Editor’s note: During this Winter Olympic year and leading up to the 2015 FIS Alpine World Championship season, this weekly series will tell Colorado’s rich ski racing history and heritage through stories about its ski heroes and legends.
In 1984, Americans won more gold medals (three) and a higher percentage of all the alpine ski-racing medals (27.78 percent) than any other Winter Olympic Games in history, but they could have collected even more, according to one of the team’s Hall of Fame coaches.
“Sarajevo is still the high-water mark,” John McMurtry said of the 1984 Games in the former Yugoslavia, where Americans collected half of the six gold medals awarded in alpine skiing and five of the 18 total medals. Only slalom, giant slalom and downhill were contested then.
Best In The World
“That ’80-84 team, look at the overall results. In 1982 it was the first and only time the U.S. has won a Nation’s Cup in alpine skiing. The (U.S.) women were the best team in the world,” said McMurtry, the director of development for the Steadman Philippon Research Institute in Vail and a Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum Hall of Fame member since 1995. He was the women’s U.S. Ski Team and Olympic team slalom and giant slalom coach in 1984.
Heading into Sarajevo, the U.S. was stacked with top World Cup performers, including 1976 Olympic downhill bronze medalist Cindy Nelson, of Vail. In GS, Debbie Armstrong won gold, Christin Cooper claimed silver and Tamara McKinney — the overall World Cup champion the season before — narrowly missed making it a U.S. sweep, finishing just off the podium in fourth.
Cooper and McKinney, heavy favorites in the slalom, both skied out in the first run, and no other Americans had been tabbed to compete because of a rigid Olympic selection formula implemented that season (one top 10 or two top 20s on the World Cup circuit to qualify).
“We should have gotten at least another medal or two in slalom, and in hindsight we should have filled our quotas,” McMurtry said. “Our tradition now with the Olympics is we fill our quotas.”
In the fall, the coaches set the selection criteria and ran it past the athletes, receiving no feedback that it was too tough, McMurtry said. When it became clear that quota spots would be left unfilled, McMurtry said 1984 U.S. Ski Team alpine director Bill Marolt asked his coaches if they wanted to take the next best racers, even if they hadn’t met the World Cup criteria.
“We felt strongly as a staff that (the criteria was) what we announced ahead of time and that ... it would be unfair to those athletes that really fought hard for those spots to now go back and say, ‘OK, we’ll now name two more athletes to the Olympic team,” McMurtry said.
But he realized how misguided that strong stance had been when he returned to the team in 1987 as director of athlete development and later alpine director.
“Being back in development I could see (not filling quotas) was a mistake in ’84, and we probably paid for that in ’88, our results in Calgary, and going forward that’s something we shouldn’t repeat,” McMurtry said of the Calgary Olympics, where the U.S. was shut out of alpine medals for only the fourth time in Olympic history. “For the athletes next in line, it was a shame we didn’t fill (quotas).”
Eva Twardokens and Ski & Snowboard Club Vail alpine director Karen Lancaster Ghent were two of the athletes who could have filled those slalom spots in ’84, according to a column by former U.S. Ski Team member Edie Thys Morgan.
Men Left Out
On the men’s side, brothers Phil and Steve Mahre won slalom gold and silver, and in the downhill, Bill Johnson called his shot, predicting victory and delivering the first ever Olympic alpine-skiing gold medal by an American man. But other racers, including some talented young Colorado athletes, were left out in the cold.
Vail’s Mike Brown was right on the bubble in 1984 with a 14th and a 21st-place finish in the first few races of his rookie World Cup season of 1983-84. Aspen’s Mark Tache had two 21st place finishes, including a World Cup slalom at Kitzbuhel. Both young racers were left behind when the Olympic team headed to Sarajevo.
Marolt’s nephew, Roger Marolt, wrote about Tache’s case in the Aspen Times in December, and Tache, who’s married to GS silver medalist Cooper, wrote in an eloquent response that “the next two athletes in line for those unfilled spots were Vail’s John Buxman, who now resides in Glenwood Springs, and Hans Standteiner, of Squaw Valley. Mike Brown’s situation was different. It occurred in 1988.”
Brown in fact was left off the ’84 team despite being very close to meeting the criteria and said that snub later impacted his chances of making the ’88 Olympic team.
“Because we didn’t go (to the ’84 Olympics) or make this arbitrary cutoff by the slimmest of margins, we never got another look the rest of our careers,” Brown said. “I had qualified for Calgary and was told that I had qualified and then my coach undermined and replaced me with somebody else using a real dubious, underhanded tactic.”
Brown blames alpine director Marolt for not overruling his coaches on the ’84 selection criteria, but he mostly puts the onus on head coach Teo Nadig, of Switzerland.
“If you look at how we were treated as a team, Teo Nadig absolutely despised Americans, so it’s kind of ironic that he was coaching the American team,” Brown said. “Bill Johnson, all of that stuff where he was at odds with the team, that all came from Teo Nadig, and there was absolutely no reason for Bill to be treated as an outsider.”
Taché tells of coming down from his hotel room on the World Cup circuit in Bulgaria, thinking he had made the team, only to discover that “the coaches, Phil (Mahre), Steve (Mahre) and Tiger Shaw, were gone” and on their way to Sarajevo. Shaw recently replaced Bill Marolt as head of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association.
“The way it came down for me was they said everybody get your stuff on the bus,” Brown said, “and I put my stuff on and they wouldn’t let me on the bus. They handed me the car keys and said, ‘You’re driving this other teammate and one of our wives back to Zurich.’”
Brown still has a hard time explaining why the United States didn’t take a full complement of qualified athletes to the 1984 Winter Olympics. “We had joined a team that did not have our best interests at heart, which really was counterintuitive to all of us,” he said.
David O. Williams wrote this story for the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum. The museum is located on the third level of the Vail Village parking structure adjacent to Vail Village Covered Bridge. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call 970-476-1876 or go to www.skimuseum.net.