SKIING / Working to reverse a downhill trend: As skiing's stars gather for la premiere neige, Michael Sheridan reports from Val d'Isere on a sport in need of a fresh impetus

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ON THE surface, the 1992 Alpine World Cup is as fresh and crisp as the newly fallen snow, pitting skiers of the calibre of Alberto Tomba, the Italian star, against the defending champion Paul Accola, of Switzerland, in a contest hallowed by tradition and renewed each year by style and daring. A J Kitt, the American downhill ace who burst on to the scene with a win here last year, and two Norwegians, Kjetil Aamodt and Atle Skaardal, are among the names looming large ahead of the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.

But this is a sport in search of new heroes and one where all too many of its solitary strugglers appear to have undergone a charisma bypass.

Five years ago it was Tomba, the boy from Bologna, who made himself a national idol. He remains the best-known face in skiing, a self-promoting, heavily sponsored, eternal publicist, ever ready with a quote for the Italian press pack about the course, the judges, his enemies, his mother, the previous girls in his life (numerous), the pasta on his table (copious) or his body-fat ratio (variable).

Accola, by contrast, is reserved to the point of monkishness. He has never forgiven the Swiss media for ignoring his first Olympic medal. It came at Calgary in 1988 but was overshadowed because the Swiss suffered a national disaster when the legendary Pirmin Zurbriggen fell in the same race. He resents the fact that Switzerland's ski bureaucrats do not accord him the Tomba treatment and he is correspondingly little loved in his own country where egotists are shunned. Even the presidency of Switzerland, one recalls, is a job held in rotation by colourless men.

Yet it is hard, in these first weeks of the World Cup, to escape the impression that the helmeted figures scything down the mountainsides are perhaps the least important on the Alpine landscape. Behind the scenes at Val d'Isere, the cosy elite of international skiing - long run, critics charge, as a self-regarding club of central Europeans - faces its biggest challenge in years.

The interloper is private television. For the first time since 1967, when a French journalist, Serge Lang, joined two national ski coaches to set up the World Cup, a finance company has bought the television rights to many of the key events and its backers have every intention of turning the ski season into a money-making machine to rival tennis.

It has been known for ages that to get anything serious done for the media with the austere authorities of FIS, the international ski federation (a body that makes the All England Lawn Tennis Club appear careless of protocol), one had to turn to the Langs. In skiing, as in many other sports, it is not easy to discern where journalism ends and promotion begins. In the case of Lang and his son Patrick a blizzard of confusion descends.

And that is precisely why the cheerful and energetic Mark Mascarenhas, the man representing the demons of private television at Val d'Isere, was to be found cultivating them last week.

Mascarenhas works for Halva, the mysterious finance company that has broken into carefully regulated broadcasting arrangements. 'Halva is simply a group of investors headed by New York attorney Stanley Stairs,' he explained. 'The other investors wish to remain private.' Many suspect that the Italian television mogul Silvio Berlusconi is behind the group, spurred on by the Tomba connection.

The television rights opened up when FIS modified its rule allowing national ski federations to decide on the television rights, which were automatically handed to national broadcasters in the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Halva stepped in, persuading organisers in Val d'Isere, Sestriere and the other major venues in Italy, France, Slovenia and North America, to sell the company exclusive rights. So the French pay-television network Canal Plus has deployed its cameras all over the slopes at Val d'Isere.

Thus on Friday, when wind-driven snow ruined the downhill, most viewers saw only whited-out screens. Those watching Canal Plus, however, got live interviews with Kitt and Marc Girardelli - conducted exclusively by Patrick Lang.

The Swiss, German and Austrian ski federations and their respective state television stations are horrified. 'The business of skiing has been a very closed old-boy type network,' Mascarenhas said. 'That's one of the hardest things we had to deal with. Skiing has an audience of upwardly mobile, young, 18- to 49-year-old people. They're good spenders. They buy automobiles, clothes, holidays.'

Halva, he said, wants to improve the television coverage, bringing 'the natural drama of the start, the feel of the event' into viewers' living-rooms. He makes no secret of the reality that Halva's success reflects pressure from the United States, Canada and Scandinavia on the old guard in the Alps. Already the reformers have succeeded in raising levels of prize money to some pounds 60,000 at Val d'Isere.

'Even though it's called the World Cup, when we talked to EBU members like Austria, Switzerland and Germany they were convinced that they were the focus of skiing and nobody else mattered,' Mascarenhas said. 'We will never prostitute the sport - you can forget it,' Gian Franco Kasper, Secretary-General of FIS, said. 'We don't want it to go as far as tennis, looking like Wimbledon.' He believes that Halva has paid too much and wanted to replace a state monopoly with one of its own. 'We don't look to make money,' Kasper said. 'They believe money is the only important thing. We do not.'

The German-speaking establishment views the popularity of Tomba (25,000 adoring Italians descended on Sestriere last week) and the consequent surge in television interest with disdain.

'One of those who created all this was Mr Tomba,' Kasper said. 'We think he's an exception. Look at those spectators in Sestriere - they were not ski spectators but people like football fans who came only to see Tomba. So there are a lot of hopes for big money - but it will only last until Mr Tomba breaks his leg.'

Kasper, however, admitted that Halva has opened the door for television. National broadcasters will pay 'fair prices' in future. FIS is ready to support an overall agreement giving a slice of the action to both private and public networks, he added. 'I think there will be a deal by next winter,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)