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TORINO: BLACK DIAMONDS: Organizers needed a bit better, well, organizing

TORINO: BLACK DIAMONDS: Organizers needed a bit better, well, organizing{mosimage}Gary Black has had his finger on the pulse of ski competition for more than 20 years. He has been at the helm of the Ski Racing ship for five Winter Games, and if you have read our recent news you will see why we are happy to hand him the keys to door No. 6. Gary is the behind-the-scenes guy that the behind-the-scenes people talk about, and he’ll be providing “Black Diamonds” for us to enjoy.

Thursday, Feb. 23
As the XX Olympic Winter Games slowly wend their way into the history books, some things just deserve some thoughts.

The Italians have been good hosts. The thousands and thousands of volunteers have been pleasant about virtually everything. They were not informed on most anything, but they smiled as they told you they didn’t know.

The same goes for the thousands and thousands of security personnel and police. Virtually every type of security person was here: the Carabinieri, forest service, mountain troops, army, financial police and whatever else. They have been pleasant first, but firm when necessary.

As good hosts as the Italians have been, they have not been attentive fans. Often stands have gone empty, not because the Italians do not like sport, but because to a large extent you can’t get to the venues except by buses that often were terminally late to the venues. Tickets were priced at ridiculous levels initially. The market collapsed and one could get a €295 seat for €25 by the week’s end.

Missing too was Olympic enthusiasm, at least in Sestriere. With the lifts closed for supposed ‘security’ reasons, no one could ski. It kept the hardcore away and limited any postrace fun. Almost no fan clubs showed up. But most noticeable was the absence of kids. There were some present, but compared to other Games such as Lillehammer, the joyous shouts of youth were not here. It was a shame.

Unlike Salt Lake, where the stands had two to three times the capacity of Sestriere’s stadiums and were packed, seats went begging and standing-room ticket holders were asked to go sit in the stands. For Jacques Rogge and the IOC, the Winter Games have to be a worry.

Not only are they not attracting the fan support, but also apparently they are not drawing viewers, based on what is in the papers. And if the economic engine of the Games is running on only six cylinders, what is to happen to the Winter Games in the future.

Of course, much of the problem is generated by the IOC itself. Known mostly for portentousness, the membership votes site selection mostly from ignorance, paying little attention to where the Games are located and with token consideration of sport facilities. What results is poorly chosen locations which, like Athens, wind up virtually bankrupt and paying off debt long after the IOC G 5’s have left with the pompous ‘Olympic family.’

Transportation is always a critical issue at an Olympics, and it was even more so here. At best it was sporadic, complicated or non-existent. The Torino organizing committee always knew it was its biggest challenge. It was a challenge the committee only partially met, falling well behind Lillehammer, Salt Lake and even Albertville. With the disparate venues, getting from Sestriere to Bardonecchia was simply too much of a hassle, though buses from the main press center to the venues seemed to be reasonable. Transportation woes did not affect the ‘Olympic family.’ They traveled in police-escorted limousines.

Monday, Feb. 20
With apologies to Ernest Lawrence Thayer:

Oh, somewhere in this mountain land the snow is gleaming bright.
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.
And, somewhere men are laughing, and little skiers shout,
but there is no joy in Sestriere so far the mighty U.S. has skied out.

How painful it is, watching the once-proud, enthusiastic U.S. alpine squad self-destruct. With each passing race, faces get longer and in some circles they get redder when they think of the slogan, ‘Best in the World.’

Guess what; the U.S. is not best in the world, at least not so far this fortnight. Having watched skiers and ski races over the years, this team seems to have succumbed to the pressure of trying too hard to live up to the pre-Olympic hype and the team’s fast start in Beaver Creek. Thank goodness for Ted Ligety. Without him, the alpine squad’s results would be the worst since the Olympic team of 1988 posted a ninth place as their top finish of the Games.

The ‘D’ man seems the most affected. Daron Rahlves came into these Games on a high, but to this observer it seemed he was trying too hard, pressuring himself too much. How much pressure came from the media frenzy surrounding the antics of his teammate or the U.S. media’s constant pounding on ‘Best in the World’ he will never admit. But there had to be some.

