Roger Marolt: Making a turn for the better
So, you want to resurrect Aspen’s tradition of ski racing? In the beginning, almost every kid in town raced. Recently, that norm has been peeing in a bedpan. But this winter, the Aspen High School ski team has 75 kids feeling the need for speed!
This is huge! Ski racing has a pulse! It’s a sign that a new, viable ski-racing model might be emerging in the United States. It is the white light in a near-death experience.
This high school team is not to be confused with the Aspen Valley Ski Club Competition Program that will put only about a fifth of that number of high school kids in the gates this winter. The latter would be an example of the old, failed model; the one that has pretty much massacred ski racing in America.
The numbers don’t lie. The high school program will host more than six-dozen teenagers at a cost of less than $2,000 per kid for the winter, including travel. The latter is a squad of roughly 15 kids ponying up to $20,000 each for a winter of racing.
You tell me which the more successful program is. “Well,” you say. “That depends on what you want to accomplish.” Fair enough. Obviously, if the goal is to get teenagers involved in a healthy, fun, physically challenging activity, the high school program wins, feet down. But, if you are trying to create champions, certainly the more polished and expensive club program is best, right?
I say, not so fast. Over time, the regular high school program has the better chance of producing more champions. Looking at how every other sport in the world functions, having higher numbers of participants increases the odds of capturing truly gifted athletes in the talent pool. In addition, higher participation rates increase the overall level of competition and everybody gets better.
You don’t have to look too carefully at the reigning model of ski racing in the U.S. to see why it can’t promote participation or consistently produce champions. It goes something like this: create an immensely expensive infrastructure and then raise the cost of participation to support it. As fewer can afford it and begin to drop out, raise the prices again on those left and a few more drop out. Repeat this process until the predominant attribute of your athlete pool is wealth.
How can you develop champions in a sport where more athletes drop out because they can’t afford it than because they lack the skills to make it to the next level? It’s ludicrous.
The effect trickles upward. As the sport becomes more elitist, it loses relevancy to the masses. Without that it has no marketing appeal, no big sponsorships and an underfunded national program where some U.S. World Cup racers end up having to pay out of pocket around $75,000 to compete. It’s absurd!
Ski racing has cut off circulation at its toes. If the money that donors currently pour into local ski clubs flowed instead up to the U.S. Ski Team, we could probably support a deep, legitimately professional squad. We might actually be able to make the highest level of ski racing something worth aspiring to. What a concept!
Look at the historically strongest ski racing program in the world to see how to do it right. Tiny Austria produces great ski racers the same way the Dominican Republic produces great baseball players: they have huge participation rates across their populations. It is not because all Austrians (or Dominicans) are rich.
“Well,” the traditionalists huff. “Skiing is not our national sport.” I say, it doesn’t have to be. We have more ski areas than Austria. We just need to make skiing the predominant sport in these regions.
How? We need to make ski racing accessible by trimming the fat, which ironically costs far more than the meat. Simplify everything. For crying out loud, the sport is skiing around sticks in the snow. It’s not about the gear. We don’t need a clubhouse when a storage shed will do. We don’t need massive snowmaking operations inside fancy race arenas. Utilize more volunteer coaches. Can the travel coordinators. You want less travel? Start attracting our best athletes from the high school football, volleyball, basketball, baseball, lacrosse, golf, tennis and track teams, and you won’t have to venture off Thunder Bowl to have better ski-racing competition than anyone has seen here since the 1946 Roch Cup.
Things don’t have to be perfect, not even close; we just need to get more kids on the snow. Helmets on to our Aspen High School program. The people running it and kids having a blast with it have figured this out.
Roger Marolt wonders if the definition of “broken” is starting with over 1,000 elementary school kids participating in a program and ending up with barely a dozen left when they get to high school. Email at email@example.com.
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Editor’s note: The following letter was written to Bruno Kirchenwitz, a frequent writer of letters to the editor of The Aspen Times.