January 18th, 2015
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October 3rd, 2014
When Norway withdrew its bid to host the 2022 Olympics in Oslo on Wednesday, there was widespread dismay in the sports world.
For us as nordic skiers, it felt like a particularly harsh blow. Oslo is a nice place for everyone, but for cross-country skiers, jumpers, and biathletes, it is heaven. Holmenkollen is already one of the most storied venues in the world, a favorite World Cup stop in each nordic discipline.
Norway has famously good governance. They have money, but they get things done. An Oslo Games would have been well-organized and efficient. And existing infrastructure could have been used to a great extent, to reduce the ballooning cost of hosting a Games.
To begin to answer why Norway turned down this opportunity to play host, it might help to ask ourselves what the Olympics are really about.
When I think about the Olympics, I think back to the early 1990’s when my family traveled first to Albertville, France, and then to Lillehammer, Norway, to watch my aunt compete in freestyle skiing.
I was only five years old in Albertville, and sometimes I struggle to tell whether my memories are really my own. But this I know: we ate a pizza that had an egg on it, in the French style; and for my grandfather’s birthday, he got a flaming dessert from a restaurant.
The Tignes ski area extended from the freestyle venues up and over the mountains – nestled up against Mont Blanc, it is possible to ski into Switzerland. I remember that I became a much, much better alpine skier on that trip, as did my father, who grew up in Atlanta. And I remember the sting when my parents, uncle, and aunt took the gondola up the mountain to ski real trails, and I was left at home with my then-two-year-old cousin. That sucked.
As a comparison: did anyone go to Sochi to ski? What sucked there was that I brought my skis, and never got to use them.
In Tignes, my extended family rented rooms directly across from the competition slopes, so that we could stand on the balcony and look out at the moguls field and the aerials jumps.
I can tell you right now that that will never happen at another Olympics, ever again. The line between athletes and everyone else did not used to be such a clear divide, and the separation of spectators from both the sport itself and the culture of the host city was historically not so stark. In Sochi 22 years later, buildings and stadiums lacked any local character. Not even athletes, generally, could live in a spot that looked out on their competition trails. And the only way to tell you were in Russia was the Cyrillic on the signs, and the militarized security force.
In Lillehammer, the family rented an apartment in town. One of my strongest memories from that trip is of my uncle and aunt buying reindeer burgers and that same younger cousin getting to eat one. My own parents, former vegetarians, were definitely not going to buy reindeer. Much like the missed gondola ski trip, that sucked.
I remember visiting Maihaugen, the museum village of old Norwegian farm buildings. I remember cross-country skiing on the trails out of town, and falling down, and seeing so many other people on skis – more skiers than I had ever seen in my life, more skiers than I could have imagined before traveling to Norway.
I remember my aunt joining us in the stands to watch. In the photos, her credential is hidden underneath a heavy jacket; unlike the Sochi credentials that every spectator wore around their neck like a chain, our family had paper tickets tucked away in our pockets. Everything was relaxed. She also came to our apartment for a joint birthday party for my father, grandfather, and uncle. There were costumes and the adults drank wine.
Maybe this is one of the biggest things that stands out between my experience at the Olympics as a kid, and my experience in Russia last year: athletes weren’t separated from the public as they are now. I visited the Endurance Village in Sochi. That required applying for a special visitor’s pass in addition to my media credentials, days in advance. Transport there was crazy, and it wasn’t in a place that was on the way to anything. Conversely, if athletes wanted to leave to see their families, they couldn’t just walk across town – it was a day-long commitment.
One of our favorite family photos from Lillehammer is me, outside the Olympic village, jumping in the air with my aunt in front of the flags from every participating country. She could come and go as she pleased (I think), to her family birthday parties or just for a walk. And we could go see her. Our main concern was whether we would be distracting.
