You have 10 minutes,” the International Ski Federation (FIS) representative in Lake Placid told Don Sumanik and Bjorger Pettersen.
So they made the best of it.
“They weren’t going to decide but maybe I could alleviate some of their concerns,” Sumanik told me in our interview more than 30 years ago. “The meetings are usually closed. The only reason I was allowed to sit was because of our bid.”
In Lake Placid, Pettersen outlined the technical advantages of the Whitehorse trails, adding that they were virtually downtown and easily accessible to athletes and the public.
Sumanik talked about why the race should be held in Whitehorse.
“All races have been held in Europe,” he said, “For the growth of the sport, you have to not have everything in Europe. You have an obligation to see the North American market continue to grow and therefore, I feel the race should be held in Canada. And since we have the only bid…”
For the first time, Sumanik identified a specific date for the race: March 21, 1981.
The FIS had a requirement there be a maximum of one day of travel between race venues. Normally, it took two days for the skiers to fly from Europe to Whitehorse.
“It is only logical for us to bring all the top racers direct from Oslo, Norway, because they will all be assembled there for the pre-worlds [to test the track for the 1982 Nordic World Championships near Oslo],” he explained. “We have arrangements with CP Air to fly the athletes from Oslo to Amsterdam to Edmonton. Then there is a special section to Whitehorse. The trip can be completed in 15 hours.”
Neither Sumanik nor Pettersen made any mention of the chalet.
The FIS was impressed. There were few questions asked and the committee voted to support a March 1981 race in Whitehorse – subject to final approval at the Calendar Conference in Venice, Italy, in June 1980.
Even though Yukon government hadn’t committed to the construction of a chalet, Sumanik’s confidence was at an all-time high. But Pettersen wasn’t convinced.
“You’ve got to make sure you go to Venice,” he told Sumanik, “There’s a lot of politicking that takes place in the meantime. Countries that don’t have a race start lobbying and trying to get a Cup race.”
As the June meeting approached, Sumanik made one more journey to Norway to solicit support for the bid. While he was away, the 1980 to 1981 race schedule arrived and Whitehorse wasn’t on it. The World Cup Final on March 21, 1981 was scheduled for Yugoslavia.
“This was after all the assurances in Lake Placid that there would be a race in Whitehorse,” Sumanik recalled, “There were no other countries or cities under discussion in Lake Placid.”
Prior to the meeting in Venice, they met with Jim Paige, the United States delegate to the FIS. The U.S. was entitled to a women’s World Cup race in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1981.
Paige explained that the U.S. would decline the women’s World Cup and support the Whitehorse bid as a combined men’s and women’s World Cup event, if Canada supported the same for Anchorage in 1982.
If the FIS went along with it, the race in Whitehorse would be the first time both men’s and women’s World Cup races would be held on the same day and trail, and in the same city.
Pettersen and Sumanik agreed and the U.S. placed itself firmly behind the Whitehorse bid. (A year later, the U.S. did host a combined event in Anchorage.)
During the FIS meeting, Pettersen spoke first, recommending the Yugoslavia event move to January and Whitehorse be added to the March schedule.
Everything was proceeding just fine until the question of the chalet came up.
The Yukon government still hadn’t made a decision. Yukon recreation minister, Doug Graham, had given Don a letter saying the chalet proposal had been approved in principle, but there were no funds yet. Without the funds, the approval in principle meant nothing.
Graham had asked Sumanik to call just before the meeting for an update and had requested that he not show the letter to the FIS board because it might still fall through.
“Dammit,” Sumanik thought when the last-minute call verified the funding request still hadn’t been resolved one way or the other. “We’ve come this far!”
He hesitated before answering the question from the FIS board, placed his hand on top of the letter from Graham, then shrugged, deciding, “If something happens with the chalet, we’ll worry about it when I get back.”
Sumanik looked them in the eye and said, “The Yukon government is committed to going ahead with the construction of a new chalet.”
Whitehorse had its race.
The chalet was built and the trails fine-tuned to be some of the world’s best. As the race date approached, Whitehorse lacked only one thing: snow.
It had been an average year for snowfall. In early March everything was fine. Then, two weeks before race day, the mercury climbed to well above normal and the melt began.
Eventually all that remained of the trails was the hard-packed base where the trail makers had driven their snow machines.
I spent more than a few evenings with Ed Schiffkorn and dozens of other volunteers, digging snow out of the shadowed parts of Mt. McIntyre and dumping it onto the trails, then covering it with styrofoam boards to protect it from the heat of the day.
Even as the skiers were packing in Oslo, organizers and officials were looking at the soggy remains, debating whether or not to call the whole thing off.
Then, two days before the scheduled start of the North Americans which would precede the World Cup, Old Man Winter returned to Whitehorse. The temperatures dropped and snow fell, and fell, and fell.
By the time the plane from Europe landed in Whitehorse, there was no evidence of the March melt.
I am still convinced that Don Sumanik impressed the importance of the race on a greater power, and Merv Miller negotiated the terms of cooperation. There seemed to be nothing that could stop them.
The 1981 World Cup was meant to be the first stepping stone in a greater vision.
Sumanik, Miller and Schiffkorn planned to bid for another World Cup race in 1985 and possibly become a regular stop on the circuit for future events. They even discussed hosting the cross-country races for the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
But Sumanik died in December 1982. Miller left the Yukon a few years later and never returned. He passed away in 2009.
Of the three Whitehorse men who made the World Cup a reality, Schiffkorn was the last left in the Yukon and, for a short while, the last one left at all.
Pettersen continued his distinguished career in international Nordic skiing until his retirement in 1997. He is an honorary lifetime member of the FIS and was elected to the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame in 2007.
Because he held no formal position on the Whitehorse World Cup host committee, the 1981 race is not listed in his Hall of Fame credentials.
John Firth is a writer and history buff who lives in Whitehorse.