Marolt: The cruel awakening from an Olympic dream
December 16, 2013
Last week I wrote a column about our country sending only half of its ski team to the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. The man who decided not to send a full contingent — because some racers didn't meet predetermined criteria — was my uncle, Bill Marolt, director of the U.S. Ski Team. One of the athletes who didn't get their shot at the Olympic dream was my friend Mark Tache. Both were born and raised in Aspen.
It is a painful episode in local history that few talk about, so I based my column on 30-year-old recollections and legend. I got a few things wrong. Mark Tache sent me an email setting the record straight and gave me his permission to print it. From a dark time, his words are as heartbreaking as they are edifying:
I want to compliment you on your recent article and thank you for the personal courage it took to write it. I always felt bad for any blowback you and your family may have experienced after Bill's 1984 Olympic-selection debacle. It was a big deal at the time and caused many heartaches here in town, but I always felt it unfair if locals silently held other Marolts guilty by association.
“I’ve let go of most of my bitterness, but it’s been 30 years now, and I still have a hard time watching skiing in the Winter Olympics.”
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There were a couple inaccuracies in your article that I thought you should know about, and I wanted to add some points of insight this many years later. Like you, I've buried this and have never written about it, nor do I talk about it much in public.
First, Dave (Stapleton) was in his third year of pro racing by 1984 and spared the agony of this mess. The next two athletes in line for those unfilled spots were Vail's John Buxman, who now resides in Glenwood Springs, and Hans Standteiner, of Squaw Valley. Mike Brown's situation was different. It occurred in 1988.
You're right about your uncle's unwavering decision-making mind. It's been argued that standing behind his criteria contributed to the U.S. success at those games, though Bill himself has admitted he would have done it differently given another chance. One of the things he said at the time was that only athletes with a chance to medal should be on the 1984 Olympic team, in complete contrast to the Olympic Creed, the guiding principle of the Olympics: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."
The most important argument for filling Olympic quotas is to allow athletes to gain experience before they are medal contenders, better preparing them to eventually be one. Any Olympian, my wife Christin (Cooper, who participated in the 1980 Olympics before medaling in 1984) included, will tell you how overwhelming the first one is and how much more focused and ready you are for the second. Bill's stance was especially hard to square coming from a guy who made his 1964 Olympic team as an "alternate," not having measured up to that team's criteria but having received his spot through coaches' discretion, the very thing he would deny us by leaving the U.S. quota unfilled.
As far as holding to the criteria, here's the often overlooked part of this story: Of course, we all understood the criteria going into the season (one World Cup top 10 or two top 20s), but we also trusted in the tradition of coaches' discretion should circumstances warrant it. Coaches' discretion has a long tradition and has always been an essential decision-making tool in ski racing due to the many intangibles that impact results.
Unlike sports held in consistent environments (track and field, swimming, speed skating), ski racing results are impacted by weather and snow conditions. The '84 season was a terrible snow year in Western Europe (this was pre-snow making at most World Cup sites). The host countries' militaries prepared the race hills that season, shoveling snow from the forest and transferring it to race hills to be boot- and ski-packed and watered with fire hoses. Sometimes the surface held up, but more often it broke through after about 30 racers. Start positions have always been critical on the World Cup, but were especially so that year. The three of us had start numbers in the '50s and '60s. In race after race, World Cup and Europa Cup, leading into the games, conditions deteriorated making it nearly impossible to score from the back of the pack.
A couple of notes: During that era if you finished 30th after the first run, you started 30th the second run too, so you had to battle ruts or rocks and grass on both runs. (Today you'd start first, allowing you to capitalize on a smooth course, evening the playing field.) Also, seeding lists were updated only three times a year in those days, so the finishes we were pulling off didn't result in better start numbers before the games. But that was just the reality of ski racing. We accepted it, but that's why coaches' discretion was used and was maybe even more important in those days.
Hans, Bux and I, starting in the '50s and '60s, scored painfully close to the criteria again and again, sometimes peeling back our edges on first runs, having to ski on wrecked training skis in second runs, as we tried to make the goal. From No. 55 in the Kitzbuhl slalom, I finished 21st. From No. 61 in Parpan, Switzerland — 21st. (In the second Parpan slalom I DNF'ed. The amount of time I was behind the first day would have been good for 15th that day). Bux finished 20th. We were making the biggest jumps of any nation in the field. The Olympics, with a smaller field and perfect course preparation, eliminates the disparity of late start numbers. We would have been starting in the '30s. In Europa Cups, from the first seed, I scored two podiums back-to-back, which would normally be factored into Olympic criteria. The point is that we were clearly equal to the field. These are the situations that coaches' discretion is designed for.