Much has been made of the IOC’s list of demands for a host city, which reads like a tour rider for a rock star. But while that is the root of the money problems, perhaps another part of the problem is that the Olympic spirit has simply changed since the last time the Games visited Norway. The Scandinavian sports powerhouse may be wealthy, but they have got to be one of the least ostentatious rich countries in the world.
The oil boom only happened in the 1970’s. Today, Norway has the highest per-capita Gross National Income (GNI) in the world, ahead of Qatar, Switzerland, and everyone else. In 1960, its GDP was smaller than the Bahamas. Norway’s oil riches are new enough that the country remembers what it’s like to be poor. The IOC’s current attitude is the antithesis of how Norwegians treat their wealth, and the Games might no longer fully represent how they like their sport, either.
The IOC reportedly demanded that its members be introduced to the King before an Oslo opening ceremony, and have a cocktail party paid for by the Royal Palace.
Do you know who gets to meet the King in Norway? The skier who wins a Holmenkollen World Cup, that’s who. And usually, they’re so awed that they don’t know what to say. The first words out of their mouths are never, “Balvenie on the rocks”.
Perhaps the IOC should try learning something from Norway, instead of insisting that it be the other way around.
—Chelsea Little, editor-at-large11 comments
September 22nd, 2014
At the beginning of the month, Norway’s Anders Besseberg was re-elected as the President of the International Biathlon Union.
Besseberg has led the federation since it left a joint union with modern pentathlon in 1993, and has overseen incredible development of the sport.
How far has biathlon come since then? In 1992, women competed in the Olympics for the first time; today, Darya Domracheva rivals Martin Fourcade’s popularity and Magdalena Neuner wields her fame like a gavel from her comfortable retirement. Likewise, the sprint at the 1992 Olympics featured men from 27 countries; in Sochi, the tally was 31 countries.
As a supporting cast of Executive Board members have come and gone, Besseberg has stayed. With a tenure of over 20 years, he is one of the longest-serving heads of a major international sports federation.
Long-serving presidents are definitely not unusual in the sports world. International Ski Federation President Gian Franco Kasper and FIFA’s Sepp Blatter have both led their organizations since 1998. Lamine Diak has headed track and field’s IAAF since 1999, as has Francesco Ricci Bitti of the International Tennis Federation.
But Besseberg has six years on even Kasper and Blatter. Ottavio Cinquanta of the International Speedskating Union comes close to Besseberg’s mark, having held his presidency since 1994. Even if Besseberg is a great President – which in many ways he obviously has been – 20 years is too long.
The federations do not have term limits for their presidents, although there has recently been a call for FIFA to adopt term limits as Blatter decided to run for his fifth consecutive term. With the challenges plaguing FIFA, in terms of corruption and World Cup host cities, many feel that it is inappropriate for him to continue.
Nothing so sinister is happening in biathlon, a sport which is respected as being well-run. Its biggest (or at least most public) challenges revolve around doping, something which represents a struggle for all endurance sports.
But even without obvious conflict caused by his leadership, Besseberg himself seems to recognize at some level that change is good – and that he might need to leave so that the organization can rediscover its youth and vigor.
“I was in principle determined not to continue [as president], because even though I do not feel old, I know when I was born,” 68-year-old Besseberg told NRK after the election. In a separate interview earlier, he said he hadn’t decided to run until just before the deadline for declaring.
This time, what pushed him over the edge was the involvement of Russia’s Alexander Tikhonov in the race. Tikhonov is a decorated Russian biathlete who had previously served as First Vice President, so knew the organization well. But the retired World Champion has also been convicted for his involvement in the attempted murder of a regional politician in Russia.
Obviously, having such an individual as President would harm the reputation and integrity of the organization.
Another challenger declared as well: Canada’s Dr. Jim Carrabre, a respected anti-doping advocate who has served as Vice President of Medical Issues for years and taken with it the attendant position on the Executive Board.
But Besseberg did not find Carrabre to be a suitable successor either. In the same NRK interview before the election, he said that “I would not consider the other candidates.”
