Aspen ski racing icon Bob Beattie speaks his mind on state of skiing
EVENTS HONOR BEATTIE
Bob Beattie expects to see a lot of old friends during the World Cup Finals, so many that he isn’t sure what he will do if everybody that he offered a place to stay actually shows up at his house.
While he has a full schedule during the Finals, March 15-19, two of them stand out.
The Bob Beattie Ski Foundation will host an event celebrating 50 Years of Ski Racing on Wednesday at the Hotel Jerome. Beattie and Frenchmen Serge Lange and Honore Bonnet created the event in 1966. Beattie’s co-creators are now deceased.
The celebration is a hot ticket. Tickets are sold out though the website says some “may” be available at the door for $50 on a first come, first served basis. The celebration will be held from 5 to 8 p.m.
On Thursday, there will be a free screening of classic ski race films, presented by the Bob Beattie Ski Foundation and the Wheeler Opera House.
The films are “Ski Racer,” chronicling the 1968-69 World Cup season; “One for the Money,” a short made during World Pro Skiing’s heyday; and select clips from the documentary “Karli” about World Champion and Olympic medalist Karl Shranz.
Injuries to a hip and ankle have conspired to keep Bob Beattie off the slopes, but Aspen’s ski-racing icon remains as focused on the sport as ever — and as outspoken.
Beattie is thrilled that his adopted town landed the World Cup Finals, one of the prestige events of alpine ski racing. He feels the U.S. Ski Team must step up to insist that the International Ski Federation, the governing body for the World Cup race, give Aspen an annual prominent role.
He continues to criticize World Cup skiing for stubbornly holding onto a “boring” format and the national ski associations for mostly snuffing personalities of their racers. However, he’s highly complimentary of the on-slope skills and off-slope pizzazz of American stars Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn.
He remains at odds with the U.S. Ski Team over what he labels a backward policy of funding aspiring athletes, and he’s even more angry at what U.S. colleges have done with ski programs.
Beattie said he bit his tongue on many ski-racing issues during the tenure of Aspen native Bill Marolt as president and CEO of the U.S. Ski Team from 1996 to 2014.
“But I’m back,” Beattie said with his charismatic grin recently from his house in Woody Creek. “It’s fun to be a pain in the ass. It really is.”
The 84-year-old has an impressive resume in the ski world. He led the University of Colorado ski team to two NCAA national championships as head coach in 1959 and 1960. He headed the U.S. Ski Team for nine years starting in 1961 and led a team of Billy Kidd, Jimmy Heuga, Bud Werner and Marolt. They enjoyed a breakout in 1964 at the Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Kidd won a silver medal while Heuga took bronze. The U.S. earned respect.
In 1966, Beattie, French journalist Serge Lang and Honore Bonnet conceived of the World Cup circuit as a way of building consistent interest in alpine skiing. Beattie went on to create the World Pro Racing tour in 1970 to promote a dual racing format that spectators loved but the FIS resisted.
He also found a way to intrigue skiers who weren’t pro racers. He took over the NASTAR ski race handicapping system and oversaw rapid growth.
Marolt and Kidd told The Aspen Times in 2003 they felt Beattie was the most influential American in the development and promotion of skiing.
Beattie has never shied away from sharing his views on how ski racing should be operated.
Thrilled with Finals
He credited Aspen Skiing Co. for working hard to land the World Cup Finals. Skico has a great ownership group and staff, he said, and the mountain and town are classics.
Beattie said it behooves the World Cup as much as it benefits Aspen to regularly hold big events in the United States.
“We’ve got the two best women in the world, ski-racing wise,” Beattie said, referring to Shiffrin and Vonn. “The World Cup is lacking personalities right now, but we have those two girls. They’re fabulous.”
He said it also benefits the international flavor of ski racing for the men to return to the America’s Downhill course on Aspen Mountain. The last men’s downhill was 1995. The women last ran the course in 2007.
Hosting the World Cup Finals will restore some of the stature Aspen held in the ski world, he predicted.
“It’s already reclaimed. You have no idea how many people are coming. It’s incredible,” he said.
Beattie said the downhill course stacks up with the best in Europe.
“I think it’s a very good course,” he said. “It’s got all sorts of terrain to it.”
Too many speed courses for the downhill and super-G events are manicured and over-groomed, he said. That isn’t possible on Aspen Mountain because of the natural pitches and rolls.
To win in Aspen requires a racer to “go like hell,” obviously, he said, but also requires some finesse. “More important, you have to know to turn your skis when you’re going fast. There aren’t a lot of people who know how to do that.”
In addition to possessing a superior course, Aspen belongs on the World Cup calendar because of its illustrious history, according to Beattie. Aspen hosted the 1950 FIS World Championships, the first time they were held outside of Europe.