For sure, there has been some bad luck. Lindsey Kildow crashing on the second day of training was plainly unlucky and took out a real medal hope for the women. Bode Miller’s people claim his ski lost an edge in the first run of the GS, but no one outside of his immediate entourage has seen the ski to confirm it. If it is true, then luck once again turned south.

Six or seven years ago when the team first came out with the slogan ‘Best in the World’ many laughed and some grimaced. In hindsight, the slogan has worked well as a goal to strive for. During the period, the alpine team has become one of the strongest on the World Cup circuit. Coming into these Games, on paper this squad looked to be stronger than the acclaimed 1984 Sarajevo Olympic team. It hasn’t lived up to anywhere near its potential.

With three events left, slalom and GS for the women and slalom for the guys, the best-case scenario would gain two more medals. They are a long shot. Ligety is definitely a contender for a medal. Miller, well 7 to 2 against. As for the women, the horses are there, but will they run?

Saturday, Feb. 18
Someone better start doing something about Dick Pound before the Canadian lawyer tears apart what good the anti-doping policy has been doing.

Pound, whose ego is bigger than George Steinbrenner’s or anyone else you can think of, is charging that virtually everybody is doping. It is becoming destructive.

This week, Pound said the FIS was remiss in not throwing 12 nordic skiers with higher-than-normal hemoglobin (Hb) out of the Games, indicating that the FIS was sweeping the issue under the table.

Pound knows not of what he speaks.

High Hb can result from high-altitude training and dehydration. It is a fact and it is provable.

Pound further skewered the FIS, saying the international federation was afraid it might not be able to prove doping. Right! The FIS uses one the toughest and most-thorough testing procedures in sports, and while the federation won’t challenge Pound openly, the FIS has been asked by WADA to help with blood-testing research.

Facts have never stepped in Pound’s way. Neither has taking on sports over which the World Anti-Doping Agency has no authority or jurisdiction.

Once again at these Games, Pound vehemently accused the NHL of being soft on drugs. stating that at least one-third of the league’s players were on some “performance-enhancing” drug.

Naturally, both the league and the players’ representatives fired back, saying emphatically that Pound was way off-base.

“I would respectfully suggest that Mr. Pound’s comments have absolutely no basis in fact,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told the Canadian Press.
“I find it troubling, to say the least, that he would find it necessary to comment on something he has absolutely no knowledge of.”

Pound also believes that undercover or covert action to catch athletes is perfectly fine, stating that “any means” should be used to sto
p cheaters. Wrong again. A police-state mentality will not work in the long run.

Drug testing is having a positive effect, and while there are some athletes who cheat, not all do. Pound’s big mouth isn’t helping create an atmosphere of cooperation. Nor is he really addressing the difficulties facing the program. There is not a level playing field. Poor nations do not test, and despite the fact that the United States’ anti-doping agency, USADA, is perhaps the best-funded and most thorough in the world, the virulently anti-American Pound finds every excuse to tear down the U.S. program

If anti-doping is to succeed, it needs a balanced, thinking leader. Pound is neither, and his mouth may very well set the entire program and the good it is accomplishing back into oblivion.

Thursday, Feb. 16
There is a paucity of fans at the alpine venue here in Sestriere. The same is true in San Sicario where luge, biathlon and women’s downhill went off with too many empty seats.

Compared to the Games in Salt Lake City, the Torino Games are a dud for fan enthusiasm. According to the Torino Olympic Committee, approximately 8,500 attended the men’s downhill, the Winter Games’ signature event. Mostly the fans sat on their hands, politely clapping, but showing none of the rabid enthusiasm found at the Snowbasin venue in 2002, where 25,000 screaming and cheering fans made the venue pulse with life.

It is just not the same in these mountains and judging from what is being observed by folks back in Torino, the big city is not pulling fans to the ice venues either. Why?

Perhaps the first indication that the Games might be a bust fan-wise came with the small number of fans attending to the alpine World Championships held at this time one year ago in Bormio. There, virtually no one showed up. The FIS, under whose auspices the worlds were run, blamed several factors. Ticket pricing by the organizers was said to be too far above market. There were no Italian alpine stars as in the days of Alberto Tomba and Deborah Compagnoni to motivate the fans. And there was political infighting between various local authorities over who would run the championships. The result? Empty stands.