Carrabre may have had a chance were it not for the Russian’s involvement. As it was, many voters at Congress were rightfully jumpy at the prospect of the gangster heading their federation. Rather than risking splitting votes between the two other candidates, stuck with the incumbent to ensure that Tikhonov would not be elected.
Besseberg received 33 votes, Tikhonov 11, and Carrabre 6.
It’s tough to imagine taking on the role of President of a hugely profitable sport’s international federation without ever having done so before. The job does not come with a roadmap, much less a list of required qualifications or job experience.
But if two previous members of his own Executive Board are not qualified to lead the IBU, then who exactly does Besseberg have in mind for the job when he does eventually and inevitably step down? Or is it that there are strong candidates out there, but they are afraid to run against the longtime leader?
If there are really no viable candidates in the biathlon world, then Besseberg himself should perhaps be held partially accountable. If true, then he has apparently been neglecting to cultivate others within his organization who might eventually lead it.
And the presidency is not the only aspect of leadership where the IBU displays stagnancy. The composition of the Executive Board remained largely unchanged after the election despite some high-profile campaigns. Only two positions saw turnover: Victor Maigurov took over the First Vice President position from a fellow Russian, and Sweden’s Olle Dahlin filling the post of Vice President for Development, previously held by the late Czech Vaclav Firtik. For five of the eight positions, the incumbent ran unopposed.
This is troubling: change is good and necessary for the development of sport, like in all other aspects of professional life.
At the past Congress, Besseberg’s Executive Board proposed, and then successfully saw passed, several noteworthy changes and improvements to the sport.
They implemented a new Junior IBU Cup circuit, to offer young racers better opportunities for high-level competition. They changed the scoring system to be more fair to smaller, developing teams (a proposal that was initially developed by the Technical Committee, and then pitched to the board). And they tackled thorny issues having to do with mid-race cancellations and weather challenges that have plagued the World Cup in the last two seasons.
But some sources of innovation seem halfhearted and gimmicky. The Super Sprint Mixed Relay joined the list of approved World Cup formats, despite tepid reception after a test race in Oslo last season.
And more could be done to develop the sport outside of Europe.
The sport is certainly not headed in the wrong direction under Besseberg’s leadership. He will continue to innovate and provide the IBU with a strong financial foundation, just as he has for 20 years.
But here’s hoping that this is his final sprint to the finish line, to leave his legacy and make the sport the best it can be – and that by the time the next Congress rolls around, there is a qualified candidate who can provide the IBU with a fresh face at the very top.
November 14th, 2012
The familiar platitude “money makes the world go ‘round” is as tired as Petter Northug approaching the top of the Alpe Cermis. But while such pointless sayings may induce lung burning and nausea akin to those experienced on the Final Climb, cash (or at least the promise of cash) is how we negotiate the practical transactions of daily life.
You may not need much money to hammer out level 4 bounding intervals, but try performing that session on an escalator in Chicago O’Hare or JFK, and see if it earns you a ticket to Europe.
Hard work, dedication, teamwork, great coaching and the encouragement of friends and family may be the key ingredients in the development of skiers but the opportunity to excel requires money.
In a perfect world, US cross-country skiing and nordic combined would be flush with cash from corporate sponsors and government funding, allowing top skiers and up-and-comers alike to focus on performing and improving.
It is not news that we don’t live in that world. The US Ski Team has worked hard to support the very best at a level that allows them to focus on racing, but that leaves little for the tiers below, and those on the A-team are well-funded only by the standards of this sport in the US.
As US skiing has moved from mediocrity (at best) to true international competitiveness over the past decade, and with a strong contingent of younger athletes demonstrating this is not a temporary spike, the need for financial support has grown.
If we want to see continued success and growth in the sport, we as a community need to do more than just cheer.
The challenge is that most already do. There are so many demands for money — the local club, individual athletes, regional organizations — all need support and all are critical to the mission of growing the sport and developing great skiers. And this isn’t considering all the other worthy causes unrelated to skiing and the countless hours that volunteers, parents and coaches dedicate to the sport.
