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Archive for November, 2009

Sprint Qualifier Only? Lame!

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Yesterday marked the beginning of the 2010 US SuperTour, and also the introduction of a new race format – the qualifier only sprint.  I won’t beat around the bush, or in this case, the sprint course (at least not more than once) – this is completely lame and not what US skiing needs.

I know there are some good reasons for this format, and the main one is that it allows for an additional early season race.  This means another opportunity for skiers to get up to speed in an elite field, and work on the ever-important sprint qualifier, without the logistics and wear of a full sprint day.  Perhaps more importantly it provides a third points race at West Yellowstone – a points race with the a strong Canadian contingent. And those Canadians have the points the US wants!  Canada has plenty of spots for the Olympics, in part because of strong national depth in the sport, but also due to good points management by Cross-Country Canada, athletes and coaches.

But despite all this, a qualifier-only sprint, in my opinion, should not be a regular scheduled event.

First of all, it is not an international race format.  It is part of one, but you will not see a 1.4km individual start race, without heats, on the World Cup, in the Olympics, or just about anywhere else.  If you want to prepare athletes to race at the highest level, you need to have them race the formats of the highest level.

Again, one argument is that this is on opportunity to practice sprint qualifying.  FIS points races should not be “practice.”  If you want to practice, hold non-points events, or do it in training.

From the spectator’s perspective , qualifying-only sprint races combine all the worst elements of ski racing.  It is an individual start so you have no idea how people are doing.  It is very short, so your favorite skiers will pass by once, and once only.  There is no drama, no suspense – just four minutes and done.  Specifically, the West Yellowstone race was even worse, held point-to-point on a narrow trail.  I support the fact that organizers chose a challenging course, but it was impossible for viewers to see the start and finish.

And from the racers point of view? I did not race myself, and have not heard much from those that did, but my guess it was a good opportunity to go fast, and nothing more.

My biggest complaint, however, is the idea of manipulating formats and schedules to maximize points.  I fully support the goal of improving points in the US, and tweaking the race schedule a bit is fine.  But creating formats goes against my ideal for the sport.  And most importantly, while throwing in an extra points race may be helpful, what we really need are faster skiers.  With no disrespet to the extremely hardworking athletes, the fact that a full 20 – yes that is right – 20 seconds separated 1st and 14th place in the women’s race.  Now Daria Gaiazova of Canada (race winner) did score World Cup points in two sprints last year – including in a full field in Lahti – so she is no slouch.  But if 14th place is A) 20 seconds back, and B) 50 years old (Beth Reid, an incredible athlete was 14th), we have plenty else to worry about.

Will the points take care of themselves if US skiers are fast enough?  Not necessarily.  USSA needs to be proactive on the points front – not thinking enough about points got us into the Olympic quota issue in the first place – and I applaud the work that is going into the matter.  But providing incentives for top athletes to participate, working with Canada, and getting more skiers to Europe are all better alternatives than a contrived race format.