U.S. Ski Team ap­pears to be pric­ing it­self out of racer pipe­line

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By John Meyer

The U.S. Ski Team, which has an an­nual bud­get of $32 mil­lion, ap­pears to be pric­ing it­self out of groom­ing top-tier tal­ent. Some of the skiers have to pay $20,000 to $25,000 per year to com­pete as mem­bers of the team.

At age 82, U.S. Ski Team pa­tri­arch Bob Beat­tie doesn’t watch races from the fin­ish area any­more. The vi­sion­ary who cre­ated the con­cept of a na­tional team in the 1960s while also coach­ing the Univer­sity of Colorado ski team — and who co-founded the World Cup tour in 1966 — re­mains a keen ob­server with pas­sion­ate opin­ions he is not bash­ful about shar­ing.

As he pre­pared to watch the women’s World Cup races in Aspen in Novem­ber on a press-room tele­vi­sion, Beat­tie fumed while pe­rus­ing the start list. In the gi­ant slalom, there were 10 Aus­tri­ans but only three Amer­i­cans. In the slalom the next day, there were 12 Aus­tri­ans and four Amer­i­cans.

There are mul­ti­ple rea­sons Aus­tria has a deeper tal­ent pool at the elite level in alpine than the U.S., but Beat­tie wor­ries that the cost of ski rac­ing is “killing our sport.” He shared his con­cerns in a let­ter to U.S. Ski Team of­fi­cials and for­mer ski rac­ing greats in De­cem­ber. One of the things that both­ers him most is the ski team’s pol­icy of charg­ing some ath­letes $20,000 to $25,000 per year to be on it.

“My big­gest is­sue is that we are elim­i­nat­ing kids who have no in­come,” Beat­tie said in a re­cent in­ter­view.

A mem­ber of the team’s board of trustees, Beat­tie coached the 1964 Olympic team that in­cluded three of Amer­ica’s great­est rac­ers: Billy Kidd, Jimmie Heuga and Buddy Werner. Kidd and Huega be­came the first Amer­i­can men to win Olympic medals in ski­ing, tak­ing sil­ver and bronze re­spec­tively that year in the slalom.

“Buddy Werner and Jimmie Heuga, Billy Kidd, they never would have made the U.S. Ski Team of to­day,” Beat­tie said. “They were ski rac­ers be­cause they loved the sport and their par­ents sup­ported them, but they didn’t sup­port them with money be­cause they didn’t have any money.”

Top ath­letes on the “A” team such as Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin are “fully funded,” but ath­letes on the “B” and “C” teams re­ceive let­ters billing them for their travel ex­penses. The let­ters go out in the spring so they have time to raise money be­fore the sea­son be­gins in the fall.

“If Dave Mahre, the father of Phil and Steve, re­ceived this let­ter back in 1974-75, we would never have had two of the great­est ski rac­ers in World Cup his­tory,” said John McMurtry, a for­mer ski team alpine di­rec­tor who is now di­rec­tor of de­vel­op­ment for the Stead­man Philip­pon Re­search In­sti­tute in Vail. “They would have stayed with high school foot­ball. Most of our coun­try’s great­est ski ath­letes would never make it to­day be­cause the vast ma­jor­ity came from mod­est back­grounds.”

The U.S. Ski Team has an an­nual bud­get of $32 mil­lion, and of that, $21.8 mil­lion is spent on elite ath­lete pro­grams and stag­ing in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions at U.S. re­sorts. The team sup­ports more than 200 elite ath­letes com­pet­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally in all dis­ci­plines at a cost of more than $100,000 each. The ath­letes who pay $20,000 to 25,000 are off­set­ting the cost of their travel, clos­ing a bud­get gap of more than $2 mil­lion per year.

“I think it’s coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to ath­lete de­vel­op­ment to ask any ath­lete that is in the fast-track pro­gram to pay to­ward that pro­gram,” said Aldo Radamus, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Ski & Snow­board Club Vail. “It seems to me that in an or­ga­ni­za­tion with a $32 mil­lion bud­get, there would be an­other way to find that $2 mil­lion (rather) than place that bur­den on the ath­letes.”

Hig Roberts, an alpine racer from Steam­boat Springs, was billed $20,000 to race on the “B” team this sea­son. His mother, Lulu, re­calls a fundraiser in Vail last fall when head men’s coach Sasha Rearick ap­peared in sup­port of his rac­ers.

“He stood up and said, ‘I hate that we can’t sup­port you guys more. It keeps me up at night. I wish we were able to give you more,’ ” Lulu Roberts said. “Then he pre­sented a per­sonal check of his own to­ward th­ese guys. He was emo­tional about it.”

Tiger Shaw, a two-time Olympian in the 1980s who is pres­i­dent and CEO of the U.S. Ski Team, ac­knowl­edges that $20,000 to $25,000 is “not an in­signif­i­cant amount of money,” but the “ath­letic fund­ing gap” is real and has to be cov­ered some­how. Billing ath­letes for travel ex­penses is less painful than other al­ter­na­tives, he said.

“The other way I could close it, and do that im­me­di­ately, even as soon as next year, is to cut our team size in half,” Shaw said. “I think that would be a mis­take. We have no in­ter­est in do­ing that.”

Shaw in­her­ited the pol­icy from his pre­de­ces­sor, Bill Marolt, who had to find ways to sup­port an ever-grow­ing ros­ter of ath­letes as sports such as snow­board­ing and free ski­ing were added to the Olympic pro­gram.

Ski team of­fi­cials rec­og­nize the hard­ship ath­letes are be­ing asked to bear and are try­ing to elim­i­nate or re­duce those costs. In the short term, the team works with ath­letes to help them raise money through crowd­fund­ing sources. It also is seek­ing to en­dow a fund that would help ath­letes cover those costs.

“We have a big gap,” Shaw said. “We have plans to close it. We can­not do that in one or two years. But as we start to close it, ev­ery­body will feel the ben­e­fit. It’d be nice to get it all the way there.”

But in the mean­time, many worry about los­ing tal­ented young ath­letes be­cause their par­ents can’t af­ford for them to make the U.S. Ski Team.

“If we’re talk­ing about build­ing a world­class team with the best tal­ent, we have to fund that team,” McMurtry said. “I talked to a par­ent whose child made the ‘B’ team, and the first thing the ski team wanted was their credit card num­ber. It was $5,000 a month.” John Meyer: jmeyer@den­ver­ or @john­meyer

Steam­boat Springs’ Hig Roberts, rac­ing this sea­son at a World Cup gi­ant slalom in Aus­tria, was billed $20,000 by the U.S. Ski Team to com­pete on the Amer­i­can “B” team this sea­son. The U.S. team’s an­nual bud­get is $32 mil­lion. Michel Cot­tin, Getty Im­ages

From left, CU’s Billy Kidd, Bob Beat­tie and Jimmie Heuga pose at the 1964 Games. Kidd and Heuga were the first U.S. men to win Olympic medals in ski­ing.

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