But we still need to add another layer — call it the foundation or the peak — either analogy fits for the national level.
It is no secret that as a community and sport that we cannot count on USSA to come forward with any support beyond the top level. There is going to be no well-funded development program or all expenses covered trips to Europe for any but those scoring points on the World Cup.
Clubs are now commonplace and are the first line in development. Regional organizations, led by the New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA) and followed by Central Cross-Country (CXC) have taken over from USSA, allowing for better programming and a commitment to vision.
The National Nordic Foundation (NNF) was created to fill the gaping holes left by USSA on the national level — the one area where there was still nothing beyond what USSA would offer. From the relatively modest goal of raising $25,000 several years ago, NNF is now attempting to bring in $250,000 to support the development of elite cross-country and nordic combined athletes.
A major ingredient in the evolution of the sport in this country has been a commitment to racing in Europe and training camps that bring together promising skiers at all levels of the pipeline.
This is what NNF raises money to support, and the organization has grown from a nearly dormant project to one of keys to the future success of our sport.
With just two days remaining in the annual fund drive, NNF is looking to hit an important $15,000 matching grant on the nordic combined side, and is within striking distance of the full funding goal of $125,000 for cross-country.
We all have to decide where to put our dollars. Some may be able to afford significant contributions at all levels, but others have to make choices.
The hope is that we don’t steal from Peter to pay Paul, and we can’t afford to ignore one level to support another. But the good news is that there are good options and every dollar helps wherever it goes.
It wasn’t that long ago that organized local clubs with elite programs were mainly a Scandinavian oddity, and regional organizations like NENSA and CXC did not exist.
The only choice was USSA, and for a myriad of reasons this was not appealing to many.
So with the kickoff to the 2013 season just days away, I encourage you to look at the options, and if possible make a contribution, be it to your club, your region, NNF, or to all three.
October 31st, 2012
With November just a day away we are on the cusp of another ski season — opening SuperTours in West Yellowstone, World Cup racing in Sweden the same weekend, the exciting prospect of Canadian World Cups in December…plenty to look forward to before the holidays even roll around.
I believe it is safe to say that most readers of FasterSkier not only love cross-country skiing, they are passionate about competition — whether they race themselves, or are fans of friends, family or North America’s best. In many cases it is a combination of all of the preceding. In that respect skiing is like many other sports — watching, rooting, playing, with the added benefit that participation and competition are highly accessible (how many football fans can watch the big game one day, and be out playing in an actual match the next?).
People like to believe their sport of choice is different — more exciting, harder, just generally better than others. In that respect we are all biased toward what we like to do ourselves, and how we choose to be entertained and inspired.
But I do believe there is something unique about skiing (and when I write skiing I refer to all the “nordic” disciplines — cross-country, biathlon, nordic combined), and that is the community that forms around the sport. This community is close-knit, mutually supportive, and generally made of very good people. Being a skier gives access to this community, and that is a wonderful thing.
Granted, at times the closeness can be somewhat stifling, and decision making power too consolidated. Overall, however, it is the community that allows the sport to exist — from financial support for World Cup racers, to grass-roots local clubs and programs — and there is somthing about the sport that fosters such a community — a wonderful feedback loop.
This all may seem a little cliche, but sometimes cliches are appropriate. Last week we published an article on the Anchorage ski community rallying behind one of their own who was injured.
Spearheaded by 12-year-old Luke Jager, a fund-raising running race raised $15,000 for Jager’s friend Mary Robicheaux, who was seriously hurt after being struck by a car while riding her bike.
The efforts of the Anchorage ski community on behalf of Robicheaux are impressive and heartwarming, but ultimately not surprising. This is what the ski community does.
“The AK ski community is a small group, so I think regardless whether or not you know someone personally, because we all share the same love of a similar sport, that creates a bond,” Rob Whitney, husband of US Ski Team member Holly Brooks, and a long-time member of the ski commuity as an athlete, coach and supporter wrote to FasterSkier in an email.
