Olympic Medal Opens Doors For Ex-Skier
PARK CITY, Utah (AP) _ Only later did Jurij Franko realize that he struck gold when he skied to a silver medal in the 1984 Winter Olympics.
The native of Slovenia was skiing for the then Yugoslavia, the host country for the 1984 Games, and his medal-winning performance in the giant slalom was the first ever for the country in a winter games. He became an instant celebrity.
``I didn’t think it would change anything,″ Franko said Friday in the Park City press center, where he is working with a Japanese TV company covering the America’s Opening World Cup ski races.
``I told my parents, `This is not going to change anything.′ I meant that on a personal basis, but I had absolutely no idea what affect it would have.
``I remember being surprised when I read a little piece on me in The New York Times during the Olympics and it said I left the awards ceremony accompanied by a guy in a dark brown coat and hat _ probably my agent. I didn’t even know what an agent was. In Yugoslavia, that was not a concept; we were true amateurs at that time.
``More than anything, an Olympic medal is a wonderful name card _ not a business card ... You can knock on any door and people won’t close the door on you. They’ll listen.
``I had no idea particularly how this would be appreciated in the United States, where the Olympics are very popular. In Europe we have many ski champions and here I was with only a silver medal. But in the United States, it is enough to say you are an Olympian.″
Once inside, he’s made the most of his other talents.
``After I stopped racing actively on the World Cup, I wanted to go to the States, to Japan. I always had this need to see how the outside world is, by myself. When you travel with the team, you are sort of in a cocoon and it’s hard to experience the cultures.″
Always a popular and articulate racer, Franko has carried his gift for languages _ he speaks seven fluently _ into a variety of businesses.
He represented the Park City Ski Area during a brief fling as a professional racer in the United States in 1985 and 1986, then came into contact with the world of Japanese business after relocating to California.
While learning Japanese, he established ties with Fuji TV, began marketing a highly successful line of autographed ski clothing and began working with the Japanese Ski Federation to develop young athletes worthy of skiing at the World Cup level.
``There are 20 million skiers in Japan but most of them don’t get into skiing until they are in universities. Very few are really racers, who would start racing when they are very little and go through the whole program.
``The school system there doesn’t really promote ski racing at a high level like the schools in Europe. In Europe, you have the opportunity to skip classes, you have ski gymnasiums like in Austria, where they are focusing on your studies after the ski season. That’s how my school worked in Slovenia. I wasn’t in school from October until April and I did everything in school in September and then in May and June as well as in the summer.
Franko has worked five years with a sports foundation in Japan trying to get school systems to recognize the special needs of winter athletes. It has helped, he says, that Nagano will be the host for the 1998 Winter Olympics.
``In Japan, you don’t get any flexibility until university, but by that time it is too late to become a racer.″