The US Ski Team and the 2006 Winter Olympics

March 7, 2006 2 comments

Bad juju was working on Bode Miller. Darren Ralves and Lindsey Kildow suffered some kind of bad luck, too. This had to have an effect on the entire the US Olympic Alpine Ski Team. From the sports press, a story emerged that went something something like, “Bode Miller is a jerk and he brought the ski team down.” I don’t buy it.

Most elite sports journalists probably do not understand ski racing. The ski industry, USSA and Team management do not seem to understand that, with alpine ski racing not exactly commanding star ratings, the prospects for growth depend on how well the sport can represent itself on the media stage. The US Olympic Alpine Ski Team and its managers have responsibility to represent the sport. Perception is everything, and the perception is negative. If steps are not taken, by next Winter Olympics who knows what the story will be?

I think everyone would agree that our Team needs to do a lot better in representing itself. Media strategy is not a black art. Proactive messaging, worst case scenario planning, all that stuff is orchestrated every day by movie stars, public companies, politicians and everybody else. In past Olympiads, ski racing has had the luxury of not getting enough publicity and attention. Thus, it hasn’t had to deal with too much attention. Ski racing was still one of those sports where the US wasn’t really expected to excel, and so any mediocre result, or any quirky story, was OK. This year, was different. There was a breakthrough and a huge opportunity lost.

In this Winter Olympic build-up media focus was fully on the Team, primarily because they declared themselves to be the best. This must have been a move calculated at the top. And it worked; the media took the bait. Sports Illustrated, Newsweek and Men’s Journal put the story on their covers in one form or another. Then, Bode made that little mistake. 60 Minutes set out to destroy him. Team management—deer in the headlights—acted as if they hoped it would all go away. Maybe they thought they’d best lie low and let results speak for themselves. If so, that was a naïve gamble. It’s clear, anyway, that there was no contingency planning as US ski racing central.
By the time of the men’s downhill, the stage had been set. The stories were virtually written in the alternative: triumph, or if not, the athletes let us down. In other words, by gaining the spotlight in these Winter Olympic Games, American ski racing reached a high water mark. For the first time, American ski racing, now in the national spotlight, became subject to the irony of stardom. I would have to guess that the American ski scene was very ill equipped to deal with this irony in particular and post modern journalism in general.

Fundamentally, American big sports media and the viewing public will never truly appreciate elite ski racing unless some very big changes occur. It’s hard to understand that if you fall once in a ski race you’re out, but you can fall twice in figure skating and get a silver medal. It’s even more difficult when the consuming public is used to thinking of sports heros as millionaire hooligans, wife beaters and drug abusers. Contrast the lives of Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson with Lindsey Kildow. Political media strategist Dick Morris said media has to have a certain portion of meat every day. If that is true, the Team operators fed the team to the lions in large doses. The Team operators left message choices and story lines to the imagination of sports journalists. They didn’t have a plan.

We know the Team and its management has not been seriously challenged to execute media relations on this level in the past. It was apparent they were unprepared for what happened at Turin. Going forward, they need to figure out what to do. For starters, it was possible to convey positive messages and images. It’s not difficult to imagine press conferences with team, coaches and supporters telling people what ski racing is all about.

I don’t think the athletes let the fans down. They were having the best season in history and failed to capitalize. Is that the athlete’s fault? (Hint: What happens to a coach when the team has a losing season?) But that is probably beside the point. As a team, we won a lot of medals and came in second. The Alpine Ski Team delivered only two medals, when it might have won ten. But, with credit to Apollo Ono, “that’s ski racing.” Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso raced brilliantly. Lindsey Kildow sucked it up, as did Caroline Lalive, who missed her last Olympics with a last-minute knee injury. Chip Knight and Jimmy Cochran skied well as did Shlopy, Richardson, McCarthy and the others. There’s no doubt we have a deep and strong team that had earned the opportunity to achieve some remarkable results in these Games. That didn’t happen, but it’s so trivial compared to what these athletes achieved just to get there. Of course, we don’t know much about this because it wasn’t reported.

To me ski racing is all about sucking it up. Several years ago, in her column called “Racer X”, Edith Thys (Ski Magazine contributor and 1992 US Olympic Alpine Team member) used this phrase and it stuck with me. Frankly, I think the US skiers did suck it up as best they could on an individual level, but I think the team management and the coaches let the team down.

So, one could ask if these Games would have been better if the coverage had been better. I think definitely so. Coverage this year created angst. In fact, that was the story: our athletes let America down. Maybe they did let down the reporters (sorry, journalists), who evidently resented hanging out in Italy without a record medal count when they could have been in Baghdad. The Olympics inevitably provide a platform for sports reporters to raise issues bigger than any particular contest. Maybe this explains an article from Bill Pennington of the New York Times, author of The Heisman: Miller’s Last Olympic Stumble Is Final Blow to US Swagger. Or this from Selena Roberts of the Times: No Good-Conduct Medal for Ugly Americans. There, Roberts trashed skiers but defended skater Johnny Weir as a “standup guy who knows that sometimes it’s better not to make excuses.” (Wasn’t he the guy who was flummoxed by transportation woes, blew a medal, and said his “biorhythms were off”?) I don’t even want to get started on Bob Costas.

My personal opinion is that these Games have exposed the crisis in the American ski industry and American ski racing in particular. There may be some serious fall out for Winter Olympic coverage in general, but certainly for ski racing. It is possible that a recovery in both camps is needed in order for the next Winter Games to be a success on American TV. I don’t know the answer, but I would like to see the Winter Olympics covered in some ways similar to the way OLN covers the Tour de France—expert, all day, real-time. I would rather see less prime time coverage and more choices.

Categories: Alpine Skiing

To all

February 28, 2006 1 comment

Thanks for looking in and tolerating these feeble efforts while I’m finding out how to do the blog things. I’ll keep it short while I’m learning.

As most of you know, we are back in Utah now and getting back into our American social network. Hope this blog will be a good bus to get on. So, please join in.

Immersion into American, Western, Utahan, Park City culture has been immediate and easy. A few days of powder skiing right out of the starting gate, then a house visit and some sunny skiing. Now, it’s churning from mild to warm to rain to snow to cold and then more snow, hopefully. Big views, wind, sun. The dynamic landscape. Apologies to Barry Lopez and Galen Rowell. On this level, to compare Utah to England, where everything is monochromatic and safe, is unfair. But it’s easy to imagine options here that just didn’t exist there.

Anyway, it’s great to be back and on to new things. More later.

Storm clearing