Skiing fans who watched the Olympics on TV have good reason to wonder what happened at the races. Beyond Picabo Street's super G win and Hermann Maier's cartwheeling crash, skiing got barely a mention. Instead of the women's Combined event, viewers saw a piece on Japanese monks; rather than races, they saw Martha Stewart modeling kimonos. In an all-time low, the women's giant slalom, in which Deborah Compagnoni three-peated Olympic gold, was reduced to a couple of slow-motion turns. Why? Because Compagnoni's record-breaking performance happened to be on the same day as the exalted Women's Figure Skating finals.
I was fortunate enough to be in Europe for part of the Games. I say fortunate because Eurosport actually televises and broadcasts the sports--all the sports--contested in the Olympics. This is a novel concept to anyone who suffered through the CBS coverage in the States, which amounted to one big figure skating genuflection. In Europe I saw hours of Lipinski-free coverage, including performances by the entire U.S. Ski Team.
On the eve of the Games, it appeared the U.S. alpine contingent would be small. U.S. Ski Team president and CEO Bill Marolt remained steadfast on his strict, result-oriented qualification criteria; his only guarantee was that two of the four available spots in each event would be filled. Judging by the relatively poor U.S. results leading into the Games, it looked as if half the slots would go unfilled.
Last December, in a column titled "It's the Athletes, Stupid," I took issue with Marolt's policy. My intent was not to engage in random heckling but rather to present a compelling case that our country's best athletes should have a chance to compete in the Olympics. In response I received dozens of letters from athletes, coaches, parents and ski racing fans--all supporting the inclusionary view. But even so, as Nagano neared, nobody, including myself, expected team management to back down.
As it turned out, the U.S. Ski Team did fill its quota. But it had little, if anything, to do with public opinion or the alpine team's wishes. It was three athletes from the U.S. Freestyle team--aerialist Stacy Blumer and mogul skiers Jim Moran and Evan Dybvig--who took U.S. team management to court. Despite posting many top-three finishes during their World Cup careers--Blumer was the overall World Cup champion last season--the three were left off the squad because they didn't meet the strict Olympic qualifying criteria set by coaches.
So on Jan. 30, one week before the Opening Ceremonies, head freestyle coach Wayne Hilterbrand was in a Denver courtroom testifying that Blumer, Moran and Dybvig had no medal chances in Nagano because they hadn't yet met the Olympic Team selection criteria of one top-3 or two top-5 finishes in the current season. On the same day, just 70 miles away in Breckenridge, Dybvig was finishing second in a World Cup mogul event.
In the end, the arbitration judge found the U.S. Ski Team selection criteria to be ambiguous. He ruled in favor of the athletes, and that had the effect of forcing not only the freestyle team but also the alpine squad to fill its Olympic quota. "We learned our lesson," said Alan Ashley, the team's athletic director.
Though the freestyle athletes who went to court didn't fare well at the Games, their efforts helped alpine athletes gain the right to compete, and to garner valuable Olympic exposure. The U.S. brought 22 alpine skiers to Nagano. Of those, only three had qualified by the original objective criteria. Many had never even scored a World Cup point. Nevertheless, they were, and are, our best skiers, and as such they deserved to be in Nagano. There were admittedly few spectacular results, but there were some strong performances by the Americans, especially considering their markedly rookie credentials. Though you had to leave the country to watch them on TV, they put on a promising show.
Minutes after watching Picabo seccure the gold, I saw 20-year-old Kirsten Clark from Raymond, Me., take on the super G. Clark didn't finish, but she attacked with Picabo-esque vigor and went down swinging after an impressive split time. A few days later, Steamboat's Caroline LaLive, 18, Aspen's Alex Shaffer, 22, and Lake Tahoe's Jonna Mendes, 19, all finished in the top 15 of the Combined. And they swore never to forget the image of the three Germans who swept the Combined event celebrating on the podium. Said LaLive in a finish-line interview: "We thought about how awesome it would be for three Americans to be up there doing the same thing in Salt Lake. It's not out of our reach by any means."
LaLive's prophecy may not be far off. The word among coaches is that this peer group, whose members push each other in racing and training, may return the U.S. women's team to the heady times of Tamara McKinney, Cindy Nelson and Christin Cooper. Those glory days, when the U.S. was number one in the world, were fueled by competitive yet constructive team rivalries that bred a frenzy of success.
That scenario is at least four years off for the young U.S. women who were in Nagano. And before they can become a force, they need experience. Coming into this season, Mendes had raced in only one World Cup. She raced in three Olympic events and, thanks to Picabo, got to see close-up what it's like to win Olympic gold. She also reveled in the Olympic experience. "This time I got to stay in the Olympic Village, go to hockey games and speed skating events--I got to check everything out. In four years, when I'm ready to be competitive, I'll really be able to focus completely on racing. Having been in Nagano will definitely help me for Salt Lake."
On the men's side, 23-year-old Jason Rosener of Breckenridge, Colo., competing in his first full season on the World Cup, was part of a seasoned downhill squad that included 1994 gold medalist Tommy Moe and World Cup winners AJ Kitt and Kyle Rasmussen. In addition to the excitement of competing in his first Olympics, Rosener got a taste of downhill's worst case scenario--five days of postponements and a demolition derby of a race that took nearly 4 hours to run. He and his teammates waited at the start through each delay while human carnage, including the Herminator, was cleared from the course. Despite the distraction, Rosener finished 15th. Once the vets leave, it will be Rosener's chance for the spotlight. Having his first Olympic experience under their guidance--but without high-expectations--was a relief.
"Salt Lake is where I've planned to be a contender all along," explained Rosener. "But it was nice to make this one, and to understand how big of a deal the Olympics are."
Whether it's Clark remembering how mad she was not to have finished, LaLive dreaming of an American sweep, Mendes bawling when Picabo won the gold, or Rosener sailing smoothly through the turn that was claiming the world's best, all of these athletes left Nagano with an optimistic and ambitious eye on the future. If the Ski Team can hang on to these rookies, they'll bring these memories to the Salt Lake Games. And they'll just have to trust us--it beats the hell out of watching it on TV.