ASPEN, Colo. — What should have been a memorable day for AJ Kitt and the U.S. Ski Team ended in a swirl of international rancor after officials canceled Saturday's World Cup downhill at the Aspen Winternational, a race Kitt was leading by almost a second after 16 runs down the course.
Local organizers and U.S. officials were outraged by the race jury's decision, some intimating that politics, not racer safety, was the motivation.
The race was canceled because of a rut that had developed about two-thirds down the course.
After numerous course holds and delays, a four-man jury voted unanimously to re-run the entire event at 1 p.m.
Later, the race was canceled after a warm afternoon sun made the course too soft.
Although the decision to cancel was unanimous, the ultimate decision was left to Karl Frehsner, safety director of the International Ski Federation (FIS), the governing body of ski racing.
"Clearly, that's a single person vote," said Howard Peterson, president of the Ski Team and a sharp critic of the FIS. "That's strictly a dictatorship."
Peterson said Frehsner was influenced by three European coaches, whom he would not identify, to cancel the race.
The inferences were thinly veiled: The race was halted because an American, Kitt, was going to be the winner.
Frehsner is an Austrian and a former coach of the Swiss team. Sepp Messner, the other FIS official on the jury, is an Italian.
Frehsner, through an interpreter, denied he was pressured by anyone to cancel the race. He said the Aspen course was in fine shape otherwise and that the warm weather caused the rut to widen, making the course dangerous.
"Karl wants to say that he didn't even know who was in the lead," Frehsner's interpreter said. "All four jurors were for the stopping. Safety is the No. 1 concern."
So upset were Aspen organizers that they went ahead and gave Kitt the Roche Trophy, awarded to the annual winner of Aspen race, and $30,000 in first-place prize money.
Atle Skaardal of Norway, who finished second, was awarded $20,000. Luxembourg's Marc Girardelli will receive $10,000 for third place.
None of the racers received World Cup points and the race will not be recognized by the FIS.
Kitt and Girardelli said after their morning runs that they would not race again that day should the event be restarted. Other racers no doubt would have followed suit, probably leading to the decision to cancel.
"I've had my race," Kitt said. "I came out this morning and did my job."
This was the second time this season Kitt has been victimized by a cancellation. Kitt was leading a World Cup downhill earlier this year in Val d'Isere, France, when it was canceled because of poor weather.
Kitt agreed with that decision to cancel, but not Saturday's.
Of the rut on Saturday's course, Kitt said it was far less concern than several World Cup courses he raced on in Europe this season.
"As far as I was concerned, the conditions were fine," Kitt said.
Until the chaos, it had been a sensational run.
Tommy Moe of Alaska jumped to an early lead with a time of 1:43.57.
Then came a peculiar turn. Daniel Mahrer of Switzerland, the favorite, was held up by an official as he broke the starting gate. Mahrer couldn't stop his momentum and was flagged off the course and re-slotted.
The race continued as workers tried to patch the hole on the course between runs.
Moe's time held until Skaardal took the lead in the 11th position.
But the next racer, Patrick Ortlieb of Austria, tweaked his knee racing through the rut. Although he finished, Ortlieb suffered probable ligament damage and returned to Europe for further examination.
But the race continued.
Kitt, skiing 15th, knew about the rut because Moe had radioed the information to him from the finish line. Kitt took a different line down the course and had no problems with the area.
He was timed in 1:42.26, .83 faster than Skaardal's.
Kitt's lead seemed unbeatable, but he would still have to wait for Mahrer to re-ski his run.
But Mahrer would not get a chance. Officials again held Mahrer in the gate, much to his disgust, and put the race on hold.
The hold continued until a decision was made to cancel, denying the Americans two top-10 finishers, Moe having dropped to sixth place.
The Americans said there was no reason to cancel the race. Despite Ortlieb's injury, no skiers had crashed on the course.
Kitt took the news better than expected.
"I'm not going to cry the blues," he said. "Or make any accusations. It's difficult for people to understand what goes on in the mechanical workings of ski racing at our level. I think politics is getting the best of this sport."
Peterson, the U.S. Skiing president, said he has already filed a complaint with the FIS. He said the issue will not die easily.
"Clearly, there were solutions," Peterson said. "It wasn't a perfect course, but I've yet to see a downhill that was perfect."
Peterson blamed the FIS for changing the course, resulting in the trouble spot.
"There was a small hole on the course, but the hole is there because the FIS staff themselves made sure water was placed on the next gate, so you had to set up differently. It's just a little hole. There are 20 or 30 of those holes on any World Cup in Europe."
Andy Mill, the director of skiing at Aspen and a former Olympic skier, was more blunt.
"If this would have come up at some of the traditional downhills in Europe, with (Switzerland's) Franz Heinzer in the lead, would they have canceled that race?" he asked. "Would they cancel today if Franz Heinzer was standing in the lead at the finish gates?
"I've had nine knee operations, two broken legs, a broken neck and a broken back myself. I understand injuries, I understand risks. But I feel American ski racing was robbed today."