on youth development programs, and the idea is that out of this group will emerge at least one or two names to be reckoned with in the years ahead.
The US women, who did not joint the men here but instead went directly to Val d'Isere two weeks ago to begin their own final preparations, are in a somewhat similar situation. historically the American females have done a bit better than their male counterparts in international competition (four Olympic gold medals to none, for istance), but recently they've had their problems too, with only one bronze (Cindy Nelson in the downhill) in the 1976 and no medals at all at Lake Placid. They too, therefore, are emphasizing the development of young rpspects such as teen-agers Heidi Preuss and Tamara McKinney, both of whom exploded upon the scene last season by finishing in the top 15 in the overall World Cup standings, with Preuss also just missing a medal in the Olympic via her spectacular fourth place in the downhill.
"This season we will hope for some more surprises from youngsters, but you don't ask for that," rickenbach said of his own charges, but with words that could apply just as easily to the entire US men's and women's effort. "The thing now is to get them the internatinal experience they need and keep them moving up gradually."