According to USSA Nordic Director, John Farra, the job of the US Ski Team is to win Olympic Medals. Not World Championship Medals, not World Cup Titles, Olympic Medals. This was the reason that no US Women’s Jumping Team was named for next year – Women’s Jumping is not currently on the 2010 Olympic program, and therefore, there are no medals to be won in the sport.
Is this a good thing, to specifically target on event that only happens every four years? And in cross-country, and event that may not play to the strengths of our top athletes? It is no harder to win an Olympic Medal than a World Championship medal. In the 15km men’s classic race in the 2006 Olympics, 57 skiers posted under 100 FIS points. In the 2008 World Championships, the number was 59. Granted, the World Championships happen every two years, meaning that fewer Olympic medals are available, and therefore making them more valuable. But an Olympic Medal does not demonstrate greater skill or mastery of the sport.
And winning an overall World Cup title is arguably significantly more difficult than a top-three finish in any single event. Such a feat requires an amazing ability to perform at the top level for months, avoiding significant injury or illness.
But in the US the Olympics are the Gold Standard. The general public couldn’t care less about World Championships and World Cups. Kikkan Randall’s World Championship silver was an historic moment in US skiing, and while it got some play in the national media, imagine the response had it been in the Olympics. A Bob Costas Olympic Special Moment feature would just be the start. And thus the sponsors, who are interested in promoting their products, are going to want to see results that the widest audience notices.
As a passionate ski fan, I was no less excited about Kikkan’s silver than if it had occurred in 2010 in Vancouver. But I am in a tiny minority, and USSA needs to attract sponsor dollars and membership contributions. The short of it is they can sell Olympic medals. This is a reality of sport. Financial backing is needed and therefore sponsors and the public will dictate the definition of success. This is not unique to skiing. When is the last time that you checked in on the bobsled World Cup or World Championship results?
But the Olympics as the Gold Standard is limiting – both to the US Ski Team as a whole and to individual athletes. Kikkan will be hard-pressed to repeat World Championship performance in Vancouver given the strength of her skate sprinting (the Vancouver sprint is classic), and the US Ski Team is putting all of its eggs in one basket by focussing on a single two week period of racing. Ultimately, however, as in so many things, money is the final word, and as long as the Olympics bring in the bucks, the Games will be the focus.