“I’d like to see an annual race here on one of the legendary courses,” he said. “It’s up to the Ski Team, frankly, to stand up and make it happen because they’re a member of the FIS.”
Running battle with FIS
Ah, yes, the FIS. Beattie has had a running battle with some FIS officials since he co-founded the racing system 50 years ago. He remains convinced that Aspen can and should negotiate from a position of power.
“The FIS has always had a strange view of the U.S.,” Beattie said. “In the earlier days it was called the Europa Cup, before we got the World Cup. It still is an issue. It will always be an issue because they want to run it out of Europe.
“What they need to do is make sure we’re a major part of the program or they should call it the Europa Cup again,” he added. “They don’t like me for that, but that’s OK.”
He said he is “very curious” to see if Aspen will be awarded races again next season. The FIS has warned Aspen that if it doesn’t upgrade Lift 1A and the surrounding base area, the World Cup won’t be back. There had been some question if the finals would be yanked from Aspen’s grasp when the town’s complicated and messy land-use battles ensnared the proposal for the Gorsuch Haus hotel. A new lift is tied to approval of that project.
To Beattie, the fuss over the lift upgrade is just another way the FIS tries to exert control.
“It’s always going to be the Europa Cup unless we stand up and get noticed and make demands,” he said. “We can do that. You can’t have a World Cup if you don’t have the U.S.”
And if the FIS doesn’t award Aspen with World Cup races, Aspen ought to blaze its own trail.
“I would love to see us have an America’s Cup,” Beattie said.
His first priority for Aspen is an annual, major World Cup event. If the FIS doesn’t see fit to award an event, Aspen should go ahead and organize its own events and open up the competition, he said.
Ski racers will react, he predicted, just as they did when he launched the pro racing circuit.
“They all came. They couldn’t wait to get away from their associations,” he said. “They wanted to run their own ship.”
Issues with U.S. team
Beattie is an equal-opportunity critic. He is as hard on the U.S. Ski Team as he is on the FIS. The roots of disagreements go back to 1970.
Despite leading the team to success in the Olympics and on the World Cup circuit, Beattie said he wasn’t well supported. He offended some older skiers by dumping them from the team. He turned off families by demanding more from team members through intense conditioning and less time with loved ones. And he peeved donors because he wanted to do things his way.
He had to leave in 1970, he said, because he wasn’t going to be able to lead the team as he saw fit any longer. It was a great decision, he said, because he immediately moved to Aspen and never left.
Beattie has written detailed critiques about the U.S. Ski Team’s methods of funding athletes and what he sees as flaws in the approach of college programs.
His views in a nutshell: The “C” team members have to raise about $25,000 for their participation on the U.S. Ski Team while the requirement for “B” team members is about $30,000.
“That’s absurd,” he said. Young, aspiring racers are being penalized by a system that might not allow them to advance — not because of skill but because of lack of funds.
“We’re only getting kids with money,” Beattie said. “Kids like Kidd, Heuga, Marolt and Spider (Sabich) would never be ski racers now. They could never afford it. Their parents didn’t have that kind of money.”
He really blasted college programs for relying almost entirely on foreign skiers, who get full rides in return for taking the programs to prominence.
“We’re the development team for a lot of international programs,” he said. “It’s a hell of a deal.”
The colleges should be providing an opportunity for athletes from ski towns to advance, Beattie said.
Last but not least, he was critical of ski clubs. Wealthy parents who interfere with coaches dominate most. Parents feel their children need instant and consistent success, and they pay for them to travel all over the country and even overseas to train.
Beattie said he was always of the mind that kids just needed as much time on their local hills as possible.
“You’re not going to be a better skier riding around in a car,” he said.
Beattie is optimistic about the future of the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, as long as it is shielded from undue influence of parents.
“I’ve never seen a good ski racer who didn’t have a great local coach,” he said, noting that Vonn emerged from a renowned program at small Buck Hill in Minnesota.
Victory lap for Shiffrin
Beattie will watch the World Cup Finals in the pressroom, where he covered so many alpine ski races for ABC.
While “the downhill is the downhill” and will always be the marquee event at World Cup Finals, Championships and Olympics, the slalom will draw as much attention because it will be like a victory lap for Shiffrin as the top slalom skier for the season and the overall points winner, he said. She turns just 22 today.
“She’s unreal,” Beattie said. “You can watch her go down the mountain, I don’t know how she turns so well. She’s incredible and she’s very competitive.
“She just wins and she wins by a lot,” he said.
He also is in awe of Vonn’s determination. He believes that Vonn, who has 77 World Cup victories, will be able to overtake Ingemar Stenmark, who holds the career record for men and women with 86 victories.
And whatever happens during the finals, Beattie feels Aspen will be the winner.
“I think Aspen needs this kind of thing,” Beattie said. “It’s got a long racing history.”