Much the same is true for these Olympic Games. Ticket prices are still high; $295 for a reserved seat at the men’s downhill, where you could see one jump and six seconds of live action. Then there is the difficulty of getting to the mountain venues. For the men’s downhill, fully one-third of the seats were still empty 25 minutes into the race dueto transportation snafus. Thanks to a long course hold due to a fall which required a toboggan, the latecomers did not miss too many racers, but the reality may have an impact on future attendance.

Unfortunately, the Italians do not have many medal opportunities. They have a good luge competitor. In skiing, Giorgio Rocca is the class of the slalom skiers, but he is under huge pressure in this medal-starved country and is being chased by another pretty good gate turner who already has a gold medal, Ted Ligety.

Spreading events over five mountain towns has had an effect as well. While Salt Lake City had Park City and Lillehammer had its main street where fans could come together and celebrate, this Olympics has no core area. There are five mountain venues and three Olympic villages. The main street of Sestriere has a smattering of people, but gray-jacketed volunteers and Carbonieri outnumber folks walking around. If it were not for a few banners, a jumbotron in the center of town and a larger-than-usual temporary stadium, this could be a regular World Cup slalom, and not special like the Olympics.

If I were IOC President Jacques Rogge, I would be worried. And now I read the ratings do not equal “American Idol.” Ouch!

Wednesday, Feb. 15
Ted Ligety is one hell of a slalom skier and only the nation’s fourth alpine athlete to capture Olympic gold. So why does he have to be compared with and contrasted to Bode Miller. While Ligety was indeed a dark horse to Peck’s bad boy, Miller, the real story was Ligety.

Yet journalists chose to contrast the youngster with his older and certainly more controversial teammate.

Understated and humble, the hard-working Ligety was all too often used as a foil to gloat on the failure of Miller.

First of all, Miller scarcely failed. He won the combined downhill. While his slalom run looked ragged, only a very discerning eye could see his straddle, it was so quick. It took a video review to determine if indeed it had occurred and Miller was leading the competition until the jury ruled correctly that Miller ran over a gate.

Thinking back on the United States’ last gold performance, when Tommy Moe thundered down Kvitfjell’s track, the press made him a household name. Too bad today’s need for sensationalism took precedent over gold. It certainly didn’t in Lillehammer.

Women’s downhill
In my book, the girl with the golden hair deserves kudos just for merely starting the Olympic downhill at San Sicario. Lindsey Kildow took one of the uglier falls I have ever seen and despite being so sore she could hardly walk, the gritty skier gunned down the hill to take eighth position. Pretty damn classy for someone who left a hospital room a scant 24 hours back.

You have to give equal credit to Carole Montillet-Carles. The defending Olympic Champion who crushed the fencing face first in training raced as well. She was so swollen that her eyes were taped open. Wow! Now that is tough.

It was good to see Julia Mancuso take a page out of the freestyle and snowboard book. As she skied into the start gate, Mancuso raised her arms above her head in a victory pose and urged the crowd below to cheer her down. While the purists might say she should be focusing more, the Californian’s loose-as-a-goose attitude ought to be emulated by others to create a little life in a sport which too often takes itself far too seriously.

Austrian musings
Peter Schrocksnadel, the head of the Austrian federation and alpine rainmaker, always has a lot to say, especially when it concerns ski racing. Between the combined slalom runs, Schrocksnadel pontificated on how and how not to run the alpine World Cup.

Some of his points:
Four-event weekends are not good for ratings or the sport. Too many viewers tune out by the fourth event, in part dueo to boredom and in part due to the plethora of choices which are growing as Europe gets cabled.

World Cup venues, save three or four classic sites, ought to be rotated every two years. This keeps more organizers interested and capable. It also keeps the power in the hands of the FIS rather than give it over to the organizers.

The Nations Cup should not be a standalone race but should be part of the World Cup. Team coaches would nominate three members of their team to be scored for the Nations Cup and the scoring would be ongoing throughout the season.

Team events are good for the World Championships and Olympics, but should not be part of the regular season. Too confusing for the fan, he says.

The marble trout, a version of brown trout found in the United States, is a great fish to catch on a fly.

