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Ski circuit out fast with first US opening. Successful women's World Cup races raise money-related issues

Where is the blurred line that divides sport from business? Consider these issues as the women's World Cup completes international ski racing's first-ever ``America's opening'' and heads back to traditional battlegrounds in the Alps: Prize money for winning - should it be delivered ``under the table'' or over? What's it worth to be the place where ski racing's major league, the World Cup circuit, opens the season? Is the key factor in awarding such an event the availability of early snow, or is it the corporate name that will appear on racing bibs, as winners hoist skis in front of television cameras? And with about a $4 million annual budget, raised entirely from corporate and individual contributors, what happens to the United States Ski Team if it doesn't produce some winners?

For years the US tried to get a World Cup opening, promising good December race courses because of massive snowmaking capacity at American resorts. But it was to no avail until the American ski industry ``leaned'' on European ski manufacturers, reminding them they sell a lot of Christmas skis in the US.

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The International Ski Federation (FIS) felt the pressure, and this year awarded the US its first opening of the women's World Cup circuit. But the men racers, who are a bigger media prize, remained in Europe, where they have been searching for snow as usual.

``America's opening'' has been such a success, however, that the Alpine nations - Switzerland, France, Austria, Italy - may have lost some leverage in the power game that controls international competition. Park City ski resort in Utah managed to bring out of nearby Salt Lake City more people than probably ever watched a women's World Cup race, even in Europe. An estimated 12,000 cheering fans did ``the wave'' as if they were at an NFL football game.

At the second ``America's opening'' event at this New Hampshire resort last weekend, perhaps 5,000 onlookers watched a huge televised scoreboard that showed the entire race. There have been VIPs, lavish parties, and, most important, well-prepared race courses despite lack of natural snow at both resorts.

The Europeans were overwhelmed but delighted. ``It's not going to make me very popular, but I'm going to recommend [to the FIS] that all World Cup December races in the future be held in North America,'' said Heinz Krecek, director of the women's World Cup.

Results on the race course once again reveal that it isn't ``home'' snow that determines who wins ski races, but rather how talented, experienced, and deep your team is. The Swiss have again dominated everything, led by two-time overall World Cup champion Erika Hess, winner of the slalom here and current leader in the overall and slalom standings. Countrywoman Brigette Oertli finished second to Hess, while Vreni Schneider and Maria Walliser, the defending overall cup champion, gave Switzerland another sweep of the top two spots in Waterville Valley's giant slalom.

For the Americans, the home turf opening was a mixed blessing. Under a new coaching staff after a terrible season last year, former World Cup champion Tamara McKinney had her best race since 1985 at Park City, placing second in the slalom. But at Waterville Valley, she and every other major American racer, save Beth Madsen, who was 11th in the giant slalom, failed to finish a race. Olympic gold medal winner Debbie Armstrong said the problem was not so much pressure to perform well as it was ``distractions.'' Whatever the reasons, US Ski Team Alpine director Harald Schoenhaar reportedly was furious with the poor American showing.

Which brings us to the question of winning and rewards. Winning European male ski racers sometimes have six-figure incomes. But the semi-amateur guise is maintained to tone down blatant commercialism, to keep control from gravitating from sports federations to the competitors themselves, and to keep peace with the eroding amateur code of the Olympics.

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The US Ski Association is proposing that prize money be awarded openly at the World Cup level. The money ``should be on top of the table rather than underneath it,'' says Waterville Valley president Tom Corcoran, host of nine World Cup races and a former Olympian himself. Corcoran says he thinks the proposal will be accepted, ``but not until after the 1988 Olympics.''

Such a move could nip in the bud the real possibility of top European ski racers forming their own circuit for television. The stakes at this level are obviously big money and political control.

Although women racers - particularly the Americans - race for lower stakes than the men, they too are paid well. But a comment made by 1985 giant slalom world champion Diann Roffe of the US illustrates that even at the World Cup level ``there are a lot of people out there just for the love of the sport.'' Roffe has said that once skiing becomes a job ``... and I don't love it and have that feeling for enjoyment anymore, that's when I'll put the skis in the closet.''

Many disparate interests obviously want to keep the Diann Roffes in the world enjoying themselves.

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