I think the biggest obstacle against us was that our "coaches" (really, they were the Mahre's coaches) were not advocating for us and not making our case to Bill. He may have had no idea what was going on out there after the first seed. The team was focused on preparing the Mahres for Sarajevo; providing them with what they needed. They had little time or took little note of our "victories" against the odds from the back of the pack. Often the coaches had left the hill by the time we ran.
This many years later, I recognize the complexity of the situation: wW were skiing in a kind of void, outside the team's field of vision, and I have come to understand that Bill made the best decision he could with the information and leadership tools he had at the time. Here was a relatively young guy thrust into a high-pressure situation with multiple medal contenders. He was completely focused on those star athletes. I imagine if they didn't come through, his time as alpine director would have been short-lived. I know he gained valuable experience from that successful Olympics that helped shape the leader he became and the continued success he's had.
A final story: The last qualifying World Cups before the games were held in Borevetz, Bulgaria. Bulgaria wasn't exactly cutting edge in terms of ski-hill preparation. The slalom course broke through to the dirt after the first 20 skiers. We had to scramble just to make it to the finish. I finished 21st in the slalom (my third 21st to that point in the season) and 23rd in the GS. I was psyched! I had only missed 20th by a tenth of a second or two in each of those four races under ridiculous circumstances. The saddest thing to me, looking back, was that I had so much faith. Like any professional organization, I expected the coaches to assess the results, recognize the adverse conditions we'd endured, call Bill who was already in Sarajevo awaiting the team's arrival and use coaches' discretion to fill the quota.
The World Cup team was invited to a dinner at the U.S. Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria, that final night before the chosen Olympic team was to fly to Sarajevo, and I still believed I would be named. But nothing was disclosed that night, so we went to bed. The next morning, the three of us went down to breakfast. The coaches, Phil, Steve and Tiger Shaw, were gone. They left early that morning for Sarajevo without saying a word to any of us. We were left like dogs. Not one coach, or Bill, for that matter, had the courage to inform us directly of the biggest decision impacting our lives. I lost all respect for the coaching staff at that point, especially your uncle, whom I held responsible for how unprofessionally it went down. To this day, I struggle with how that final 24-hour period was handled by the U.S. Ski Team staff and can only sum it up as heartless and cowardly. They left us, under the cover of darkness. We gathered ourselves up for a long sad journey back to the States on our own (I still thought maybe we'd get to Zurich and plane tickets to Sarajevo would be there) and some deep soul-searching on what would be the next chapter in our ski-racing careers.
I had a good relationship with Bill up until that point. He was a fellow Aspenite, coached and mentored by my best friend's father, Gale Spence, and I could always talk straight with him. He had always been honest and fair with me.
Turns out, only three top-seed skiers finished the first run of the Olympic slalom and an unknown ended up winning a medal — proving the point that you fill your quota because anything can happen at an Olympics and often does.
The next World Cup races after the Olympics were in Aspen. I scored an 18th in the GS followed by my best-ever result in Vail — ninth in the slalom. It was the best American team performance in a tech event to date with five in the top 20: Phil 3rd, my 9th, Buxman 11th, Shaw 14th, Standteiner 18th. The Olympic bronze medalist, Didier Bouvet, didn't even break the top 15.
I suppose we all walked away from that experience stronger and wiser, with greater perspective. But I also left the team and turned pro after the World Championships the next year, when I should have been readying myself for the next Games. I have since broken bread with your uncle and discussed the decision and the short and long-term damage caused by it. There's no question all of us would have continued representing the U.S. on the World Cup had we made that team. Calgary would have been our goal.
So there was a little more to the story that I thought you should know, since it sounds like you feel it's your story a little bit, too. I've let go of most of my bitterness, but it's been 30 years now, and I still have a hard time watching skiing in the Winter Olympics. That's just the truth.
By the way, I know that for every success story in sports there are a thousand disappointments. I really appreciated your article, Roger.
Roger Marolt can be reached at email@example.com.
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