World-class ski racing is probably the most lucrative of all amateur sports. It certainly has been the most hypocritical in its system of paying its athletes. Now, with another racing season drawing near, the news that the old order is changing could well be accepted with skepticism. But here it is, a system so realistic that it could serve as a model for other sports federations seeking a way to help amateurs compete against subsidized stars from behind the Iron Curtain. Even if that doesn't come about, the change will have striking impact upon U.S. ski-racing fortunes.
What has happened is that the Fédération Internationale de Ski has conformed to the full letter of the International Olympic Committee's Rule 26. The rule has actually been in effect since October 1974, and provides, among other things, that an athlete may be reimbursed for "financial loss resulting from his or her absence from work or basic occupation" because of training for Olympic or world competition. The IOC left the amount of compensation "at the discretion" of the national federations and the FIS took this for approval of legalizing salary payments to ski racers—so long as the paychecks were dispensed by the national federations. Last season was the first in which the FIS authorized this method of payment, but no one publicized it, because many officials (particularly Americans) were not absolutely certain that the IOC really meant what Rule 26 seemed to say. They did not want to risk any eligibility disputes before the 1976 Winter Games.
The wraps are off this season and the sport is the better for it. Hank Tauber, the articulate young director of the U.S. Alpine team, says, "There are no true amateurs in international sport. Guidelines in skiing in the past were hypocritical and dishonest, but the U.S. team lived by the rules. But now there is the element of control in paying skiers. Since all the money is channeled to a racer through his federation, there is no more under-the-table dealing between the racer and manufacturer. Payments now legally allow a top racer to have income enough for an apartment, a car or savings for his future education and to take his girl to dinner now and then. He lives like a self-respecting person, not like some tramp sneaking around trying to pick up a few illegal bucks on the side. It makes our ski racers dedicated professionals with a small p."
Capital P or little p, what skiing has done is to harness the commercialism and use it to benefit both national teams and individual athletes. This means a tidy return for skiers—even those who aren't superstars. Racers on the first-string U.S. team, for example, will average between $600 and $1,000 a month in broken-time payments, Tauber says. The money comes mainly from the fees advertisers pay to the team for the right to use U.S. skiers in their campaigns. These fees range from $1,500 from a ski-pole manufacturer to $5,000 for a ski manufacturer to a top $100,000 from a non-ski company.
Also available under this system is an FIS "B" license that allows skiers to negotiate directly with manufacturers for what they can get. The racers who choose this category can compete in all World Cup events—but would be ineligible for the Olympics. The vast majority, about 99%, have decided against going this far, choosing to use their ski federations as their agents and thus keeping their Olympic status.
If a skier is particularly attractive to a company, he or she also can command extremely good money on an individual basis. Bill Koch, the 1976 silver medalist in cross-country skiing at Innsbruck, recently switched from Fischer to Rossignol skis. It was reported that he received $25,000 to sign with Rossignol. That figure is probably high; still, U.S. Nordic Director John Bower says that even though he would not quote any exact figures, he expects Koch to make "a salary equivalent to what a successful junior executive takes home." Tauber is equally circumspect about the top pay for U.S. Alpine racers such as the Mahre twins, Greg Jones, Andy Mill or Cindy Nelson. But if any of them becomes a superstar, $40,000 a year could easily be within their grasp.
Whatever the new broken-time payment regulations do for ski racing in general, they could prove to be the single most important contribution to U.S. hopes. "A champion world-class skier takes eight to 12 years to develop," says Tauber. "He has to compete until he is 27 or 28. Americans haven't been able to do that because they couldn't afford to. You can't expect them to live off their parents that long. It is demeaning. In the past, Americans have been on a much lower level of pay than Europeans because we were very sensitive about eligibility. Now that the FIS has opened this new territory, we can encourage our skiers by paying them well and by giving them an environment where they can afford to race long enough to really excel."
Other sports federations might well follow ski racing's lead. They could negotiate commercial endorsements for their athletes and get the cash moving over the table to all competitors instead of under the table to select stars. This would give free-world athletes a chance to compete on an even footing with the openly professional competitors from Eastern Europe. Pay them year round, all year, every year. It may not be amateurism with a capital A, but for once it won't be hypocrisy with a capital H, either.