Cross-country skiing opens its World Cup schedule in North America for the first time this weekend, and if the off-season is any indication, the racing may be only a sideshow to the fierce political wrangling over the controversial ``skating'' technique and other issues. The season begins Dec. 7-8 in this remote mining community on the Quebec border, about 500 miles northeast of Montreal. Next week's races are in Biwabik, Minn., 50 miles north of Duluth and also a mining town. (The Minnesotans, upset by Japanese imports and their impact on the steel market, promised a boycott if Subaru, the official United States ski team car and traditional sponsor of World Cup events, were to sponsor the races. It won't.)
This is an ``off'' season for the world's top skiers; the Olympics are held every four years and the world championships are now staged in odd-numbered years. Thus there's ``only'' the World Cup at stake this winter.
``That's more than enough,'' said Mike Gallagher, who is in his sixth season as head coach of the US cross-country skiers. ``The World Cup is still symbolic of the premier skiers, an award based on a season of top-quality racing, not just maybe getting lucky on one day.
``We've had skiers win a medal at the Olympics or the Worlds and then, for all intents, never be heard from again . . . but no one questions the credentials of a World Cup champion. You can't be lucky all season.''
The defending champions, Sweden's Gunde Svan, who has won the last two years, and pixielike Anette Boe of Norway will be on hand -- along with skiers from every other racing nation except East Germany -- to start the new schedule. There had been talk of a possible boycott by some European teams, which felt the curtain should go up in Europe as it always has, but even the Soviet Union cabled its acceptance.
The Soviets are attracting particular attention this season after skipping the last three races of 1984-85 over internal squabbling. The result of this infighting was a purge of the team's longtime cross-country leaders, who were replaced by Nikolai Zimjatov, a triple gold medal-winner at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid and the 30-kilometer winner at Sarajevo.
The former coach and team leader were ousted because of their opposition to the skating technique, which is replacing the traditional diagonal stride in X-C racing. By holding to the diagonal and resisting the faster skating style, the Russians lost their customary dominance of the sport . . . and the two top men were dumped after the '85 world championships in Seefeld, Austria.
The skate, popularized by American Bill Koch as he won four times en route to the 1982 World Cup crown, has evolved in the last couple of seasons and is still evolving. The Soviets and Scandinavians originally fought it, charging it was untraditional (Canadian coach Marty Hall countered by asking, ``How traditional are fiber-glass skis?'') and destroyed the racecourse.
The International Ski Federation (FIS) allowed skating, but controversy has continued to swirl around the issue. Last season, former Olympic gold medalist Ivar Formo of Norway, chairman of the FIS Cross-country Committee, ordered race officials to experiment with ways to control -- his euphemism for banning -- skating. Every method was discredited and, as skating became an undeniable part of the sport, only Norway and the Soviets continued to fight it.
At the FIS convention last May in Vancouver, a compromise was announced: Half the races this season will be ``classical'' (i.e., diagonal stride with little or no skating allowed), and half will be ``free.'' Only the Soviet races in February will have just one kind of technique for an entire weekend of racing, i.e., classical. Otherwise, the men will race one way, the women the other. In Labrador City, the women will have a 5-kilometer race with skating allowed, while the men's 15-k opener is set to b e a classical race. In Biwabik, the women switch to classical, while the men have a 30-k free event.
``It's crazy,'' says Hall, an outspoken proponent of skating. ``Skiers are going to face the strong possibility of confusion, jumping from one style for the individual race one day to another style for the relay . . . and so on.''
Gallagher adds, ``Next winter, I'm sure they'll have two separate schedules; instead of 10 races with half and half, they'll have 10 skating and 10 diagonal races. It's like swimming where you have breaststroke, backstroke, freestyle, and butterfly . . . specialists in each style . . . and it's still all considered swimming. We're going to have skating specialists and diagonal specialists, but it'll still be cross-county racing.''
Such a division, he says, will handicap the US team, which is short of depth. ``We don't have enough top skiers for even one schedule, and neither does Canada, so splitting the schedule in two -- while it may be good for the sport, and I think it is -- won't help us at all. The Soviets and the Scandinavians are really the only countries with that kind of depth, so they are still going to be the top teams, because they have the numbers to produce top skaters and good diagonal skiers.''
The US outlook:
Cross-country -- No one anywhere is expected to rival Svan, but the return of three-time Olympian Jim Galanes is a big boost. In his last Cup race (March 1984 in Russia) before sitting out last season, Galanes was fifth.
Jumping -- Mike Holland leads a young squad that has seven skiers who not only scored World Cup points a year ago but all of whom had at least one top-10 finish.
Nordic combined -- The 1983 World Cup champion, Kerry Lynch, returns after missing last season for knee surgery. But Pat Ahern, the team leader last year, is out because of a knee operation until at least midwinter.