Warren Miller 

Skiing, then and now

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When I was a little kid in 1930, I lived with my grandfather in Hollywood, California. My grandfather told me a lot of stories of the old days and next-to-the-last-turn-of-the-century kinds of things about horses and streetcars and Beverly Hills when vacant lots on Wilshire Boulevard. were as much as $500 and there were no buyers.

Well, it’s a new century now and I’m the old guy. Some of the old stories about ski racing might seem just as preposterous to young people today as my grandfather’s stories seemed to me in 1930.

Let’s turn the clock back to the winter of 1947-48 when I ski raced for the first and only winter in my life. At the time, I was living the good life in the Sun Valley parking lot and watching the U.S. Olympic ski team train there under the coaching of Alf Engen and Walter Prager. When it came time for the team to leave for the Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Corty Hill had to loan them $75,000 for the trip. That amount covered all of their expenses for the month, including transportation.

With the best ski racers in America going to Europe, I decided that if I were ever going to be a ski racer, this would be the winter to do it. I was lucky and the first big race I went to was in Snow Basin, Utah, site of the 2002 Olympics downhill. Dean Perkins split the cost of the gas for us to drive down from Sun Valley and we slept in his basement in Ogden for a few hours and then drove up to Snow Basin. I raced against 125 other competitors and somehow won the Eccles Cup, giant slalom in 1948. Heady with my first big victory, I spent the rest of the winter traveling around to different ski races and winning and losing my share of them.

One of those races was the Silver Dollar Derby in Reno. The previous winter, in 1947, the winners at the Silver Dollar Derby were awarded trophies and belts with big silver buckles that had genuine silver dollars mounted on them. Amateurism was so tight in those days that the Far West Ski Association made the officials of the 1948 Silver Dollar Derby Race remove the real silver dollars from all of the trophies and replace them with very poor fake aluminum dollars. The officials decreed that if we won, or even competed for usable currency, we would automatically become professional and could never ski race again. (We would have had to pry the silver dollar off of a spectacular belt buckle trophy in order to spend it.)

That was only 54 years ago. Ski racing has certainly changed since then.

I recently read that at a final selection race for a place on the U.S. giant slalom ski team, the first place winner received a $10,000 prize. Is that bad? Of course not by today’s amateur standards, but it sure does fly in the face of the Olympic Oath.

At a recent let-it-all-hang-out meeting, someone came up with what just might be a good idea. With a yearly U.S. ski team budget of $24 million and the cost of staging the Olympic games close to $2 billion, why not sell the team to a wealthy individual or some major corporation? After all, the $24 million annual budget is less per year than Alex Rodriguez gets for playing baseball in Texas. Then, everyone in the ski world who doesn’t get free ski equipment for whatever reason could get back to not being asked to donate, donate, and then donate more money every time the cash register rings in ski country.

Back in the "good old days," one of the biggest fundraisers for the 1952 Olympics was "a nickel a night" added to your hotel bill. I can also remember passing a bucket up and down the aisles at my ski movies in the 1950s. I still recall the first time they collected over $50 in nickels and dimes from people who had already paid $1.25 to see the movie.

I’m not complaining about the changes, I’m just reporting them. As we all know, change is inevitable. When they televised the 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley, it was the first time a downhill race was ever seen live on TV. Now, 42 years later, with the incredible advances in television technologies, the network that is broadcasting the Games has in their infinite wisdom, decided not to broadcast the downhill race live. Instead, viewers get to watch it at night when advertising is more expensive and they already know who won.

America is the only country in the world that has skiing of any kind that is not going to broadcast the downhill race live. Am I missing something here? I know I’m an old curmudgeon, but I’m starting to think that maybe the "good old days" really weren’t so bad.

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