SPORTS

A ski team’s dramatic downhill slide

PETER GIFFEN March 11 1985
SPORTS

A ski team’s dramatic downhill slide

PETER GIFFEN March 11 1985

A ski team’s dramatic downhill slide

SPORTS

In the late 1970s the Canadian men’s downhill ski team propelled itself to international prominence for the first time with an aggressive style that earned its members the nickname “Crazy Canucks”—as well as 16 World Cup victories. But this season Paris, Ont.’s Todd Brooker—the last link to a glorious past—is leading a dispirited young team into what may be its worst finish in eight years. Brooker posted a dismal

fifth-place finish in the downhill at the Canadian championships two weeks ago. Although he finished first in last week’s World Cup Race in Furano, Japan, he stands a disappointing seventh in the downhill rankings. As well, his four young teammates—Felix Belczyk of Castlegar, B.C., Chris Mclver and Don Stevens of Rossland, B.C., and Gary Athans of Kelowna, B.C.—are well behind the leaders. Said veteran Austrian skier Franz Klammer: “[Steve] Podborski retired, Ken Read retired. There is only Brooker left. And the young boys are just not ready for World Cup.”

The retirement of the team’s leading members made some decline inevitable. But the unexpected scale of the Canadian team’s reversals, coupled with the approximately five years needed to train contenders in the fiercely competitive World Cup, has led many observers to doubt Canada’s ability to field a re-

spectable team for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Indeed, the current lack of winning talent has raised doubts about the Canadian Ski Association’s ability to cultivate young skiers. Critics have charged that CSA officials were transfixed by the accomplishments of the original Crazy Canucks —Read, Podborski, David Irwin and David Murray—and neglected the future. Clearly, they had plenty of warning.

Said five-time World Cup winner Read: “The current situation is not much of a surprise. It was recognized long ago that the talent behind Todd was pretty shallow.”

For his part, Glenn Wurtele, head coach of the men’s team, says that his skiers have the talent to compete, and he adds that he is confident new talent will emerge. Said Wurtele: “The whole thing goes in waves. We hit the peak with those four guys and now we are in the trough and trying to get back out again. But it is not going to happen in 24 hours.” Opposing the conventional wisdom, Wurtele contends that Belczyk, Mclver, Stevens and Athans could all be gold-medal contenders at the 1988 Winter Olympics, along with any number of racers currently on the junior circuits.

Many observers argue that the cause of the Canadian team’s current slump is the nature of its past success. Encouraged by the CSA, Canada’s younger

World Cup racers have concentrated almost entirely on the downhill over the past decade, neglecting the turning skills customarily learned in the “technical” disciplines—slalom and giant slalom. But the original Crazy Canucks had all mastered those skills before they narrowed their focus to downhill racing. Noted 1982 world downhill champion Podborski: “Those downhill victories tended to lead younger fellows to think they did not need to train in any other discipline.”

This year's World Cup results have dramatically exposed the weakness of that specialization. In response to the event's high injury rate, World Cup officials have slowed new downhill courses by setting up more turns, which have made techni cal skills more important than ever. And Swiss skiing ace Pir mm Zurbriggen's remarkable victories in all four types of World Cup race, including down hill, have demonstrated that ex pertise gained in one discipline can improve performance in an other. Said Podborski: "It may be an indication that the nature of downhill is changing." But John Ritchie, former coach of the men's ski team, warns against "knee-jerk reactions" to Zurbriggen's accomplishments. Ritchie says that Canada's focus on downhill was a result of ne cessity, not shortsightedness. Added Ritchie: "I don't think we

will see the age of specialization diminish."

For his part, Franz Klammer, 31, the

grand old man of the White Circus, says that the Canadian go-for-broke approach to ski racing still suits the downhill best, despite the current team’s failings. Said Klammer: “It is the most spectacular event, so maybe it is better suited to the Canadian mentality.” But with only one of the five men’s gold medals in skiing at the Calgary Olympics going to a downhill racer, it is clear that Canadian skiers will have to expand their repertoire to maintain the country’s status as a skiing power. Meanwhile, buoyed by Brooker’s win, the downhillers can be expected to go all out to boost their standing in the last two World Cup races. Said a determined Brooker: “There is nothing more you can do really, except ski down the

hill.” PETER GIFFEN with Mary

Mary Hynes

Bad Klein Kirshheim

Austria.