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ON SKIING

Strike throws racers a curve

Event brushed back

BORMIO, Italy -- What is as famous in this land as penne, grappa, and wicked fast sports cars with maniacs driving them? Labor strikes, of course.

Yesterday, with thousands of ski racing fans ready to cut loose with cowbells in the downtown stadium before the start of the men's giant slalom at the Alpine World Championships, a wildcat strike by RAI -- the state-run television agency -- shut down the race.

According to the event's organizing committee, supporters from all over the world had made their way to the stadium. Many Austrians and Swiss, and several hundreds of schoolchildren, had been given the day off and been bussed in from as far away as Torino, site of next winter's Olympic Games, some four hours away.

"This unfortunate decision thwarts the huge work carried out by the organizing committee to offer this international sports event," said FIS president Gian Franco Kasper in a morning press conference called hurriedly. "The irresponsible attitude of the Italian state television company seriously damages the image of our country. Right when visibility is at its height, when the eyes of the whole world are focused on Alta Valtellina, on Lombardy, on Italy, the decision to call a strike looks completely incomprehensible and arouses bewilderment in public opinion."

RAI is the production company with the worldwide broadcast rights to these championships, which are beamed live to an estimated 40 million viewers throughout Europe, where ski racing is considered a major sport.

Asked whether such a labor action had any implications for next year's Olympics in Torino, Kasper said the Games are under contract by a non-Italian production company, so there would be no such interruptions. "Such things happen only in Italy," he added.

When the angry crowd pouring out of the stadium into downtown Bormio spotted a car with men inside and the letters "RAI" on the door, they surrounded it, pounded on the roof, yelled, and began to rock it. Local police nearby watched the crowd menace the RAI car, which finally escaped.

Racing officials said they have been informed that the strike was called for one day only and expect the men's GS to run today, which was scheduled as a day off.

Also raising eyebrows in the ski racing world here today were the words of Bode Miller, who writes a regular column for the Denver Post throughout ski season. In yesterday's column, as he speculated about his future, Miller raised the possibility that he might take a year off after next year's Olympic Games, or possibly even retire from racing. But there was a third alternative that set the huge international press corps here buzzing.

"Another alternative I've thought a little about," wrote Miller, "is phasing myself out of the US Ski Team and starting my own team. Teammate Erik Schlopy and I have talked about starting a new pro tour. Or we could put together a team that could compete on the World Cup."

A US team spokesman dismissed the talk as "nothing we haven't heard from Bode before. We don't spend much time thinking about it."

Miller speculated on getting Barilla pasta or one of his other sponsors to back a team he might start.

"Each of the guys would have a salary, so guys who were not as good would get consistent pay," he wrote. "I don't think the ski team treats the sport the way it deserves to be treated for the amount of money that's in it. Lots of guys on the team don't make sufficient income to live on. They don't get good medical coverage. They're expected to abide by all kinds of rules and not have fun. With my team, everyone would have some down time and party."

Said US men's head coach Phil McNichol, "Believe me, we've heard it all before."

Before the races thumped to a halt because of the TV strike, the medal count stood about like this: Imagine a baseball game in the sixth inning, the teams one run apart. With seven of the 11 races in the history books, the widely acknowledged superpower of ski racing, Austria, has six medals -- one gold, one silver, and four bronzes.

Right behind the Austrians is the United States, with five medals -- two golds, one silver, and two bronzes.

At last year's worlds in St. Moritz, Switzerland, the Austrians collected nine medals to six for the US. But in both cases, despite a sprinkling of medals for Norwegian, Swiss, and Croatian racers, the major rivalry comes down to Austria and the US. This is a sea change from the days when ski racing was dominated by Europeans, with just a sprinking of US medal winners.

Naturally, one of the major reasons the US is so strong is Miller, the Franconia, N.H., whiz kid who developed his skills at Carrabassett Valley Academy at the base of Sugarloaf in Maine. At the last worlds, Miller won the GS and the combined and took silver in super-G. Here in Bormio, he began where he left off, with a gold medal on Day 1 in the super-G, then a gold a week later in the downhill. In that race, Californian Daron Rahlves took the silver.

So interest has been riding high surrounding the GS, which finds a typical Austrian powerhouse team facing one of the strongest US groups, with Miller, Rahlves, Dane Spencer, Ted Ligaty, and Jimmy Cochran.

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