It’s been a few months since Howard Peterson retired from managing Utah’s Soldier Hollow venue, but it will be years before we can truly measure his impact, influence and proactive stance on snowsports.
Peterson kept his cards close to his vest and did not go about patting himself on the back. He arrived to take charge of USSA in 1984 not from an athletic background — yes, he was a nordic skier but a far more accomplished rock climber — but as an executive with an accounting background. At the time, USSA was a struggling sports association, governed by argumentative regional committees and fiefdoms throughout the country.
Meanwhile, Ski Racing was a newsprint tabloid with an annual glossy magazine called the Redbook. When Peterson called to quietly ask if we would ever consider sending the Redbook to USSA members, it was the beginning of a 27-year partnership that continues today.
In the 1980s, the U.S. alpine ski team was governed separately from USSA. Though it took a while to show, the separation wasn’t working for either party. Despite great success at the Sarajevo 1984 Olympic Winter Games in the form of five alpine medals, the ski team was soon hemorrhaging money. USSA wasn’t gaining any ground financially, either.
Peterson solved the crisis, convincing ski team board members Thom Weisel and Nick Badami that rejoining with USSA was the way out of the hole. Initially, Weisel and Badami were unsure and doubtful. The feeling of distrust was mutual. USSA’s board was headed by a very bright, but stubborn Whitey Willauer, who was far from convinced that getting remarried was in the best interest of anyone, let alone USSA.
Despite a major, angry shout fest at Colorado’s Broadmoor Hotel among board members of both sides, Peterson was able to cobble together an agreement based on his knowledge of where the money was leaking from the ski team coffers. His accounting background enabled Peterson to point out the team’s fiscal difficulties. Weisel and Badami eventually realized they had been operating a hemorrhaging organization. They agreed to reunite — on the condition that USSA move to Park City. Peterson dragged a reluctant “OK” out of Willauer and his USSA board, packed up USSA’s Colorado Springs office and herded them West in a bunch of beaten-up Subarus.
The early Park City years were far from easy, but in many ways, they forced Peterson to make some daring decisions. He took freestyle skiing into the USSA fold and then was instrumental in getting the discipline both FIS and Olympic recognition. Freestyle became an Olympic medal sport at the Albertville 1992 Games. New Jersey’s golden girl, Donna Weinbrecht, and Nelson Carmichael earned the U.S. the first of many freestyle medals to come.
Shortly thereafter, Peterson became the driving force in disabled skiing, elevating it to USSA team status and shaming Central European members of the FIS to recognize the discipline as well. Today, thanks to his initial efforts, the International Olympic Committee stages the Paralympic Games, winter and summer. This year, in Sochi, 550 athletes from 45 nations took part in the Paralympics.
When snowboarding exploded in popularity, Peterson — unlike many of his USSA colleagues — immediately adopted the sport. USSA was in the forefront of getting the FIS to embrace riding at the international level. To snag the attention of the FIS, Peterson inspected the season’s opening downhill at Val d’Isere on a snowboard. It would be the first and last such inspection. That evening, Guenther Hujara, the FIS World Cup alpine director, banned snowboard inspections. (Both Peterson and Hujara still smile when reminded about that trip.)
Unfortunately, the FIS, while taking on snowboarding, had no vision to capitalize on the opportunity, allowing Jake Burton Carpenter to create the premier snowboard circuit through his TTR entity. It still rules the sport today. As for the FIS, its IOC snowsport governance status allows it to hold the Olympic card for now, but that, too, may be going the way of the dodo bird as the IOC modernizes.
In 1994 Peterson quietly resigned as CEO of USSA. He never told me why he thought the time had come, but for the Salt Lake 2002 bid committee, his timing was propitious. Peterson was invaluable to the organizers in getting the USOC to agree that Utah’s capital would be a better Olympic site than Anchorage. His argument was clear and defining: commit to building the venues before the Games, and commit to keeping them going after the Games.
Think about it: the only Salt Lake 2002 venues not in operation are the speed skating rink and the Olympic downhill at Snowbasin. Every other Olympic venue is thriving, drawing tourists spending money along with athletes in training.
Though gone from USSA, Peterson remained a major factor in the sport as a FIS delegate. At times a brilliant political parliamentarian, Peterson was able to persuade a reluctant Congress to approve prize money for World Cups. He did it the old-fashioned way — glad-handing here, convincing there, and making sure that most key members of major alpine nations agreed with the concept. In 1990, when the prize-money vote hit the FIS Congress floor in Montreux, Switzerland, it carried the day begrudgingly, but it changed how the sports world looked at World Cup ski racing.
Courtesy Tom Kelly, USSA; and The Utah Nordic Alliance
During the early 1990s, corruption — rampant in the International Olympic Committee site selection process — began to rear its ugly head in FIS world championship venue selections. It became particularly open in the alpine site bidding process. The 1992 FIS Congress is best remembered for the out-of-the-blue, eleventh-hour bid by Sestriere, the Italian playground of Mussolini and the Agnelli family. Once a few tokens — automobiles, vacations, private jet trips, yachting vacations and the like — were allegedly given to floor members, Sestriere prevailed.
The extremely savvy and long time FIS president, Marc Hodler, knew things needed to change or his governing body would go the way of the IOC: corrupt to the core.
Persuading Congress members to give up their right to vote on world championship sites was a daunting, if not impossible, task. Still, two wily parliamentarians — Hodler and Peterson, adroitly working together — found a path to success. Hodler presided as the Congress chair, which he ruled with an iron fist. Peterson managed the floor as a whip, giving an impassioned speech in which he cited the need for change.
If current practices continued, said Peterson, the sport of ski racing would be imperiled. He then asked if he could introduce a motion for an “open” ballot, a step that would be highly unusual for the FIS, which almost always uses the Australian or secret ballot.
Hodler and Peterson had craftily worded the motion so that if a delegate voted “yes,” that indicated an approval of continued corruption. A “no” vote gave the FIS Council the power to choose sites. Believe it or not, there were six “yes” votes for corruption. The other 100 or so voting delegates chose not to embarrass themselves. To this day, the 16-member FIS Council selects the world championship sites.
Peterson not only rooted out FIS corruption but also chaired the “Advertising Matters” committee as the FIS struggled to modernize its presentation of ski sport. It was not an easy job. For the most part, Central European nations only worried about what was good for their countries, largely ignoring the needs of the sport and refusing to understand that the disappearance of state-run television allowed viewers many new options. Their recalcitrance gave Peterson fits. In the end, however, he was able to modernize podium presentations, on-hill banner presentations and more. Much of what you see on TV during the World Cup events today is thanks to Peterson.
Then there is Soldier Hollow, the site of the Salt Lake 2002 nordic events. After the Games, it was floundering until Peterson volunteered to take on restoring the site’s viability. He made it far more than just a winter competition track. Today, mostly because of Peterson’s vision, Soldier Hollow is bustling year-round with sheepdog trials, biathlon contests, roller skiing and USSA nordic programs for kids as well as competition development. It boasts golf, horseback riding and Native American pow wows. And Soldier Hollow hosts nordic championships, Olympic trials and, oh yes, one of the longest tubing tracks in the nation. Soldier Hollow is used and enjoyed by thousands every year.
Competitive skiing’s reach, of course, stretches much, much farther, thanks to Howard Peterson.