Stephen Wood on the arcane and inventive system that enriches - and cheapens - skiing
According to a survey of high earners in sport, published last week by Total Sport magazine, the racing driver Damon Hill was paid pounds 7m this year. Anyone who has watched Grands Prix on television will have an idea where that sort of money comes from. This year, his car was a 200mph billboard for Rothmans cigarettes and Sanyo audio, among other products; previously, it has sold Labatt's beer, Canon cameras and Sega video games.

Motor racing is one of those sports that sponsors love. Unlike, say, World Cup football, where the advertising hoardings are just part of the background scenery, Grand Prix TV coverage focuses permanently on the promotional vehicles themselves, beaming sponsors' logos into hundreds of millions of homes around the world.

Why am I telling you all this in a skiing column? Because World Cup ski racing offers similar sponsorship potential. But if you watch BBC2's Ski Sunday, which returns for a new season at 5.10pm tomorrow, you will struggle to see the sort of big brand names that adorn racing cars. There is plenty to read on the competitors' ski suits, skis and poles, even their goggle straps. (Ignore the racing bibs, which belong to the event sponsors.) But all the names, with few exceptions, are those of skiwear and ski equipment manufacturers. Ski racing is still run in the traditional way, by national skiing federations, with rules designed to prevent non-ski-industry sponsors from cheapening, and enriching, the sport.

When Martin Bell retired last year, he was the most successful British men's skier of recent times. But in his final two years of competition, when the British team was poorly sponsored, he didn't command a big salary: he made a loss. Like the rest of us, he paid to go skiing. So at the age of 31, he took his first nine-to-five job, as ski consultant to the Daily Mail Ski Magazine, to pay off his debts. The sponsorship rules ensure that even the top racers, says Bell, earn sums which are paltry in comparison with other sports: he doubts that Albert Tomba - a winner of Olympic golds, World Championships and World Cups and a big star in Italy - makes more than a million dollars a year.

The "Rules and Precisions" of the International Ski Federation (FIS) on commercial markings comprise a long list of "don'ts", and a dense specification of sites and measurements for permitted displays. The rules proceed from the assumption that manufacturers should be allowed to draw attention to the equipment they have supplied to competitors. The fact that the brand name must go on the equipment itself has had curious consequences - such as the case of the ski-wax maker which went into the goggle business.

Martin Bell explains: "Briko was a ski-wax company which supplied the Italian team. They got some good results with the wax - but Briko couldn't get much publicity out of its success". A name on a wax package gets no TV exposure, "so Briko started making goggles. They are a fairly cheap item - but a goggle strap is very visible on TV". This seemed to open up the possibility of, say, Coca-Cola having a few pairs of goggles made up for competitors with its logo on the strap - but the International Ski Federation's article 211.2.3 closed that loophole by requiring that the straps be "as on products sold to the public".

The Federation does, however, permit a tightly controlled display of non-ski-industry brand names, where the national ski federations have done sponsorship deals. The British Ski Federation (BSF) has allowed its team members to have a "personal headband sponsor". Its illustration specifies "one logo, max size 50 sq cm, positioned at front, above national emblem". And having found no overall team sponsor, the BSF has also released to the skiers its "Badge 4" site on the ski outfit, also of 50 sq cm. Unfortunately, only one, Martin Bell's younger brother Graham, has found a sponsor. If you see his name on the caption on Ski Sunday tomorrow you may also, says the BSF's Fiona McLean, be able to make out the names of Nielson Holidays (personal headband sponsor) and Paul Mitchell hair care products (Badge 4).

Later in the Ski Sunday season you could also see the name of a Slovenian kitchen supplier flying across the screen. A curious wrinkle in the FIS rules - of which the Slovenian national team, among others, has taken full advantage - permits Nordic ski-jumpers to carry the names of non- ski industry sponsors on their skis.

Why do competitive skiers still allow national federations and notional amateur status to restrict their earnings? Other sports, notably golf and tennis, have broken free of such controls, and World Cup skiing, with its extensive TV coverage and star names (on the Continent, if not in Britain), clearly has the potential to do the same. "I often wonder why it hasn't happened, and I can't put my finger on it," says Martin Bell. "But top skiers tend to be young, and often come from small mountain villages. So they don't tend to be wise in the ways of the world. Also, they come from diverse cultures and speak different languages, which makes it difficult for them to band together."

The normal process of revolution against sporting authorities involves the creation of a rival, more commercially oriented circuit. There were rumours that this might happen in the mid-Eighties; but, says Bell, "the racers were sort of bought off by the FIS, when it introduced personal headband sponsorship. And anyway, the competitive skiing season is too short to support two circuits: the old, and a new, breakaway rival. It lasts only from the end of November to the end of March, so there just aren't enough weekends available. And during peak holiday times, the resorts aren't too keen to host events".

If some old sporting traditions live on, however, others fade away. You still won't see big-money sponsors' logos on Ski Sunday, but neither will you hear the voice of the commentator David Vine. After 19 years on the programme, he has retired. It won't be the same without him chanting his mantra about the tuck position.

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