Mahre tops standings as World Cup's European phase ends

The European portion of the international ski racing season is over - to the relief of most of the participants. Not so much because of the results, which aren't bad at all for most of the favorites. What they had to go through to get them, however, has made this in the words of a United States Ski Team spokesman ''a frustrating season for everybody.''

After the traveling winter circus bid adieu to over two months of weird weather, postponed, relocated, and canceled races - even to an outright boycott by women racers of one reconvened downhill - the chase for World Cup titles looked this way:

Defending two-time men's champion Phil Mahre of the US hangs onto his lead with 198 points, 31 points ahead of Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark as the skiers take a break now before concluding the season in March with a series of races in North America and Japan.

Stenmark climbed into second last weekend via his first giant slalom victory of the season at Todtnau, West Germany. Mahre finished fourth in that race, just behind Switzerland's Pirmin Zurbriggen, who now stands third in overall men's standings. Behind Zurbriggen is Phil's twin, Steve, in fourth place.

Mahre's lead has been built on a succession of solid high finishes in both slaloms and downhills, which have given him precious ''combined'' points. No one else on the men's circuit even approaches the Yakima, Wash., flash in scoring points in both downhill and the technical events (slalom and giant slalom). Stenmark will not race downhills.

Phil has improved his downhill performance significantly over even last season, when by this time he had virtually sewed up the Cup on the strength of slalom wins as well as combined points. This season, however, Mahre not only has had to bear the pressure of defending his title again but has also spent more time training for downhill. The results have included a fifth at St. Anton and a 12th and 13th at Kitzbuhel - all rather remarkable coming from a so-called slalom specialist.

The price for better downhills, some say, has been losing the razor's edge that it takes to win slaloms. However, the US Ski Team's John Dakin says the culprit is not so much training as it is the weather. Noting that at one point there were 10 raceless days while everybody tried to find a course with adequate snow, Dakin said, ''It's been an on-again, off-again season for establishing some kind of consistency and rhythm. That's why you haven't seen anybody winning consistently.''

And from here on in?

''It's definitely not going to be a runaway like last year,'' he said. ''I think it's going to be a battle. Phil, Stenmark, Zurbriggen - and if Steve (Mahre) gets on a roll he could make it interesting.''

In the women's events, two-time former champion Hanni Wenzel of Liechtenstein , coming off a year out because of injury, has finally passed Tamara McKinney and now leads the American 20-year-old 181 to 162. Defending champion Erika Hess of Switzerland stands third with 160 points.

The talented McKinney has obviously had a terrific season. But two other vital cogs on the US team, which last season won the unofficial women's Nations' Cup, were injured in January and are out for the rest of the campaign. Without Christin Cooper or Maria Maricich, Tamara and her teammates have a more difficult job holding off the Europeans.

''But those kids are tough,'' says Dakin. ''It's not inconceivable that Tamara could win the World Cup. She's got a good shot at it. Still, it would have been nice having Coop and Maricich there heading off points by the Europeans.''

Now the US team repairs to its own national championships at Copper Mountain, Colo., while other countries do the same. Then the World Cup chase resumes March 5-6 with a downhill and giant slalom at Aspen, Colo., followed by races at Vail, Colo.; Mont Ste. Anne, Quebec; Waterville Valley, N.H.; Lake Louise, Alberta, and the concluding events March 18-21 at Furano, Japan. Koch leads in cross-country

''We've won a battle, but the thinking here is we definitely haven't won the war yet.'' So said Dakin regarding the controversy over World Cup cross-country champion Bill Koch's powerful skating technique, which left him in the lead for the Cup by 24 points after his victory in the 30-kilometer race at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

The International Ski Federation (FIS) has backed the US stand that there is no prohibition against skating-type strides in cross-country races. In fact, say racers from many countries, almost everyone does it at one point or another. Koch refined the process used in long marathons and brought it into the shorter races last year, becoming the first American to win the Nordic World Cup in doing so.

The issue now is whether skating will be allowed in next year's Olympics at Sarajevo. The Scandinavians want to ban it. The issue is likely to be decided at this summer's meeting of the FIS in Sydney, Australia.

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