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They're Gladly Going Downhill in Vail : Sports: It's becoming clear that the United States is becoming an important player on the ski-racing circuit. And that makes people in this Colorado city very happy.


VAIL, Colo. — Anyway you slice it, Swiss skier Michael von Gruenigen was the Big Cheese in the World Cup giant slalom race down a precipitous 52-gate course in the Colorado Rockies over the weekend.

Like all of his teammates on the Swiss national racing team, Von Gruenigen wore a Lycra bodysuit imprinted to resemble a giant piece of Swiss cheese--holes and all.

Standing atop the victory podium in spring-like sunshine, the 26-year-old from the town of Schonried accepted the winner's medal, a check for 20,000 Swiss francs (about $17,600) and a peck on the cheek from Vail Mayor Peggy Osterfoss.

"Have a nice day," Von Gruenigen said, grinning shyly as he concluded a 20-second-long victory speech.

The ski-racing circuit known as the alpine World Cup had come to Vail, turning the town's alpine-style village into a temporary center of international winter sport.

They call it "the White Circus" for the obvious reason: the snow. But the overwhelming sensation on the race course, in the viewing stands and adjacent areas was one of intense color. Ski racing is a kaleidoscope of the spectrum--on the skis, the boots, jackets, gloves, sunglasses, hats, headbands, the gates marking the race course, and the giant banner across the finish line.

The Swiss skiers really stood out, however. When you see those giant chunks of cheese hurtling down the course, there's no mistaking the country they represent.

Others are not so obvious. The Germans wear black tiger stripes on a white background. The Americans have spider webs all over their orange, red and purple racing outfits. Nothing says U.S.A.

The Italians wear their country's flag colors of red, white and green, but in Picasso-like swirls, not stripes. The word Italia runs down one leg, but even more prominent is FILA, one of the team's big sponsors.

The Swedes have brilliant yellow jackets trimmed in blue--the national colors. Covering the entire back is the face of a boastful, grinning cartoon animal vaguely resembling Elsie the Cow in pain.

"It's a gorilla," explained one of the Swedish skiers killing time in Pepi's Bar.

Half a block away, the new queen of international downhill racing, the United States' irrepressible Picabo Street, autographed posters at a trendy boutique and ski shop.


Everywhere throughout Vail and neighboring Beaver Creek, there was the babble of different languages from the 250 best-in-the-world ski racers representing 20-plus countries. The Austrians brought more than 60 racers and coaches to Vail. Liechtenstein had two.

Along for the ride were a thousand or so others: coaches; trainers; officials of the Federation International du Ski (FIS), the winter sports governing body; ski- and boot-company service reps; the media, and race sponsors hawking everything from BULA headbands to Rolex watches and Chevy trucks.

Several thousand residents watched the races from the temporary grandstands, many of them clanging little cowbells handed out by race sponsors.

The White Circus is only an occasional visitor to North America. Through the heart of the ski season each year, World Cup ski racing makes the circuit of the storied resorts of the Alps: Val d'Isere, Cortina, St. Moritz, St. Anton, Kitzbuhel and others.

Aspen and Vail have been somewhat regular appendages to the circuit in November and early December because snow conditions tend to be more reliable than in the Alps. Until this year, Aspen hosted one of the premier events, a men's downhill race, each March.

But the alpine countries overwhelmingly dominate the World Cup circuit. They have the best skiers, the biggest crowds, the richest sponsors and a vast television audience of race fans.

Skiers like the flamboyant Alberto Tomba of Italy and Marc Giradelli of Luxemboug are national heroes. So are just-retired Vreni Schneider of Switzerland, and Katja Seizinger and Martina Ertl of Germany.

"Everywhere you go in Europe, every weekend, it's like another Mardi Gras," said Doug Sack, a ski-race writer from Whistler, British Columbia, who has covered more than 100 cup races. "It's a weeklong party that ends with the races on the weekend."

With these races coming so early in the season, Vail lacked the crowds and holiday atmosphere that dominate the European events. There weren't even any stories about Tomba going out on the town. That is expected to change with late-season major skiing events scheduled in Vail the next four years.

In the United States, there is a hard-core following of fans who study the World Cup standings in Ski Racing International, a weekly published in Vermont. Most Americans get excited about international ski racing every fourth year--with the Olympics. Once the Olympic flame goes out, ski racing fades to a blip on the American TV screen, somewhere behind bowling and yachting.

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