It's Mostly Downhill for U.S. Contingent

With one notable exception, American skiers were all but invisible during the Alpine World Cup season that ended last weekend at Lillehammer, Norway.

The top three U.S. racers in the final men's overall standings were Kyle Rasmussen, Daron Rahlves and Matt Grosjean, who placed 43rd, 58th and 72nd, respectively. On the women's side, Picabo Street had another terrific winter, winning her second downhill title in a row and finishing sixth overall, but then it was a sharp drop to Hilary Lindh in 33rd, Shannon Nobis in 51st and Megan Garety in 55th.

So, with the next Winter Olympics less than two years away, it appears that the U.S. ski team has about as much depth as "Beavis and Butt-head."

True, Tommy Moe, the 1994 Olympic downhill gold medalist, never recovered fully from his knee injury of last spring, and AJ Kitt was sidelined with the season barely under way. But European skiers get hurt too; the difference is there are usually several capable replacements waiting in the wings for their big chance.

They just keep coming in waves, year after year.

In this season's World Cup standings, the top 16 men and top 16 women were distributed by nationality as follows (in addition to the lone American):

--Austria, eight.

--Switzerland, six.

--Italy and Norway, four each.

--Germany, three.

--France, Sweden and Slovenia, two each.

The inevitable conclusion: Thirty-six years after the start of this country's winter sports boom at the Squaw Valley Olympics, the United States--despite occasional flashes of individual brilliance--is still a second-rate ski racing power.

Oh well, we still have the NFL, the NBA and major league baseball, and of course, that's where most young American athletes go to make their fortune, not the Alps.

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As with just about everything else, money is at the core of the problem for U.S. Skiing, which administers the racing programs. A budget shortfall the last couple of years has caused cuts at the development level just when the need to nurture new talent has been greatest--to prepare for the 2002 Winter Games at Salt Lake City.

Tim Leiweke, hired last September as the organization's president and chief executive officer, is the latest to take on the challenge of creating a sustained American presence in ski racing. He just may be the right man for the job.

Leiweke was the first marketing director of the Minnesota Timberwolves and later became president of the Denver Nuggets. Recently, he told Ski Racing magazine: "One of the things we're worried about is the high level of frustration within the team right now. There doesn't seem to be as much of a focus."

In a so-called "vision" statement issued later, Leiweke said he wants U.S. Skiing to become involved in more rewarding partnerships with ski resorts, create new events, find additional corporate sponsors and increase the sport's television exposure.

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As one step in this direction, the U.S. ski team will hold the first of what it hopes will be an annual convention of athletes, coaches, resort event coordinators and sponsors May 15-19 at Mammoth Mountain.

The various officials will exchange ideas for the first couple of days, then the ski racers will arrive on Friday, in time for an evening concert.

A Fantasy Camp will also be offered that weekend to anyone interested in paying $5,000 to $10,000 for three days of skiing with the team's athletes and coaches. Oh yes, it's tax deductible.

Skiing Notes

The Alpine World Cup overall titles were won by Katja Seizinger of Germany and Lasse Kjus of Norway. . . . With one Nordic World Cup event remaining this weekend at Oslo, Bjorn Dahlie of Norway has clinched the men's cross-country championship, and Manuela Di Centa of Italy has a solid lead in the women's division.

The next-to-last Freestyle World Cup meet is scheduled this weekend at Altenmarkt, Austria, with Donna Weinbrecht continuing to lead the women's moguls competition and another American, Ian Edmondson, trying to make up a 28-point deficit in men's acro-ski (formerly ballet).

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