This was the problem: the current World Cup ski racing model was just not jazzy enough to generate what they call a strong customer response. Perhaps the styling was too bland or the horsepower too meek to adapt the sport to the old hard sell. What amateur ski racing needed—and what it inevitably got last week—was a shot of merchandising, American style.
The 1975 prototype went on display at Heavenly Valley, a steep and stormy mountainside overlooking Lake Tahoe. The occasion was the third and last in a circuit of new events called the Nations' World Series of Skiing, and it starred almost the full European galaxy of champion racers. As in two earlier events at Aspen and Vail, the centerpiece of the competition was the introduction of that kinetic, breakneck race known as the head-to-head dual slalom.
For years this dashing mano-a-mano contest had been roundly despised as the "professional format" by the Fédération Internationale de Ski and all those who have clung doggedly to pure racing as they have known and loved it. But last weekend sealed the deal: pro-style racing became a permanent addition to the game.
Serge Lang, the grandiose Swiss bear from whose brow the World Cup concept sprang some years ago, spoke unequivocally: "There will be at least two dual slalom races in the World Cup program next season. We will figure out how to give points later, but we must go with exciting new ideas, mustn't we?"
Indeed we must. Marc Hodler, the dignified president of the FIS, agreed that parallel slaloms represented a splendid injection of new energy. "We must do something to get away from the present system where only the beginning of a race is interesting," said Hodler. "Here we have a chance to build a climax. I'm all for it as part of the FIS world championships from now on."
It is even possible that dual slalom racing will invade the Olympic Games. Said Willy Schaeffler, former U.S. coach and technical adviser of this World Series, "I am sure it will be at least an exhibition event at the Innsbruck Games in 1976, and I would bet it will be accepted as a fourth Alpine racing discipline for Olympic gold medals by 1980."
Traditional racing forms—slaloms, giant slaloms and downhills with individuals running alone against the clock—will continue to be the heart of world-class racing. But there is no question that they lack the visual melodrama and the intimations of physical contact that come with the sight of two racers charging down a mountain side by side.
Converting to the more exciting format will not be easy, however. Most European officials have long viewed dual slaloms as a frolic of freaks and an insult to the austere world of international skiing. They hated the idea all the more after the bumptious American Bob Beattie started a professional dual slalom tour in 1970, skimming off some of the cream of television and ski industry money—not to mention a few top FIS skiers—and making the format profitable for the first time. Without Beattie's successful gamble it is unlikely that the FIS would ever have moved away from man against stopwatch racing. But the addition of the dual slalom is now a proposition it cannot afford to turn down.
The energetic new U.S. team coach, Hank Tauber, has been campaigning for head-to-head World Cup races for some time. "It is a marketing situation," he says candidly. "Look, there is only so much money around in the ski industry and we want to guarantee our share. Right now the money is being split between amateur skiing and Beattie's pros and, to some extent, hot dogging. To attract manufacturers you've got to give them a way of merchandising their products—something the buying public can focus on. Beattie did it. Now we will, too. The sales campaign to bring in dual races was almost strictly an American effort."
Another proponent was Seattle insurance man Graham Anderson, a representative to the FIS Alpine Committee and secretary of the World Cup Commission. Anderson recalls, "The Europeans announced to us last year that they weren't going to have an official World Cup race in North America in 1974. It was arbitrary of them to do that, and we could have fought them and gotten a couple. We decided instead we'd use this chance to try and set up a swindle which would get the Europeans over here and at the same time get them to compete in parallel slaloms. We came up with the World Series concept, some conventional races combined with some head-to-heads. We sold it to a few Europeans. The Austrians loved it. The Italians didn't and neither did the French. We got it through the FIS last spring. A lot of people weren't completely convinced, but they are now."
Still, as enthusiastic as European leaders and team elders may be, some of the young racers were not so sure. As laid out at Heavenly Valley, the courses were exceedingly short—barely 20 seconds, compared to some 60 seconds for a normal slalom. The run also was on a much steeper slope than Beattie's pros use and the turns were far sharper. But there was nowhere near the demand for technical expertise that an average World Cup course requires. Finally, there are the rules: after a day of eliminations 16 racers enter the finals. Matched by draw, they race it out, switching courses and cutting the field. It can take as many as eight runs to win.
France's lovely young Fabienne Serrat, who won the giant slalom gold medal at St. Moritz, said, "It's not at all the same as our slalom. It's much less beautiful and I don't think the parallel races should ever be a part of the World Cup." Marie-Therese Nadig of Switzerland, who won two gold medals at the Sapporo Olympics, noted, "I'm scared the other racer will run over me. It's a gimmick, fun once or twice, but eight runs are too exhausting. Well, not for me, exactly. For the others. I never get to No. 8."
Italy's brilliant Gustavo Thoeni, winner of two golds at St. Moritz and the World Cup three times, figured, "It's quite interesting to have one or two races like that. It is a light entertainment. But there is no beauty to it and you cannot ride your skis as you can in a regular slalom. I didn't like it the first time, and I still don't like it."
With a few word changes, the comments sounded as though they could have come from competitors in most any sport. Officials were pleased with the prospect of bigger crowds and greater exposure for sponsoring manufacturers—but for the athletes there was the underlying promise of having to work harder for the rewards.
More than anything, the World Series events were devised to expose the new theme and there were no World Cup points involved. In the competitions among national teams Austria won in a snowplow and the U.S. was out of sight in fourth place. The Austrian star, as usual, was the fantastic Annemarie MoserProell, who won four slaloms with ease, two of them on the dual course. She looked so strong that some people said flatly Annemarie could join the men's pro circuit and finish first in every race. She coyly countered by saying, "Oh, no, I don't think so. I am only a girl."
Despite his professed dislike for man-to-man racing, Thoeni was almost as overwhelming among the men. He won two dual slaloms, finished second in another and won one oldtime slalom and a giant slalom.
When the experiment in ski-race marketing ended last week it was both esthetically and dramatically plain that World Cup skiing would be much the better for this fresh excitement. Economically, only one thing was certain: the introduction of the "pro format" to the "amateur" world would not inspire a sudden exodus of top European amateurs to make a bundle with Bob Beattie's pros. World Cup racers who finish far down in the standings, say 10th, normally collect about as much as the well-ranked pro does. And that is known as merchandising, European style.
Thoeni didn't like it, but he won it.
Attacking like old pros, Willi Frommelt (left) and Gustavo Thoeni try the dual courses.
Proell: the queen pauses for a rubdown.