Monday, Feb. 13
The U.S. alpine squad had to eat humble pie when the team came up goose eggs in the men’s downhill. The team’s failure to gain an expected podium coupled with the team’s slogan, “Best in the World,” gave the assembled print journalists every excuse to skewer anyone and everything alpine, which they did with great glee.

In doing so, however, the fourth estate showed off its complete ignorance of alpine skiing and just how far into the toilet newspaper journalism has fallen. For your enjoyment and incredulation at sheer stupidity, the Ski Racing team has assembled a sample of the most inane comments.

Topping the list a story headlined “The collapse of the U.S. team almost overshadowed the Turin Winter Games,” which intoned “Namely, the 30th man down the mountain, t
he starting place usually reserved for Prince Charles or the downhiller from Iran, attacked the Olympic course with stunning élan and snatched the Games’ gold medal from a highly favored Austrian.”

The journalistic genius behind these comments is Gil Lebreton, from the ski-mad city of Fort Worth, Texas (Star-Telegram) who obviously has never heard of reverse 30 and might confuse a bib draw with burping a baby.

Then there is this gem from ski racing expert (sic) Mike Celizic at MSNBC. “If you want to be the world’s greatest skier, you have to win the Olympic downhill. The world accepts no substitutes.”

Using Celizic’s woefully dim-witted pronouncement, the following are not among the world’s greatest skiers: Ingemar Stenmark, Phil Mahre, Marc Girardelli, Alberto Tomba and Hermann Maier.

Saturday, Feb. 11
Every four years, the Olympics bring out ‘the media.’

For skiing competition, that is both good and bad. The good is that the dinosaurs of the print world cover skiing every four years, bringing more attention to an often underappreciated sport. The bad is that more often than not, they have no clue about the sport or athletes. It is enough to frost anyone who does.

Take Newsweek, a struggling-to-survive weekly news journal whose world is the mid-20th century. To cover alpine skiing, Newsweek assigned its ‘arts and entertainment’ editor, Devin Gordon, who then demonstrated his ignorance of the sport by flaming Daron Rahlves. Sadly for our sport, Newsweek reaches a broad audience, most of which will assume that Mr. Gordon has some sort of skiing expertise.

It used to be in journalism that ignorance was not acceptable, but apparently not so in the erudite world of movie critiquing, which requires little intellect and a big ego. Unfortunately, a real athlete with a solid career has to suffer through obfuscation by the wizards of ‘major’ media. Here is what Newsweek had to say about the downhiller who has the best record in the discipline posted by any American male skier.

“The trouble is, Rahlves has never won — or even come close to winning — a race of this magnitude.”

How wrong. Anyone who knows the sport understands that Olympic downhill courses are well below the level of the major World Cup tests. In fact, most do not provide near the challenge of Kitzbuehel, Wengen or Beaver Creek, a fact that the entertainment editor obviously is not aware of, nor concerned enough to inquire. The self-anointed Newsweek skiing expert creates further mythology by saying that Rahlves was the favorite in Salt Lake City. In a pig’s eye. Stephan Eberharter was the odds-on favorite.

Most likely, Gordon has never been to a ski race or done any homework. If he had, he would have known that Rahlves has perhaps the greatest victory in U.S. skiing history. When he won the World Championships super G over the Austrian greats Hermann Maier and Eberharter on their turf — St. Anton — well, that is as good as one gets, no matter what country he skis for.

Those of us who follow the sport know better. It is just sad when a solid athlete must suffer at the hands of a hack. Rather than misinforming a few, perhaps Gordon should go sit on top of the Empire State Building with King Kong and share their collective knowledge about alpine racing.

Thursday, Feb. 9
Sometimes one is downright lucky. Today was my turn.

Having done my duty and had a tour of Torino, it was time to go to the mountains. The first segment of the trip, grabbing a train was painless. One’s Olympic credential serves as the ticket and the 11.20 out of Torino’s Porto Nuovo station made only one stop on its way to Oulx, which is the jumping-off spot to head up the hill to Sestriere.

