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US areas lag behind in keeping up with races

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. -- As the World Cup rolls on to Europe after its brief moment of glory in North America, one can't help but remember when New England hosted such events, last put on by Tommy Corcoran at Waterville Valley.

The year was 1991, and Maine's Julie Parisien blasted through the gates and down Competition Hill to win one for the US Ski Team, before a roaring crowd held captive at the finish largely because Corcoran shut the lifts down.

Since then, aside from two years of the National Alpine Championships at Sugarloaf in the mid-'90s, one of the world's largest ski markets -- the Northeast -- has been deprived of live ski racing at the highest international levels.

The highest level of competition in New England this season will be the NorAm slaloms and giant slaloms to be held at Sunday River Jan. 2-5.

It's not hard to figure out why ski resorts are reluctant to go out bidding for elite-level ski races: money. World Cup events cost plenty to stage, not to mention the volunteer force needed -- about 250 at Beaver Creek last week. But also, in the heart of the season, such races close down a significant percentage of skiable terrain.

This tends to honk off the paying public, for, unlike golf, wherein players readily become spectators when the top golfers come to their course, skiers tend to want to ski rather than watch others do it. At least around here. Go to ski races in Europe and you'll find thousands on thousands of fans who will put on crampons and chug a mile uphill to watch their heroes on ice fly by.

Not that the Beaver Creek races -- at least the first three of the four -- were lacking in crowd support. Around 7,500 fans were in the finish area grandstand and lining part of the course. But in Europe, where ski racing is our NFL or NASCAR, they pour out four- and fivefold more. In Schladming, Austria, a single slalom men's race at night brings out upward of 40,000 ski race fans.

And while NBC aired the Beaver Creek downhill on tape last Sunday, two days after the event, in Europe all four races aired live. Austria's ORF Productions leased a satellite truck and sent a major production crew, and its telecast reached a majority of the country's 12 million inhabitants.

According to Bernard Russi, former racer for the Swiss Ski Team, downhill course designer, and FIS official, Friday's downhill race, in which US skiers Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves placed first and second, was broadcast live in prime time and was No. 1 in the ratings.

The irony remains, of course, that even after such a huge day for the Americans, these two racers are better known in Europe than they are in their own country. Which may have something to do with the fact that there are only two men's and two women's ski events in North America, and only one apiece in the US -- Aspen for the women and the men's event at Beaver Creek, a part of Vail, which held the Alpine World Championships in 1989 and 1999.

It's hard to imagine that the rabid fans who embrace NASCAR and the NFL would not respond to ski racing if only they could see it. After all, plenty of Americans who don't know a binding from a ski pole remember Franz Klammer's desperate gold medal run in the 1976 Innsbruck Games. Put a great sports event on live TV, and sports fans will respond.

If few US viewers have much impression of last week's Beaver Creek races, after having been treated to a 20-second sportscast recap, if that, it's hardly their fault. But at Vail, Beaver Creek's parent resort, there was much rejoicing in the European coverage. Here's what viewers saw:

On Monday, advance shows pictured a town digging out from a 3-foot dumping of snow the night before. On Tuesday, a splendid bluebird day so bright that sunglasses were required gear, the downhill training was canceled because all that new snow had to be packed on the race course.

On Wednesday, it's another bright blue and white day for scenes of the downhill training on Birds of Prey, one of the fastest and most exciting downhill courses in the world. Same conditions, different day on Thursday for the first showdown between the Austrians and Miller. Miller pulled off a silver finish.

And more of the same, weatherwise, on Friday, when the US team staged a historic first, with Miller and Rahlves finishing 1-2. Saturday's GS went off in perfect conditions, and the Sunday slalom had some of the racers jamming out of the start shed into swirling snow showers. The proverbial winter wonderland.

"To have scenes like those at the beginning of the season when people [in Europe] are just making their vacation plans is just invaluable," said John Dakin, communications director for Valley Foundation, the body that staged the World Cup event, taking the administrative responsibility away from the Beaver Creek work force, which, of course, has a resort to run.

According to John Garnsey, CEO of Beaver Creek, while the foundation administers the event, the area builds the race courses to FIS standards. "It's a huge effort for our team to prepare a course, just a monumental task," said Garnsey. "We have to make the snow, groom it, build the course with all the wiring and snow fence. And then the US Ski Team and the FIS inspect the terrain for safety and make final calls. It's a real commitment on our part."

On Sunday, before the scheduled start of downhill training, 3 feet of snow fell, necessitating near-emergency response to repack and groom the course. Tuesday's training run was canceled because the snow was not ready.

"Don't get me wrong, we were happy to have the snow," said Garnsey, adding that his area's core group of workers have so much expertise they were called to Salt Lake City to help prepare the Olympic courses. "Within two days [of the storm], they had prepared a perfect race course."

And, of course, Beaver Creek reaped the benefits of all that work, as worldwide TV began beaming images of all that wintry perfection and racing that was nothing short of greatness. The only drawback is, in this country, there's just too little of it.

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