There is no such thing as an amateur ski racer.
In December of 1947 when Ward Baker and I were skiing at Badger Pass in Yosemite and living in our teardrop trailer, we got a part-time job working for the mountain manager, Charlie Proctor who, in the early 1930s was the ski coach at Dartmouth. He was paying us 25 cents an hour to shovel bumps on the rope tow hill.
Charlie came by about 11:30 that first day and we told him, “We are going to go to Sun Valley for the winter and try and become ski racers. We think this is a good time to try it because the best ski racers in America will be on the Olympic ski team racing in Europe and we think we could do pretty well.”
Much to our surprise, Charlie said, “If you work on the ski patrol or anywhere on the mountain, you will be considered a professional skier because you have an unfair advantage over someone who lives and works in a city. Because of this unfair advantage, you will only be able to race against ski instructors and other professional athletes. In fact, anyone who works on the mountain at a ski resort is automatically considered a professional skier.”
With that statement we put our skis back on and with a shovel in one hand and ski poles in the other we skied down to the Lodge and collected our 75 cents each for the three hours we had shoveled snow. We now had an extra $1.50 between us for gasoline to get from Yosemite to Sun Valley, Idaho. $1.50 in 1947 would buy 10 gallons of gas.
Two days later we parked our trailer in the Challenger Inn parking lot under the same tree where we had spent the previous winter.
At the end of January it was time for our first race and we thought we might get the Sun Valley Ski Club to buy our gasoline to get to Boise, Idaho for the race. It didn’t work.
About that same time the Olympic ski team got together in New York City where they were given a pair of ski pants, a parka, an overcoat and a pair skis and poles. Included in the package was a round-trip boat ticket to Europe so they could race in St. Moritz. They were amateurs.
By the 1960s, the amateur vs. professional ski racing scene was changing rapidly. Karl Schranz won the Harriman Cup downhill. The next day a friend of mine was skiing on Baldy on the pair of skis that were autographed by “Karl Schranz, the winner of the Harriman Cup.” He had paid $300 for them. Karl, of course, had gotten them free from the manufacturer, Franz Kneissl.
The next day there were two more skiers on Baldy with an identical pair of skis autographed by Karl and they had each paid $500 for their pair. The line between amateur and professional skier had rapidly become fuzzier.
The Olympic creed is “Equal development of mind and body.” In my lifetime it has changed to “Equal development of mind and wallet.”
I think the trick to earning the most money as an Olympic amateur is to choose skiing, where you get to wear a uniform that offers the most billboard space.
For example: The front of a crash helmet for a ski racer today is sold for a staggering amount of money. Shoulder patches, back and chest patches are also for sale. I think someone probably analyzes at least a thousand still photos of 1000 different races, totals up the number of photographs of right arms, versus left arms and sells that advertising space accordingly.
And why not?
It takes a lot of years of training to earn a berth on an Olympic team and I think that kind of devotion to perfecting an athletic craft should be rewarded for whatever the traffic can bear. However, why don’t the athletes tithe back to the team 10 percent of their earnings to help the next wave of young racers who are coming up?
To try and earn a berth on an Olympic team requires years of total dedication and lots of money. This includes a month or so during July when a racer has to be on the Australian New Zealand race circuit and then in August they have to go to South America and race in Argentina and Chile.
Your room and board, ski equipment and transportation have to be paid by a wealthy parent or an advertiser.
I agree that I am old-fashioned, but when untold millions of dollars are exchanged in and around the Olympic ski events I think the word amateur should be eliminated.
When a ski racer goes through the finish line they manage to get out of their skis and hold them up so they face any photograph of them that may be taken have the skis in them as well. It’s all part of the commercialization.
The Olympics have become such a worldwide phenomenon that literally billions of dollars are exchanged every four years, so my voice in the wilderness is unheard. I guess I should just enjoy ski racing for what it is: Men and women racing down an icy, narrow, tree-lined trail at speeds in excess of 70 miles an hour wearing a brain bucket with no other body armor whatsoever.
It’s very exciting to watch, especially when you know how steep and icy those trails are and, like me, the best you could ever ski it was never good enough to even try to ski down such a steep and icy hill.
The ski racers deserve every penny they get paid to wear the advertising banners of companies where the chairman of the board has a condominium at a ski resort somewhere.
That chairman gets to wear a special Olympic ski team powder suit (not very attractive with a paunchy stomach sticking out!), but it doesn’t let him go to the head of the line unless he hires a private ski instructor to get him there.
I wonder if in 1947 I had been out on a ski hill with a movie camera instead of a shovel knocking down bumps, that camera would’ve automatically made me a professional skier. Probably.
In the spring when the snow melts and the young skiers who have been successful in raising enough money to go on the racing circuits in the southern hemisphere, there is not an amateur skier amongst them and probably the good part about it is that no one cares.
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)