Kent Belden would look great in commercials. He has Ivory smooth skin, a Pepsodent smile and enough blue-eyed sincerity to sell dental floss to a denture salesman. He also is a professional athlete who has dominated his league for two years. By Madison Avenue standards, Belden should be a hot property.
But the closest the 26-year-old downhill racer from Vermont has come to prime time endorsements is the sofa side of a television set. In the high-altitude, low-exposure world of professional skiing, being one of the best doesn't mean much in this country once you leave the mountains.
"Considering the level of competition, we're probably the lowest paid professionals in the country," says Belden, who drove eight hours through a blizzard last week for a two-day competition in West Virginia at which he earned $210--before expenses. "It's really a fly-by-night kind of life."
Snowshoe was the ninth of 14 stops on the three-month Eastern Grand Prix Racing Tour, which covers the Atlantic coast from Maine to West Virginia. Travel is by car. Accommodations are haphazard. Competition is intense.
Among the 60 skiers on the eastern tour are former members of the U.S. Olympic team such as Cary Adgate (1976 and 1980) and Tyler Palmer (1972). Andre Arnold, four-time world champion from Austria, joined the tour this year, along with skiers from Switzerland, Argentina and Canada. There is even a Czechoslovakian defector on the tour, Mike Formanek, who skied his way to the West during an international race in Austria three years ago.
"We have some of the best skiers in the world," says Ed Rogers, president and cofounder of the 6-year-old Grand Prix tour. This year that is a legitimate boast. After the international World Pro Ski circuit folded last fall, Rogers inherited 10 of its world-class refugees, including three skiers--Arnold and Americans Peter Dodge and Richie Woodworth--who were ranked among the top five pro racers last year. "Right now we're on the verge of some really great things," he says.
Rogers and his domestic ski tour have come a long way since their start in 1976 with three New England events and a total budget, including purses and salaries, of $8,700. There are now regional tours in the East, the Far West and the Rockies. An automobile manufacturer and a vodka producer provide sponsorship. And the national championship is worth $10,000 to the winner.
Despite the jump in class, however, the tour still resembles a barnstorming act more than a big league sport. Prize money for the winner of individual events is never more than $1,600. The losers may have to borrow gas money to get home.
"The money is terrible," says Craig Antonides, a 22-year-old pro from Vermont who is squeezed into a condominium at Snowshoe with six other skiers, more than a few cases of beer and $50 worth of fireworks bought at a gas station in West Virginia and periodically launched from a window. "But it's just so damn much fun you can't give it up."
"There is a lot of camaraderie among the guys on the tour," adds Stu Bownes, 27, who has been racing since 1977. "But don't get in anybody's way when they're in the starting gate."
Except for some of the new arrivals from the World Pro Ski circuit, who are still earning money from long-term contracts, the skiers spend preseasons hustling sponsors. A successful skier might ask a manufacturer for free skis and boots, a hometown bar for entry fees, and a ski resort for a team sponsorship. Never has the word "team" meant less in sport.
"This isn't like basketball," Bownes says. "You can't bounce one off the rim and have (Larry) Bird tap it in for you. There's no team here. Just you."
Pro skiing's problems were evident at Snowshoe. Some of the best skiers in the world were putting on a show for a handful of spectators. The fans were interested enough to miss an afternoon of skiing to watch the competition, but few of them knew the names of the competitors they were watching.
"I've never heard of any of these guys, but they sure know how to ski," said Gary Knoetz, a 25-year-old insurance salesman from Roanoke who positioned himself beside one of two four-foot jumps along the slalom course. "They don't even look like me when they fall."
Pro skiing has done everything short of including backflips in the races to make the sport more attractive to fans. The courses are short enough for a spectator to see from start to finish, and the skiers race against each other instead of a clock. At each event, local hotshots are encouraged to compete to generate more hometown interest.
"This is unbelievably unreal," said Mike Owen, who owns a ski rental shop at the base of Snowshoe and was one of two local skiers who qualified for the final 32. "These guys are so good you've got nothing to lose."
Owen did about as well as expected on Wednesday, losing by acres. But he was in illustrious company. Belden, who last year won a $15,000 automobile for finishing first on the tour, was beaten in the third round by Dodge. When Dodge went on to win the slalom event by beating Adgate, it was some consolation to Belden. But no more money.
As the day ended, Belden was standing on the side of the mountain, the sun highlighting his handsome face and the can of beer he was guzzling with all the gusto of an athlete in a commercial.
"I'll think about this all the way home," said Belden, who had a 16-hour drive to New Hampshire ahead of him. "But right now, I'm doing some serious thinking about retiring from ski racing."