Whitney could have been describing the greater ski community. We all know similar stories on the local, regional, and even national levels. This is why skiing is different.
November 26th, 2011
It is a beautiful morning in West Yellowstone, with somewhat more seasonal temperatures in the single digits – perfect for classic skiing.
It is quite a weekend in the North American ski racing world with the opening continental cup races in West, and the Kuusamo Mini-Tour in Finland, including NOrdic Combined races. Add to that a stacked field in the last pre-World cup biathlon events in featuring a stacked field. These races will determine the final selection for the US biathlon team for the World Cup opener.
ANd there is plenty of excitement with Kikkan Randall (USA) and Lenny Valjas (CAN) both cracking the finals in the classic sprint on Friday, and Randall sitting in 5th in the overall mini-tour standings.
While it has been a mixed bag overall for the North Americans, it is very exciting that every race features skiers who could stand on the podium on any given day.
The performance of the American women has been especially notable over the first week of World Cup racing, with LIz Stephen turning in two top-30s in her first two distance races, and Holly Brooks placing 17th in the Kuusamo 5k. And that doesn’t include strong performance from some of the younger skiers who are out mainly for experience at this point.
We also know that the Canadian men will turn things around.
Here in West, there is the usual festive atmosphere and great skiing. Bringing thousands of people together to celebrate skiing is pretty cool.
Kikkan Randall – She is so good and still keeps improving. Enjoy this because we are in the presence of greatness
Watching Leif Zimmermann V1 – When he is on, Leif floats up the climbs. Pretty sweet that he always gets it done in West.
Ditto for Morgan Arritola – Skis so smooth. Most of the top finishers in Friday’s skate appeared to be working less than many others. Just an illusion, but a testimonty to efficiency, and how these courses need to be raced.
Jessie Diggins leaving it all on the course – No one goes harder. Of course other skiers bring their A-game, but with Jessie you really see it.
Minnesota highschool kids volunteering at the SuperTour races – video to follow
The End of the Expo in West – A fun time, but exhausting. Glad to participate, and glad it is done. Are stickers really that cool
The helpful folk running the Ski Festival and SuperTour races here - they have done a great job, and gone out of their way to help us provide the best coverage we can.
An entire collegiate ski team showing up one night in the lobby of our hotel to partake of free hot chocolate
People who are content with the status quo in ski racing in North America – the “its just skiing” attitude is not helpful. Perspective is important, but so is pushing the envelope.
Impending departure to a land of no snow.
Slow internet - West Yellowstone has a single pipe feeding the town, and it doesn’t have much capacity. When everyone gets in from skiing, it slows to a crawl. An upgrade is supposedly in the works.
November 24th, 2011
It has been a beautiful Thanksgiving day in West Yellowstone, with sunny skies and temperatures climbing to 40F. The skiing is excellent and the atmosphere quite festive. There is nothing like good weather and good skiing to make people very happy.
The first races went off smoothly and tomorrow’s distance races should be a more interesting spectator experience.
All participating in the races, as athletes, coaches, organizers and volunteers have to be pleased there was no repeat of last year when a blizzard postponed the sprints to Thanksgiving day, and temperatures were frigid.
We at FasterSkier will even be able to avoid a mushy pasta or PB&J Thanksgiving, thanks to the race day off and some generous invites.
Skiing – ’nuff said
Sun – see above
Friendly locals in West – everyone is welcoming and interested in the out-of-towners – even those who aren’t really into the whole XC skiing thing.
Free Heel and Wheel – One of the best ski shops in the world – mixing ski gear and a coffee shop/cafe is brilliant. Lunch every day.
Sprint Qualifiers are over
Skiing out the door and to “work”
Sprint qualifiers – so boring to watch (no idea what is going on) and pretty tough to write about
Not skiing - One wants to ski 2-3 times per day. But work calls.
