In the spirit of original standards, the Americans have favored loose-fitting attire, disdaining the snug suits worn by French athletes in particular as being borderline unsportsmanlike, though they stop short of calling anyone cheaters. But it seems almost monumentally silly to insist on clothing standards conceived not with something sensible like function or safety in mind, but rather to make a lifestyle statement.
The clothing controversy is just one example of an underlying cross question: What, exactly, are the rules? There is a rule book, but Puckett, now in his third season, says he’s never read it. He’s not alone. Instead, the de facto rules, particularly regarding on-course entanglements, are essentially framed by a gentlemen’s agreement. “We try not to kill each other,” Puckett explains. Protests and disqualifications are unusual, because to lodge a protest against another athlete would violate that gentlemanly code of conduct. Will this fly when there are Olympic medals at stake? We’ll see.
A similar vagueness governs course design, where several schools of thought apply. Konrad Rotermund, an FIS freestyle official, claims that a key principle should be that athletes spend 40 to 50 percent of their time in the air. Rahlves, who enjoys big air as much as the next guy, thinks more time should be spent on snow, where the skill of working the skis to generate speed comes to the fore.
Courses range from a 45-second run to something lasting as long as a minute and a half. When athletes must advance through four preliminary rounds to make the finals, that 45-second difference is huge. (In a World Cup event last February on the Olympic course near Vancouver, times were in the 1:15 range.)
But as ski cross homes in on its true identity, it is increasingly taking on the look and feel of elite-level alpine racing. In bringing ski cross into the U.S. Ski Team family last year, the Americans were putting it on more or less equal footing with the national alpine team. But they were actually a little late in doing so, and at times the cross team looks a little like the runt of the litter among national teams. The 2008–2009 team, for example, consisted of three funded athletes (Rahlves, Puckett and another former U.S. Team speed specialist, Jake Fiala) and coach Shepherd, whose role was hardly a grandly magisterial one. As Puckett puts it, Shepherd must be a no-job-too-small multitasker—“manager, coach, physical therapist and van driver.” Organizationally, that puts the Americans a step behind the Canadians, the French and an Austrian team with at least four coaches, who scour the Alps for young skiers with serious cross potential.
At World Cup events, wax technicians can be found working their magic in basements and back rooms. Prepping one’s own skis—a very freestyle concept—just doesn’t cut it anymore. Beating the Americans to an important punch, the Canadians hired a true star of the ski-tech world, the U.S.’s own Willi Wiltz—the guy who greased Tommy Moe’s Dynastars for his 1994 Olympic-gold run in Lillehammer.