Marolt: Vacancy at the Olympic Village
It was a huge local controversy, but people didn’t talk about it then any more than they do now, at least not around me.
In 1983 it was too sensitive a topic. Today most have forgotten because that’s a lot more comfortable than remembering. I think about it often.
It was early winter before the Winter Olympics. The U.S. Ski Team was picked, and our nation was heading off to Sarajevo with unfilled slots. Had the U.S. Ski Team taken its allotted number, three local kids were next in line. Aspen’s David Stapleton and Mark Tache and Mike Brown, of Vail, had to watch from home knowing that there were beds available to them in the Yugoslavian Olympic Village. Imagine that frustration for a moment. Go a level or two deeper and feel their pain.
I ended up with an unenviable perspective. Bill Marolt is my uncle and was then the director of the U.S. Ski Team. He is the one who decided not to take a full contingent to the Olympics. David and Mark were my friends. They lived in my neighborhood, and I grew up with them. I had dual allegiance. I wanted a win-win. I’ve looked back at it probably a thousand times and can’t figure it any other way than that everybody ended up heartbroken.
My Uncle Bill is a good man whom I admire. His life has been made up from bits and pieces of high-level athletics. He was a collegiate ski champion and an Olympian. He became the ski coach at the University of Colorado and his teams won seven national titles. He went on to become the director of the U.S. Ski Team, left to become the athletic director at CU during which tenure the football team won a national championship, and then headed back to the U.S. Ski Team where he put together, arguably, the best program in the world.
Mark and David were as good athletes as Aspen has produced; one had incredible natural talent and the other equaled that with astonishing determination and work ethic. I’m not only talking about skiing. If you gave them a piece of equipment and explained the objective of the game, they would beat you, and nearly everyone else, at it in no time. They were four years older than I was, and that put them into the hero category by the time I got into high school.
The motivations in this are easy enough to understand. My uncle wanted to create incentives that led to a stronger program. The way I understand what took place goes like this: Early in the fall of 1983, he got together with his athletes and announced the incentive program: If you score X number of FIS points before the Olympics, you are on the team and going to participate in the great show. If not, well …
Every athlete was afforded the opportunity for input, and apparently, everybody agreed on the criteria. Athletes of that caliber thrive on challenges; of course they agreed.
As for David and Mark, how could they not be disappointed at missing the criteria and then not being able to participate in what turned out to be their one shot at the legendary games? Leaving slots open on an Olympic team when you have a cadre of top-flight athletes to fill them was unprecedented; nobody did that! They must have been thinking, “OK, we didn’t meet the predetermined standards, but we worked hard and gave it everything we had. Surely they’ll take us.”
Had I been privy to the process, I could have told them something they didn’t know. My uncle is an unwavering decision-maker. Had I been at that initial meeting when the rules were set, I would have warned them: If they had any desire to be Olympians, they absolutely had to meet those standards. There would be no bending on the part of my uncle. As hard as he sounds, there is little doubt in my mind that it is a big part of what made him successful in sports, as a competitor, coach and director.
Years ago I started to do a piece on this and then gave it up. I asked one of the skiers if time had eased the pain, hoping above hope that it had. “That decision ruined kids’ lives,” he said. I’ve never had the courage to directly broach the subject with my uncle. So, to this day, I still can’t make sense of it. If you count medals, the decision may have been good. If you count undermining the depth of human spirit, it was probably a failure.
The only question answered is: When did ski racing become a big-time sport?
Roger Marolt can’t answer most of life’s important questions, but he’s always searching. Contact him at email@example.com.