Not getting to watch Nat Herz challenge the costumed children and parents in the annual West Yellowstone Turkey Trot
November 17th, 2011
Earlier this week several Finnish newspapers reported that Juha Lalluka, a key member of the 2011 Finnish World Championship team, tested positive for human growth hormone.
The shock and disappointment did not come close to rivaling the response to the positive test of Estonian legend Andrus Vererpalu last season, but Lalluka’s seemingly out-of-nowhere performances in Oslo piqued the interest of many.
There are several notable points to this unfortunate storyline. First, anti-doping efforts seem to be working – at least some cheaters are being caught. The anecdotal consensus seems to be that the sport is significantly cleaner now than it was five years ago.
At major events there is much less discussion about who is doping and who is clean. When someone does come up dirty, the reaction is generally one of surprise (though for many, not in the case of Veerpalu).
This is generally good. What is concerning, however, is that the results of Lalluka’s A-sampple was made public prior to the testing of the B-sample. That second sample has come back positive, so it is hard to feel much sympathy for the man.
But allowing the results from the first test to reach the public is a serious violation of the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
What if the B-sample came back clean, and the original positive test was an error?
Lalluka’s name and reputation would haev still been permanently tarnished. He would forever be remembered as another doping Finn, albeit one who beat the charges.
Regardless of the fact, that in this case, the B-sample did confirm the initial positive test, WADA, and national anti-doping agencies need to ensure that A-sample results are kept under wraps until the B-sample is tested. The court of public opinion is quick to judge, and when it comes to doping, outside of nationalistic fervor, the verdict is almost always guilty.
Lalluka is gearing up to fight the doping charges, but it is a losing battle. There is little precedent for an athlete with a positive A and B sample to get off without a suspension. At this point all evidence points to another sad chapter in the performance enhancing drug saga that has become all too common in elite sport.
But cheaters and lawbreakers have rights. The rules state that a B-sample must confirm the result of the A-sample. Until those findings are complete, all information associated with the case, even the existence of the case, must be kept completely private.8 comments
October 19th, 2011
This column has been a long time coming – fortunately I am a subscriber to “better late than never” philosophy.
As most frequent FasterSkier readers know, former FasterSkier Associate Editor Nat Herz retired at the end of last season. After two hard years on the circuit, he decided to take a well earned break relaxing in New York City and spending his free time pursuing a masters degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.
The story of how Nat came to work for FasterSkier is worth telling. The summer before his senior year at Bowdoin, I received an email from Nat, requesting a blog. Fortunately for all involved, this was early on in the dvelopment of the FS blogs, and our goal was to provide a variety of perspectives on the sport. Of course the first thing I did was look up his results on the internet—lets just say that ski speed wasn’t going to get him in the door.
But we already had Andy Newell and Kikkan Randall on board, so the “riduclous fast World Cup skier” slots were well covered. The “slow, yet enthusiastic, collegiate skier for a second-tier team” blog we were looking to fill was still open, and Nat did a good job of selling himself.
It also helped that my sister coached Nat for a year at the Putney School and bascially said “he is a great guy.”
We get blog requests all the time, and we have been fairly liberal in giving people an opportunity. Most are failures, not even once being able to post a once-a-week minimum. The fact that Nat not only wrote regularly, his entries were by far the most entertaining on the site.
Despite being a no-name in the greater US ski world, he quickly built up a following. Impressed by his work on the blog, and looking to expand FasterSkier’s coverage, I asked Nat if would be interested in spending a year working for FasterSkier. The deal was sealed over dinner at the Bowdoin dining hall following a classic rollerski in Brunswick—during which Nat was clearly trying to impress me—or at least not embarrass himself—oh how things have changed.
It would be a disservice at this point to use the tired cliche “the rest is history.” Nat had an immediate impact on FasterSkier, bringing a passion for skiing AND journalism. Despite a brief defection to an unnamed sort-of rival publication, Nat jumped in with both feet.
