Cue the dramatic music and the tear-jerking commericals, because the Olympics are coming! For many of us Racers Ex this time of year dredges up memories and references to the 1984 team, or, in reality, half team. Recently an article in the Aspen Times by Roger Marolt entitled Vacancy at the Olympic Village discussed the sensitive issue from a personal perspective not yet considered (by me at least). Roger is the nephew of Bill Marolt, the man who enforced the decision to not fill the team. The article itself offered revelations from someone with competing allegiances to family and friends and elicited two particularly illuminating letters that also ran in the paper.
The first, A Bad Decision, came from then US Ski Team coach John McMurtry who supported the decision and in fact helped create the policy that enabled it, but then came to regret it. The second, The Cruel Awakening from an Olympic Dream, came from US Ski Team veteran Mark Taché, an athlete who suffered the full, devastating brunt of the decision. (Other similarly affected athletes not mentioned in Taché’s letter are Eva Twardokens, Karen Lancaster, Andy Chambers and Mike Brown. Only Twardokens went on to future Olympic competition.)
Both letters are worthwhile reads for any ski racing or sports fan, and both sparked a lot of conversation on the Internet. Taché’s in-depth response, outlining specifics about the events and conditions leading up to the Olympics left readers, whether in the know or not, with some heartbreaking images (like coming down to an empty breakfast table and realizing only then he had been left behind) that reveal the personal toll of that fateful decision. As Taché summed it up: “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.”
McMurty, in addition to revealing his own role in the drama and expressing his ultimate regret, admitted the long term negative impact the ’84 decision had, not only on individuals but also on the entire US Ski Team. In McMurtry’s words, “Later on I would also learn, as I was directing athlete development and as [US Ski Team] Alpine Director, that the Sarajevo decision probably set us back for two Olympic cycles.” (Incidentally, the way this scenario unfolded is amply covered in Shut up and Ski.)
Not coincidentally, this all started circulating widely on social networks days before the Olympic Team was named. If there is an upside to the 1984 debacle, it is that the US Ski Team has recognized the damage wreaked by one decision, and seems committed to not repeating it. Doing so would create an uprising, an Alpine Spring of sorts. In all, a full quota of 20 athletes were named to Sochi, compared with 11 who went to Sarajevo (Super G has added spots, but still no more than four athletes can compete in any single event).
Nevertheless, there is controversy. The downside of filling a quota when much of the team missed the objective criteria, is the inherent imperfection that accompanies discretionary selections. This time the controversy surrounds the decision to load up on speed spots while not filling the GS team with the next best candidates in the discipline. That is the long way of saying that guys like Robby Kelley—who proved his mettle at Adelboden, in the Hahnenkamm of GS racing, and seemed a logical 4th man in GS—didn’t get the nod.
My heart aches for Robby and I know I am not alone in hoping that he sticks around, building strength, speed and experience for another four years to get his chance. The US Ski Team can help make that happen by massively fortifying their stated commitment to long term athlete development: by incentivizing athletes to keep competing longer and helping cultivate strategies to make that affordable; by allowing, even encouraging them to go to college, to rehab fully from injuries, to grow physically and technically into their primes; by creating and maintaining clearly defined entry ramps on and back on the team at every level of competition.
This is nothing new. But beyond a spectacle, the Olympics offer a chance to work towards getting it right, to reflect and to take stock of what the Olympic team can and should look like the next time it gets announced. Until then enjoy these Games. Just like the lead up, you know they’ll offer us plenty of surprises.