U.S. skiers still play catch-up

February 17, 1992|By Harvey Araton | Harvey Araton,New York Times News Service

VAL D'ISERE, France -- If Norway could dominate an Olympic men's Alpine ski race, then there must be hope for the United States.

At least that's what the American men, who not too long ago viewed the Norwegians as partners in the large set of Olympic also-rans, took from yesterday morning's super giant slalom.

With only slalom and giant slalom remaining, Super G was the last Alpine event of the Games in which the medal-less American men had even an outside chance.

The best finish of the four Americans entered was Jeff Olson's 13th. AJ Kitt, who entered these Games last week as an American cover boy and gold-medal hopeful in downhill, departed yesterday in 23rd and in no mood to discuss it with reporters.

One day after Hilary Lindh's stunning silver medal in the women's downhill made American coaches and officials of the U.S. ski team exultant over tangible progress, the men had them again pointing out silver ski lines in the snow.

And pointing at Norway's remarkable dominance yesterday, as 20-year-old Kjetil-Andre Aamodt took the gold medal, with Jan Einar Thorsen third and Ole Christian Furuseth fourth. Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg won the silver.

Norway, best known for cross-country skiers who navigate flat terrain while getting their beards all frosty, was also conspicuously potent, though without medals in the downhill and combined last week.

"Three years ago we trained with them for a year, when they were struggling just like us," said Bill Egan, the U.S. coach for downhill and Super G, which is essentially downhill racing with more gates. "They have young guys, they had long-range goals and now they're getting results.

"The same thing can happen for us. I would've been much happier with a medal here. But we are not that far away. I hope in two years we won't have just one guy with a chance for a medal, we'll have four. We want to be good."

Why the United States hasn't been much better is something of a mystery. It has rich people, an affluent ski federation, many mountains and none of the best men's Alpine skiers in the world.

"If you don't have the athletes," said Ueli Luthi, the Swiss-born U.S. men's head coach, "there is not that much you can do."

Why, Luthi is often asked, can the United States not find across its mountain ranges and 50 states one Pirmin Zurbriggen or Alberto Tomba? Why are the American men lagging so far behind behind -- not just the world, but their own women?

Skiing, as it is in European mountain towns, is not part of the American national psyche, as much as it is an expensive vacation.

On the other hand, nor is Alpine skiing a sport that makes Americans scratch their heads, like biathlon. "We ought to have enough Alpine skiers to be a power," said Bob Beattie, the coach-turned-TV-commentator.

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