When I bought FasterSkier from founders Cory Smith and Torbjorn Karlsen, I received an email from Scott Jerome, the coach at the University of Fairbanks, asking what direction I would take the site. He believed there would be support for cross-country ski focussed rigorous journalism. This was definitely the biggest component in my vision for the site, but I also knew that it would take time—I did not come from a journalism background and recognized that there would be a significant learning curve. I also knew we had to increase revenue to support increased coverage.
We made steady progress, but the hiring of Nat was a watershed event. A quick look through the archives demonstrates this quickly enough. Quite a bit of our content two+ years ago was not original, coming in the form of press releases and reprints from FIS and the like. We certainly did our own work, but nowhere near the scope of what we do now. Most of the content on FasterSkier now is original, written by FasterSkier staff.
Nat accelerated this process, constantly pushing for more and, most importantly, higher quality writing. Nat has helped shift the entire culture of FasterSkier, to one where skiing and journalistic integrity coexist. It would be exhausting to list everything that Nat was part of during his time with us, but the fact that we are now an internationally recognized publication is in no small part due to his efforts.
I have learned in both my careers (ski journalism and farming) that no one individual is irreplaceable. But Nat left a huge hole behind, one that we didn’t even try to specifically fill. It was not realistic to expect anyone to put in the time and effort as Nat, and to bring a similar skill set.
We decided, to keep moving forward, we would have to hire two people to step in. And that is with no disrespect to Audrey Mangan and Alex Matthews who have joined us. Both women are doing an excellent job and bring their own unique experience and skills, while pushing the site in new directions.
The fact that we felt we needed two highly qualified and motivated people to replace Nat speaks to that fact that he is truly exceptional. I would worry this would go to his head, but I know I only need remind him that over the course of an entire summer he only managed to defeat me in whiffle ball a single time. That should keep him on an even keel.
Nat’s work was not only valuable to FasterSkier, but to the ski community as a whole. I hope that everyone will join me in thanking him for his efforts.
The good news is that he is remaining involved with the site, pitching stories, providing advice and feedback to staff, and contributing the occasional article. He might even provide some primetime race coverage later in the winter.
On personal level, Nat has become a great friend and was a pleasure to travel with—from Vancouver to Oslo, and many places in between. I feel lucky to have shared so many great experiences with Nat over the last two years.9 comments
September 21st, 2011
Team Selection Criteria:
The naming of national teams, as well as squads for major championship events is a process often filled with disappointment, controversy and confusion. In many ways that is the nature of the beast. Bubble athletes (skiers who are right on the cusp of making the cut) will always exist, and it is the job of coaches and team leaders to balance long-term development with the desire to field fast teams in the present.
Chelsea Little’s recent article on Zina Kocher, arguably the best female Canadian biathlete of the last half-decade, highlights one of the main challenges for athletes— the lack of explicit selection criteria.
Kocher, despite her past success, was left off the Canadian A-team and offered a spot on the B-team instead. Coming off her worst season in years, Kocher declined the offer and joined the independent Biathlon Alberta Regional Training Center.
Kocher told FasterSkier that Biathlon Canada did not publish criteria for 2012 until after the 2011 season— meaning she spent the winter unawares of the accomplishments needed to remain on the team.
On an individual level, this is certainly a hardship. Elite athletes are usually extremely goal oriented— you don’t become an Olympian by just going out and simply trying your best. Reaching the highest level of a sport requires incredible focus, and making a national team or championship squad is often a culmination goal— one that a series of smaller goals will lead up to.
In most cases, however, it is difficult to plan how to achieve these goals, often coming down to “I need to ski very fast.”
But the interests of individuals do not necessarily align with those of national programs.
The main argument against explicit criteria is that it takes flexibility away from coaches. The ability to adapt to changing athlete demographics, aging teams, specific race formats, etc. is important.
The US Ski Team (USST) has opted for a two-prong approach, providing explicit criteria for the top tier. Only those skiers who are competitive on the World Cup will meet the standards, while those who are strong domestically will need to be discretionary selections.
