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Is FIS squandering a chance to use Linsey Vonn’s success to raise World Cup skiing’s profile in North America?

Lindsey Vonn of the USALindsey Vonn of the USA

About once every generation there's an athlete with the talent and charisma to expand their sport to a new dimension.

Wayne Gretzky made the NHL cool in parts of the United States that previously only cared about baseball and football. Michael Jordan helped grow the NBA into a world brand. David Beckham's time in MLS moved North American soccer into the spotlight.

American Lindsey Vonn is a skiing superstar. Her victory in Sunday's super-giant slalom race made it the second straight year she's swept all three events at the Lake Louise, Alta., World Cup.

The reigning Olympic and World Cup champion might be the most recognizable skier on the planet. She combines skill with personality. Vonn can win on the slopes and be a marketing dream.

Yet the people who operate FIS, the world governing body of skiing, may be squandering a golden chance to expand the World Cup from its European base into North America and the rest of the world.

"I think it's great for the sport to have somebody that is bigger than the sport, especially in North America," said Max Gartner, president of Alpine Canada. "Now we have to maximize that.

"The problem is the FIS World Cup is still so European centric. It's still really very much about the Alps, the major nations over there. This is a real opportunity to reach out and capture more of the North American market. I think we have to look at that. In order to do that you need somebody that is a real superstar. We have somebody. I just think now we have to maker sure how we capitalize on that."

Vonn just didn't win the races in Lake Louise, she blew away the field. The 28-year-old from Burnsville, Minn., won Friday's season-opening downhill by 1.72 seconds. Just one hundredth of a second separated second and third. On Saturday she made a huge mistake on the downhill course but still battled back for the victory.

Vonn now has 56 career World Cup victories, with 14 of them at Lake Louise. By the end of the season she should break the record of 62 World Cup wins by a woman, held by Annamarie Moser-Proell of Austria.

"She has the ultimate package," Gartner said about Vonn. "She has the skills, the strength and she's a professional in every way. That's why she is above everybody else at the moment."

More World Cup races in the U.S. and Canada would give Vonn more North American exposure. Putting more races on television would raise the profile of the sport overall.

After this weekend the teams head off the Europe where they will stay for the remainder of the winter.

"North America is a big market, one of the biggest ski markets in the world," said Gartner, who was born in Linz, Austria and is married to 1992 Olympic downhill gold medallist Kerrin Lee-Gartner.

"There are lots of corporate headquarters. Let's make sure we capitalize on this opportunity. It only happens so often you get a superstar like that."

Gartner supported Vonn's attempt to race against the men at Lake Louise last week. FIS dismissed the idea but Gartner thinks the sport lost a chance to reap huge amounts of publicity.

"She certainly is in a class by herself," Gartner said. "I'm still a big proponent of having her race against the guys at some point.

"Even look at alternate ways of competing. I think you have to have an open mind. We're not even on TV enough, especially in the States. I think there is an opportunity here. It  could be a real boost for ski racing in North America."

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