Originally created 12/11/97

Wehling sees a different sport than one he dominated



STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. -- Uli Wehling started skiing in the 1950s in the old East Germany, "went nordic" in the '60s, dominated the '70s and left at the start of the '80s.

In the '90s, Wehling, 45 and his sport's only three-time Olympic champion -- and 1974 World Championships gold medalist -- oversees a dramatically different scene than when he competed in Nordic combined, a sport mixing ski jumping and cross-country skiing.

Wehling is the Nordic combined coordinator for the International Ski Federation (FIS). From one arcane event mixing airborne and ground-level skiing, a sport in which competitors often left one site without knowing who'd won, nordic combined has grown into a spectator-friendly sport with individual and team events.

"Yes, we have a lot of changes," Wehling said during a break Wednesday from final preparations for the Sprint Ski Town USA World Cup at Howelsen Hill and the nearby Romick Rodeo Arena. The schedule includes a one-day sprint competition Thursday with the traditional individual event on the weekend, 114-meter jumping Saturday and a 15-kilometer race Sunday.

"Is it better? I don't know, but the sport is more interesting for the people, the spectators, the media," he said.

"We had three jumps for a long time and a 15K race, only one loop. So we were only two times in the stadium, at the start and finish. We were 45, 50, 55 minutes around the loop, so it was not so interesting.

"And we were waiting after the competition. `Who is the winner?' A lot of calculation was necessary to find the best one. Now, it is more popular."

One big step forward came in the mid-1980s when the Gundersen handicap method was introduced. Under the format, skiers start the cross-country race under a handicap system based on their jumping scores, so the first skier to finish the race -- 15 kilometers in the individual event, 7.5K in the sprint -- is the winner.

"We have more open calculations. People know who is first, who is second, who is third. It is easier to understand now and it has been good for the sport," he said.

Nordic combined has been arguably the most willing to change in an effort for more popularity. Like biathlon, combined went right to skating when American Bill Koch showed how it was a faster cross-country skiing technique, and it has experimented with new events. The individual sprint and two-man sprint are two steps forward.

"The wish from many athletes," Wehling said, "was to have more competitions, more different competitions. And maybe also one competition more during the World Championships and maybe the Olympic Games, so an athlete could win a second individual medal."

In a way, though, what Wehling needs is not just more events but more help.

"Uli's overworked," U.S. Nordic combined coach Tom Steitz said, "but he's not a whiner, so he doesn't complain about it. Still, FIS should hire at least one more person to work with him, maybe even two."

"You can talk with him, though, explain your point of view on an issue and he'll listen. We don't always get what we want," according to Steitz, "but I know Uli's always going to give us an ear."

Growing up in Oberwiesenthal, the East German nordic center, Wehling was an Alpine and Nordic skier into his teens. When the German Democratic Republic Ski Federation decided in 1968 to concentrate on Nordic skiing, he slid easily into combined. He was a good jumper "but for me it was more interesting to have two disciplines, a change in training."

Comparing today with yesterday, he noted, "Our athletes were stronger. I was 80 kilos (176 pounds) in my last race; now they have maybe 68-70 kilos. We were jumpers but now they are flyers."

Wehling's unprecedented feat of three Olympic golds is augmented with the Nordic combined title in the 1974 World Championships at Falun, Sweden, and bronze in the '78 Worlds at Lahti, Finland.

"Each site, each success, has special memories," he said, "but, yes, the first (Olympic) gold in Sapporo and the last in Lake Placid are special."

After retiring, he worked with the East German federation and following the reunification of Germany, Wehling moved into his FIS assigment.