Given the chance to go on a 10-mile ski trip in five-degree weather wearing a skin-tight suit, it's hardly surprising that today's slack-muscled American sloth prefers to sit in a warm chair playing extreme adventure games on a computer. It wasn't always so.
Cross-country skiing was so popular two decades ago that Americans in 1978 bought three times as many pairs of skinny skis than they do today. Two years earlier, an inspired, innovative Bill Koch had won America's first Olympic medal in cross-country skiing. By 1982, the United States boasted the fourth best men's team in the world.
The opposite prevails today. U.S. men and women now rank 21st out of 22 teams in the cross-country Nations Cup and, thanks to the apparent global warming that frequently melts low-elevation ski touring trails to the ground in winter, the number of Americans cross-country skiing has dropped by half in the last decade.
For any boy or girl who dreams of winning an Olympic medal, nordic skiing is a bonanza: It offers more medals than alpine racing, for example. But dreams are not reality. Today, America's top cross-country men typically clock times 5 to 10 percent slower than the winner, usually finishing 40th or worse. Why have we been unable to replicate the national cross-country ski team of the early Eighties, when our racers nipped the tails of the skis of the world's best?
John Caldwell, one-time coach of the U.S. Team, former U.S. representative on the FIS cross-country committee and author of the best selling The Cross Country Ski Book, says it's because the Park City, Utah, headquarters of the U.S. Ski Association (USSA), focusing on a few top athletes, doesn't fund regional grass-roots development. Caldwell is a native of Putney, Vt., where he coached World Cup champion Bill Koch. Koch and his teammates were all New Englanders.
Others echo the flinty Caldwell's criticism. Among the half-dozen or fewer regional strongholds of cross-country racing¿Minnesota's Twin Cities and Duluth, for example, or Sun Valley, Idaho, Anchorage, Alaska, and the Vermont-based New England Nordic Ski Association¿on which America must rely to spawn young talent, it's difficult to detect support for USSA's approach to the sport. "If you don't start with enough good skiers," says Steve Gaskell, a long-time U.S. Ski Team and Midwest coach, who's now at the University of Montana in Missoula, "it doesn't matter what you do at the top end."
U.S. Ski Association CEO Marolt and his cross-country chief, Luke Bodensteiner, heartily agree on the need for strong regional programs to feed a successful national team. But when the nation's talented juniors have graduated high school, Marolt wants the best of them to come to central HQ in Park City in order to reside there and train as an elite group.
"We want all of the coaches and athletes in international programs to be in one place," says Marolt, a veteran of the Sixties alpine ski team assembled by coach Bob Beattie in Boulder, Colo. "That's the way you maximize your training opportunities. You have better control, the sports science is better, the training is closely monitored, and the athletes, being together, push each other."
Last summer, however, when the country's five most promising junior cross-country racers were offered the chance to live and train in Park City, four of them turned it down. Asked if the young athletes' choice didn't represent a repudiation of his residency program, Marolt, whom I once admiringly described in a column as "Hardnosed Bill," responds, "(It) doesn't deter us in what we're going to do."
"We gotta believe in it," adds Bodensteiner. About one skier, Rob Whitney, who chose to go to college rather than move to Park City, Bodensteiner says, "Some athletes don't have a sense that they need to really put themselves on the line, try something that hasn't been tried before, and go for the sport when their friends are going to college."
"Why," asks Joe McNulty, a former cross-country racer and now the nordic director of the Pacific Northwest Ski Association, "would you want to pull a 19-year-old out of college, which plays a critical role in his life after skiing, and stick him in a training facility until he's 28 (the typical age of a cross-country champion)? It's not a great way to treat a human being, like putting him in a kennel. It doesn't seem a credible approach to training athletes."
Jim Galanes, 43, who directs the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Skiing Center in Anchorage, believes that "putting everyone in Park City is a disaster culturally, socially and athletically. You're not going to have athletes stick around very long if residency is a requirement." He favors athletes living in a supportive community and culture.
"Anchorage and Putney, for example, are cross-country communities, Park City is not," says Galanes, a former World Cup cross-country racer.
Marolt seems puzzled by the reaction to USSA's cross-country initiatives, since he believes his pipeline concept of bringing new talent to the Ski Team from the grass roots affords ample input from regional coaches. "We have the systems in place to communicate and for people to be involved in the planning process." Responds Galanes: "I've been to lots of meetings in Park City over the last couple of years, only to find that our opinions in the field don't count for much."
Cross-country's woes don't end with the residency question. According to Gaskell, "We're not even close to the top nordic nations in our sports medicine, physiology, training, waxing and technical information. Very little such information is coming to the regions from U.S. Ski Team headquarters."
USSA currently spends more than $4 million on alpine ski racing, which offers 30 medals for men and women. Cross-country, with the same number of medals at stake, receives only $450,000.
Because the U.S. lags so far behind in cross-country, why not save the $450,000 and drop the sport? Marolt rejects the idea, noting skiing has the Olympic responsibility to field a team. But Gaskell says keeping the sport at a low-funded level is "worse than if USSA were to drop it." He believes that cross-country would be better off on its own, raising money, plus getting funds from the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Marolt's goal is to win 10 medals (alpine, nordic, freestyle skiing and snowboarding) in the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics, including one in nordic combined.
The absence of hope for cross-country skiing is not shared by Jim Galanes, arguably the best American cross-country coach on the scene today. Working with Anchorage-area youngsters, Galanes directs a program called GOLD 2002, which last summer attracted a one-time grant of $1 million from former Alaska Lt. Gov . Lowell Thomas, Jr.
The regional program's aim is to produce Alaska-based racers who can win medals on the Olympic cross-country ski trails, not far from USSA's central HQ in Park City. Who knows? Even one Olympic medal may get Americans out of their warm chairs and onto cross-country skis again.
At the height of the nordic ski boom in the Seventies, SKI's then editorial director John Fry led the launch of a new magazine, Cross Country SKI. Publication ended when, paralleling the sport, it ran out of readers.