Why has it been so hard for the United States to develop world champion ski racers while there seems no lack of winning speed skaters, figure skaters, and swimmers -- to name but three sports? What is the proper care and feeding of world class athletes anyway?
Oh, you hear it argued that everybody swims in the US. But everybody certainly doesn't speed skate. And when you compare all the money raised to get a winning ski team with the comparable carfare doled out to speed skaters, you wonder how the skaters ever manage to suit up, let alone win.
One obvious problem faced by all sports of this nature in the United States is that the lure of fame and money in baseball, football, basketball, etc., attracts a high proportion of the country's top young athletes.
As a prominent junior racing development coach told the Monitor: "In the US, skiing is an elitist sport. The problem is not in developmental programs or coaching, although these can be improved. The basic problem is we don't get the best athletes."
Why this seems to affect skiing so much more than the other aforementioned sports is not quite clear, but the facts speak for themselves.
Among US male Alpine skiers, there are Olympic slalom silver medalist Phil Mahre, and his brother, Steve. Then "it's all over," in the blunt words of former US ski coach and television ski commentator Bob Beattie, who is not alone in his conclusions.
American women ski racers under head coach Herman Goellner have shown more all-around talent and depth than their male counterparts. But this has traditionally been so, and even here US women generally have been to play runners-up to racers from Alpine countries.
Significantly, perhaps, the Americans often fare better when World Cup or Olympic competition comes to North America. US ski team president Warren Hellman and new US Alpine team director Bill Marolt put much stock in the "home court advantage" theory. The grind of the European racing circuit, says Hellman , requires both talent and unbelievable seasoning.
"Our kids get to Europe when they're too old and retire when they're too young," Hellman has said. Consequently, a new effort was launched about a year ago to bring promising young racers along more quickly. The two most outstanding illustrations of that philosophy have been 18-year-old Heidi Preuss and 17-year-old Tamara McKinney. Both have finished several World Cup races this season in the top 10, and at Lake Placid Preuss just missed a medal, finishing fourth in the downhill.
In the internecine political warfare that ever smolders within the US ski racing establishment, criticism of the current policy that favors youth and potential over proven record and experience has not been lacking.Some coaches have called it exploitative and potentially harmful to young psyches besides being unfair and discouraging to older racers who might be late bloomers.
Hellman has studied the ages and progress curves of the world's best ski racers and rejects out of hand both criticisms. Moreover, he points to other sports in which a premium is placed on talented youth, sometimes at the expense of older, more experienced competitors with less potential.
"I personally will have no part of a system where coahces are not permitted to use the judgmental factor," he says. He acknowledges that proven results must be taken into account but insists that developing youthful potential needs emphasis. "I don't think there are many women at 20 who have not won a major race and who are going to make it," he says.
In examining successful development programs in other sports and other countries, Hellman says he generally has found five common denominators:
1. A large base of competitors.
2. Competition extending far down into the younger ages.
3. The youngest can compete against the best.
4. "A huge amount of interest in international competition."
5. No desire to keep youngsters home and shielded from "the dangers of outside competition." He cites tennis, gymnastics, and swimming as illustrations.
Another question is that of establishing more uniform nationwide standards via such moves as requiring certification of coaches. Hellman feels such standard setting is imperative in ski racing if the US is ever to develop strong teams in depth, rather than one or two outstanding racers.
Some critics disagree. But Hellman notes the Swedes systematically studied the way world slalom and giant slalom champion Ingemar Stenmark skis. They then disseminated this information among Sweden's ski coaches and racing programs. Last year, he says, Sweden had more men among the world's top 50 slalom racers than did the US.