Oulx is one of those northern Italian towns that you don’t know why it is where it is. It most likely dates back to the Neolithic era like the town of Susa which the train whistles by. Everyone else seemed to go somewhere but me. I wind up outside the Oulx station warm in the sun searching and not finding something meaningful. Despite the fact that Oulx is the train stop for two venues, there were no buses, no taxis, no signs and no information desk. But there were 200 very polite, non-English-, French- or German-speaking cops who understood nothing I asked. Fortunately the station ticket manager speaks several words of English, no French, even though la Belle Frog is not more than a dozen kilometers over the mountains. So I make gestures. He makes words, good Italian words. I don’t understand any of them except the occasional ‘taxi.’

This big guy strides into the ticket area. He is wearing a ballcap which says “Vermont 79,” prompting me to ask where in Vermont was he from. In heavily French-accented English, he allows he lives in France but he adds, ‘I am going to Sestriere. Would you like a ride?’ ‘Damn right’ flew out of my mouth. And off we went in this tiny little car with my bags taking up the entire back seat, as there was no trunk.

Thomas, he introduces himself as. A Slovakian by birth, he was in the midst of a hockey career, now playing semi-pro in Besancon, which is north of Geneva. He had emigrated to Canada at 16 to play junior hockey, played with University of Moncton, did a short tour with the St. Louis Blues, got hurt, came to France with another hockey buddy to play in a French and blew a knee in early December. He wants to get back to Canada, but ‘I have to stay here for the physio’ he says.

We wander up the mountain behind several buses. Thomas wants to coach, ‘but I am too young.’ He is 26, which probably is too young. He asks questions regarding skiing and the Olympics, about which he knows very little. He is excited to see Sestriere and enjoys having various things like courses and the athletes’ village pointed out. Sestriere is tiny. We arrive at the apartment shortly. I climb out; ask if he would like a beer. ‘No, have to be going’ is the reply.

The bags get pulled out. The 6-foot-3 Thomas climbs back into his tiny car and is gone, a nice guy who offered a very convenient ride, which was good fortune for me. But who knows how the next guy will get up here from Oulx, unless he lucks into a Thomas.

Tuesday, Feb. 7
There are some old piles of dirty snow around some of the piazzas, but with no mountains in sight, some dull gray sunshine and a fair amount of construction going on, it hardly seems like winter’s quadrennial showcase is launching in 72 hours.

It seems less biting but not mild in this Italian industrial center for this time of year. If it were not for the scores of Olympic volunteers in black-accented jackets, a series of snowflake lights hanging over the via Nizzia and a monster souvenir tent occupying a goodly portion of the Piazza Veneto, there are only subtle signs that one of the world’s great sporting events is about to commence.

That is until one arrives at the monstrous MMC – the Main Media Center – housed in the old Fiat factory that the Agnelli family gave to the city a number of years ago. The center, which is fenced and heavily policed, covers about seven to eight full New York City blocks. Here one can feel the pulse of the Games starting to build. There are press conferences with athletes, camera crews and information centers. Three full restaurants, numerous snack bars, a laundry service and massage deck are all available for the fourth estate.

It is, however, Italy. Italian Telecom has run out of monthly Wi-Fi cards and the hapless volunteer manning the Wi-Fi desks hasn’t a clue when he could get more. ‘We were overwhelmed’ he laments. ‘We sold
over 100 yesterday.’ Only in this affable, laid-back nation would the country’s largest telecommunications company be surprised by the demand generated when 20,000 media types descend. And, being Italy, the enterprising can go online, buy a day card, surf the Wi-Fi Web site and purchase a seven-day deal for $2 a day less than is offered to the press.

Not that this preliminary week won’t have some excitement. For the first time in modern memory, the U.S. alpine squad is going to have downhill time trials to see who starts the big race. Bode and Daron have qualified, but Scotty Mac, Steve Nyman and Marco Sullivan are vying for the last two start slots. The fastest of these three in Thursday’s training run gets a bib. And of the two remaining, the fastest in Friday’s training gets the nod to go. We may not be the Austrians, but by golly, we are beginning to resemble them.

Phil McNichol just wants the course workers to ice the hill. He is thinking of his DH gun, Rahlves, who likes tacks which are gnarly and wicked. The Borgata course won’t be really harsh, Rahlves says, but it will be a challenge. A “clean’ line and getting the ‘most out of the terrain’ will be key, he says. And D should know. He was the winner in the 2004 World Cup Finals here and the men have not been back since.

What do you think?


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