While this may be hard for those racing at the B-team level, the approach does make sense. If you are truly an international caliber racer, you are on the team. If you are not yet, you can still make it, but a number of non-quantifiable factors will be considered, including stage of development, recent improvement, injury and illness, and a host of others.
The system is not always perfect— take for example the case of Torin Koos, who just missed the explicit criteria. He was left off the team despite being one the fastest skiers in the country, and capable of strong World Cup results. But his inconsistency and age led the team to conclude he was not going to take another step forward with the program. But the decision was controversial, and could easily have gone the other way. Koos was just a few FIS points away from hitting automatic qualification.
Many other skiers, who missed out on discretionary selections to the US B-team (or were removed from that team) might also feel that this approach is not ideal.
Age is a major component in selection, and one that perhaps creates the most significant issues. The USST has spent time developing profiles of successful athletes, trying to pinpoint where skiers need to be at certain ages in order to compete for Olympic medals during their career.
These do not lead to hard and fast rules, but it boils down to the fact that as skiers get older they need to go faster than their younger competitors to make the cut.
We see this all the time in the US, where the fastest skiers, after the truly elite World Cup racers, are not named to the team. Recent examples include James Southam, Lars Flora and Holly Brooks, all of whom established themselves at the top of the domestic racing scene and in some cases produced impressive international results as well.
But based on their ages, national team selection was not going to occur without a significant leap forward.
All of three skiers mentioned above have made Olympic and World Championship teams, and the USST has often stated that those teams are less about development, and more about present success, providing an opportunity to “reward” the hard efforts of non-national team athletes.
But the criteria for these teams is as undefined as on the national level. Discretion is listed above everything else in the official selection guide. A skier with Olympic aspirations does not know ho he or she must perform— other than very well.
Once again, however, the USST wants to be able to maintain flexibility, considering who is skiing fast as the events approach, as well as strength in specific techniques and race formats.
Internationally, there is a mix of approaches. When it comes to championship teams, some countries are purely discretionary, with performance in specific races weighing in heavily.
This was the case in Norway where the World Championship sprint team was finalized just weeks before the big event based on results of a single World Cup sprint race— an approach that involves implicit or “understood” criteria. Those skiers knew how they needed to perform in order to make the Olympic team, even though that information was not official.
Other countries, like Germany and Canada have very clear methods of qualification— for example a top-10 World Cup finish or two top-20’s.
National team selection follows similar patterns, but is arguably more critical in North America. If you miss out on the Swedish national team, there is not only strong club support, but access to elite level racing is relatively easy. And with a majority of World Cup races in Europe, “call-ups” for non-national team athletes are common.
In the US and Canada non-national team options have grown significantly in past years, and European racing opportunities are increasing. But for many, particularly older athletes, missing out on the team can have a significant impact on career-trajectory.
While the details are complicated, ultimately, the issue of criteria is fairly simple. Teams need to maintain flexibility in order to pursue a mix of long-term and short-term goals. With limited resources, as in the US, a “mistake” can have lasting repercussions.
On the flip side, athletes prefer to have goals to strive for with clearly defined benchmarks. At the very least it can be frustrating to never really know where you stand, and while optimism is critical, it can often lead to disappointment.
In Kocher’s case, it seems absurd that explicit criteria are defined after a season is complete. This is somewhat disingenuous— at that point, the team should just be considered discretionary, as retroactive criteria will be defined to create the team that coaches would like.
But we are unlikely to see a move toward more explicit criteria. Doing so would lessen disappointment and wounded feelings, but the goal is not to make people happy, or even to help any one individual reach their personal goals— it is to create the fastest teams possible.
In the case of the USST, there is only one goal— to win Olympic medals— and everything is structured with that in mind, and coaches make decisions accordingly.
Thus there will always be controversy around the naming of teams. A lack of explicit criteria will exacerbate this, but clear standards would not eliminate issues. People will take issue in both cases— either with the selections or the criteria.3 comments