Phil Mahre's historic accomplishment in becoming the first American ever to win the world Cup was the big story of the 1980-81 ski season, but two other developments that were overshadowed by his success may well have more far-reaching and long-lasting effects.
One was the "arrival" of the Soviets, with a string of late-season victories stamping them as a definite factor from now on. Another was the showing of the US women, who didn't have any superstar like Mahre, but who outdid the men in terms of depth and overall success in a winter-long challenge to the traditional superiority of the European Alpine nations.
"Obviously we are very happy," Head Women's Coach Michel Rudigoz told US Ski Team officials by telephone from Europe after his charges had completed the four-month season with a surprising second place finish behind Switzerland in the team standings.
"It had always been said that the US women had streaks of good results but were never consistent right up to the end," he added. "This year we proved them wrong."
Tamara McKinney, an 18-year-old transplanted Kentuckian who lives in California, was the most visible of the american women, winning three giant slalom races and capturing the individual trophy in this event.
All in all, however, the top performer was Christin Cooper, 21, who was second in the slalom standings and piled up enough points in other events to take fourth place overall behind Marie-Therese Nadig and Erika HEss of Switzerland and the previous year's champion, Hanni Wenzel of Liechtenstein. Cooper's placing equaled the best ever for a US woman, while her 198 total points represented a new high for American female competitors.
McKinney wound up tied for sixth, while Cindy Nelson, the veteran of the squad at age 25, came in eighth to give the United States an unprecedented three finishers in the top 10. And that doesn't even take into account Heidi Preuss, a teenage sensation in 1979-80 with fourth place in the Olympic downhill and 11 th in overall World Cup points, who had a subpar season while recovering from an injury.
No wonder Rudigoz can hardly wait for next winter.
Equally eager are the Soviets, who finally made their first big mark in Alpine skiing in the final month of the campaign.
It began, ironically, at that capitalist bastion of the sport, Aspen, Colo., during the only US stop on this year's schedule. The unlikely barrier breaker was Valery Tsyganov, a 24-year-old native of a little Arctic town near Murmansk, who stormed to victory in the downhill for the first truimph ever by any Soviet skier, male or female, in a World Cup Alpine race.
Amazing as this result may have appeared to an unsuspecting public, those on the scene were not too surprised. The Soviets had been coming on strongly of late, and close observers knew it was only a matter of time before one or more broke into the win column. Indeed, Tsyganov's exploits were immediately eclipsed by those of teammate Alexander Zhirov, who won the last four races of the season and surged all the way to third place behind Mahre and Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden in the final standings.
An elated Soviet coach, Leonid Tyagachev, envisioned even greater successes to come in the Olympics and the world championships -- and not without good cause.
As Rato Melcher of Switzerland, chairman of the International Ski Federation's Alpine Committee, told Sports Illustrated right after Tsyganov's victory at Aspen: "They will be a factor in Alpine racing from now on."
But if the Soviet men and the US women were primarly looking ahead, the future was now for Mahre as he finally completed his long and often frustrating quest for the sport's most glamorous and prestigious title.
Already by far the best American skier in history, Mahre had finished second in the World Cup standings in 1978 and third in both 1979 and 1980, climaxing the latter year with the silver medal in the Olympic slalom at Lake Placid. But one way or another, the big prize had always eluded him.
For several years there was just no way to beat Stenmark, whose total domination of the slalom and giant slalom carried him to three straight titles in 1976-77-78. Then just when a modification of the scoring rules gave more versatile skiers like Mahre a better chance -- and when in midseason he looked like a cinch to win the cup -- a broken ankle in 1979 ended his season and forced him to settle for an eventual third-place finish. Then in 1980, despite rising to the occasion at Lake Placid, the 23-year-old Yakima, Wash., resident wasn't really fully recovered in terms of winter-long performance and again could get only third honors.
The long 1980-81 campaign (31 races in 10 countries from early December to the end of March) began predictably, with Stenmark piling up a big lead. A skier can earn only so many points in any one event nowadays, however, and eventually the brilliant Swede just about reached his limit. Meanwhile Mahre, still able to score anytime he placed high enough in the slalom or giant slalom, and picking up valuable extra points in the combined downhill-slalom events which Stenmark eschews, began closing in.
When the "White Circus," as they call the tour, reached Aspen in early March -- and when Mahre outraced Stenmark to win the giant slalom -- the lead had been cut to 260-234, with five races remaining. A slalom victory the following week in Furano, Japan, appeared to just about wrap it up, but in the next-to-last weekend of the season at Borovetz, Bulgaria, things got sticky. Phil finished only fifth in the giant slalom. Then, needing just a second place in the slalom to clinch the cup, he was thwarted in most ironic fashion when his twin brother, Steve, beat him out for runner-up honors behind Zhirov, leaving Phil still a few points short of his goal.
Steve's showing was no fluke. He's a top skier, too, as shown by the fact that except for his brother's feats, his fourth place this year would itself be the highest American finish ever. But still, it came at an inopportune time.
So it all came down to the last race in Laax, Switzerland, where a fall, a missed gate, an equipment problem -- any of the myriad mishpas that can mar a particular run -- could have dashed the entire dream.Phil was equal to the task, however, finishing a strong second to the suddenly unbeatable Zhirov, and the prize for which he had worked so hard and so long was his at last.
The point system, in which Mahre won 266 to 260, is a continuing subject of controversy. Stenmark won 10 races this season -- far more than anyone else -- and some feel that he was clearly best, regardless of what the standings say.
Others argue, however, that one reason Stenmark dominates his specialties so completely is that he doesn't have to take time training for the downhill -- and that to claim the title of "world's best skier," one should demonstrate versatility as well as skill in one particular type of racing.
The trick is to find a system that gives a little to each side --years ago, Stenmark was virtually an automatic winner, which isn't conducive to creating interest among either competitors or the public. The first attempts at change swung the pendulum too far the other way, making it essentially impossible to win without entering some downhill races, and creating a situation in which Stenmark took a back seat to Peter Mueller of Switzerland in 1979 and Andreas Wenzel (Hanni's brother) in 1980. But the current system seems to have struck a reasonably fair balance -- as evidenced by the close battle in which the two types of skier duled down to the final race this season.