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Archive for September, 2009

The Rich Get Richer

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Today we ran an article on the Swedish Ski Team’s new private plane.  A year after acquiring a state-of-the art wax truck, the Swedes now have the ability to fly anywhere in Europe at the drop of that hat.  As Johan Sares, head of marketing for the Swedish National Team, explained, the team will no longer have to deal with crowded airport lines and the risk of illness that comes with air travel.  This is no small matter – illness is arguably the single biggest concern of elite ski racers over the course of the season – one untimely cold can derail an entire season.

This announcement comes in the wake of a FasterSkier report by Nat Herz on the current economic state of USSA.  SuperTour prize money was decreased during the season last year and salaries for all USSA/USST were cut.  According to USSA Nordic Director, John Farra, the decrease in the size of this season’s US Cross-Country Team, was in part motivated by budgetary issues.

As a baseball fan, this reads like the classic story line of the New York Yankees and any number of small market teams – the Oakland A’s may fit well – they are a well-run organization that has flashes of great success, but are constantly limited by lack of resources.  The Yankees have a payroll nearly twice that of the next closest team, and have virtually unlimited resources.  Meanwhile the A’s, and their brethren have to cut costs in any number of ways.

The Yankees aren’t doing anything wrong, and neither are the Swedes.  There are no rules that limit the amount of money that a National Team can spend on waxing or transportation.  But just like every free agent signing makes the Yankees tougher to beat, each airplane or wax truck that teams like the Swedes purchase, add to the challenge for the less moneyed.  The gap between the “haves” and “have nots” grows.

I’m sure USST Head Coach Pete Vordenberg would have no comment on the Swede’s airplane.  As with issues of doping, how the Swedish National Team gets to races is out of the control of the USST, and Pete has made it clear he doesn’t waste his time and energy on such things.

Is it fair?  Perhaps not, but interestingly enough, athletics is not really about fairness.  It isn’t fair that Bjorn Daehlie has a VO2Max of 90.  It isn’t fair that Michael Jordan’s vertical leap dwarfed that of just about everyone else.  We don’t try to control natural discrepancies in physical gifts, nor should we want to.  But the idea of a level playing field is a myth.  Someone always has an advantage – Emil Joensson now has an additional advantage over Andy Newell, but Newell has advantages over Colin Rodgers (for example).  The rich always tend to get richer.  Andy worked his butt off and was named to the US National A Team years ago.  While compared to Sweden, it may be meager, he still enjoys a level of support exponentially greater than an athlete just below the National Team level.  It isn’t about fairness, it is about going fast.

This isn’t to say that anything goes.  It is all about going fast, as long as you play by the rules.  Therefore no doping.  But even doping rules aren’t really about fairness – they are about safety.

Governing bodies make decisions on what should be allowed and what shouldn’t – and there are always gray areas.  Altitude tents?  Currently legal, but seriously questioned.  And even the court of public opinion can impact this – note Bjorn Daehlie’s decision not to use an altitude tent because of the outcry by Norwegian ski fans.  The believed Daehlie was crossing a line of fairness.  But if you outlaw altitude tents because not everyone can afford them, I would think Sweden’s plane would have to go.  Legislating based on fairness is a slippery slope.

There is one area where the idea of fair play should rule – and that is within the scope of play.  The rules of competition should create a situation where no one is disadvantaged due to external factors.  This is why World Cup course are now required to be so wide, and homologation standards exist.  I shouldn’t be prevented from winning because I couldn’t pass on a narrow course – I most certainly should not win if my genetics, training, and commitment don’t allow me to.

While World Cup course width is an example of an attempt at fairness, the opposite can be seen at some regional Junior Olympic Qualifiers in New England.  Each year there is at least one 10km Mass Start race.  The field often numbers close to 100 athletes, and the average course doesn’t quite measure up to World Cup standards on the width front.  Athletes starting at the middle to back of the field are at a severe disadvantage.  While the leaders ski away in a small pack, the rest of the field is a chaotic mess of accordions on every climb, crashes, and broken equipment.    This is not fair as the rules of the competition prevent some athletes from challenging for the victory.  A similar situation is the Swedish Vasaloppet.  While most other major ski marathons have gone to wave starts, the Vasaloppet insists on a mass start of over 10,000 people, leading to significant and well thought out protestations.

Ultimately, sport is not fair – there are always some who have a leg up.  Pete has it right – you focus on what you can control, and don’t worry about the other stuff.  The Swedes can enjoy their plane, and everyone else will still try to beat them on the course. And that course, along with the rules governing it, should give everyone a shot at the top spot – if they have what it takes.