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Archive for December, 2009

Masters SuperTour a Good Thing

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Earlier this fall, USSA announced a Masters division of the US SuperTour – the premier elite race series in the US.  The announcement on FasterSkier generated some comments, and a more complete article from the Anchorage Daily News provided us with view points from both sides of the issue.

What issue you may ask?  And I wonder the same thing.  In my mind, this is an unequivocally good thing.  It isn’t going to revolutionize the xc skiing in the US, but nor is it goign to cause any harm.

I don’t believe that the Masters SuperTour is an effort to generate revenue – thought long-running perception of USSA is one of money-grabbing – always asking, never giving.  Whether this image is fair is a different subject altogether, and not one I will address here. This is about generating interest in the sport, and showing an oft-neglected group of skiers that they are noticed and are a valuable part of the ski racing community – for more than just their bank accounts.

Those interviewed in the ADN article don’t get this.  Of course most Masters are not going to fly all over the country to participate in the whole series, but most elite skiers don’t race the whole SuperTour either.

The cost is negligible, so the risk is low.  If a half-dozen people do enough races to qualify for the overall title, that is great.  It shows that Masters deserve their own race series, and are fast enough to warrant it, and it shows that USSA cares about more than your membership check.

Several years ago in West Yellowstone, I was watching the Masters Heat in the SuperTour sprint (a great addition in my mind).  As the racers came by a collegiate skier said, with obvous scorn, “here some the master-blasters.”  And the blasters in the race?  Included Factory Team skier and Olympian Justin Freeman, Fischer/Craft racer and marathon stand-out Adam Swank.  Colin Mahood (XC Oregon/Rossignol) was supposed to start but didn’t know he qualified.  Being a Master is about age, not ability.

The negative stereotypes of master skiers are a staple in this country, and are often good-natured and amusing.  But they too-frequently cross a line to a level of vitriol that borders on malice.

Phil Bowen made the point in a comment on FasterSkier that such a series would better fall under the auspices of AXCS, and technically he is right.  But given the low cost of this venture, we should just be happy it is happening.

And I think Dave Knoop nails it when he write:

“Hate and fear of a secret diabolical agenda vs. providing a venue to the larger portion of the skiing pryamid those so called ‘Masters Blasters’ who absolutely refuse to go quietly into the night. Many of us are the infamous “Baby Boomers” no introduction to that generation needed here.

“It may start small as you say yet if the message is consistent over time (year to year) then what is the problem with this.”

Not everything is a nefarious money-grabbing ploy.

Does this suddenly make USSA the organization of the masses, looking out for the needs of all? Hardly.  But credit where credit is due, and this is a small but worthwhile step.

Dusseldorf: Maybe You Had to be There…

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

I just re-watched the men’s finals from both the Dusseldorf races last weekend, and to be honest, I was bored – nearly to the point of stopping.

Normally sprint races make for extremely exciting spectating – in person and on TV, but Dusseldorf is an excpetion.  And given the amount of resources that go into putting on this event – including blwoing snow in an inddor areana and trucking it out to cover the streets – is this really a good event to have on the schedule.

FIS makes a huge effort to cater to TV, and to make course spectator friendly.  But unlike most World Cup sprint courses, a fan at the race is not going to see much at all.  Take both Whistler and Canmore – there are numerous vantage points that will allow a spectator to see nearly the entire race.

And the flat, narrow, twisty course did not make for more excitement.  Flat and fast means it is hard for anyone to break away.  Narrow and twisty leaves few opportunities for passing.  The men’s sprint final was basically a long single file chain up to the final sprint.  The only interesting move was when Petukhov took the lead.

There were plenty of crashes in the Team Sprint, but I personally don’t find crashes an exciting part of the sport – they can be entertaining occasionally, but I want to see is the best skiers in the world making aggressive moves, strategic decisions, and basically going for it.  I can see broken equipment and people stepping on each others skis at the local high school races.

I am not one of the sprinting naysayers – it is a great format – extremely challenging for the athletes and great to watch.  But FIS needs to be careful about going to “X-Games.”

And in all fairness, seeing the thousands of fans packed along the German streets is cool.  But keep the quality of the racing high, and shoot for a fair course, where luck is not usually the deciding factor.

You can watch the both finals here, as well as a montage of all the crashes.

Congratulations Tim!

Friday, December 4th, 2009

Congratulations to Tim Burke for his podium performance today at the Biathlon World Cup opener in Sweden.  Tim has been knocking on the podium door for the last three years – it is great to see him breakthrough.

The US can now be considered a prime-time player in the Nordic sports.  Not at the level – or at least not the depth – of Norway or the like, but there is the ability to compete for the podium nearly across the board.

Last season we saw Kikkan Randall’s World Championship silver, Kris Freeman’s 4th, multiple World Champ medals from Billy Demong and Todd Lodwick, top-10s from Andy Newell and Torin Koos, Lindsey Van’s gold in women’s ski jumping, and Jeremy Teela’s 3rd place in World Cup biathlon.

This year we already have a 4th by Freeman, a top-20 distance result from Randall, and now Burke’s historic 2nd.

At this point, the US lacks a podium threat in only men’s ski jumping and women’s biathlon.  It is an exciting time for US skiing.  Congratulations to all the athletes, coaches, and support crew.  Hopefully this is just the beginning.

The Russian Doping Problem

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Over the last months much has been made about the issue of doping in Russia – from Ian Harvey’s list of Russians caught since 2001, to the meeting called by USST Coach Justin Wadsworth in Norway to discuss how to catch dopers.  Then we find out the World Cup podium finishers are not tested every race.

As much as we would like the doping issue to go away, it keeps coming back.  Earlier this year, Zach Caldwell wrote a piece describing the US Doping Problem – referring to a seemingly American obsession with who is doping and who isn’t – an exercise that doesn’t get us anywhere.

And while I agree with Zach that focusing on what others may or may not be doing in terms of illegal performance enhancement, is a waste of time and energy, as a ski fan, it can be hard to ignore.

Last weekend Russian women finished 2nd, 5th, and 8th in the women’s 10km classic.  In the men’s 15km?  2nd, 3rd, 6th and 12th.  Add to that a 3rd in the men’s sprint and a 5th in the women’s and you have quite a weekend of racing.

With an average of nearly two Russian Cross-Country skiers and Biathletes caught every year since 2001, coupled with allegations of continuing issues (including systematic doping programs), it is impossible to feel good about thos results, and that is a shame – bad for fans and bad for the sport as a whole.

The idea of “innocent until proven guilty” is one of the foundations of our country, yet it is difficult to apply emotionally in this case.  I see Russia packing the top of the result list, and while none of those individuals have been caught, their ski program, and their nation have been found guilty over and over.

Strong results should not be cause for suspicion, but strong results coupled with an extraordinary history of doping is a different story. Norway has been a dominant force on the World Cup, but no Norwegian that I know of has ever been caught cheating.

The issue is not simple – the need to avoid false positives and draconian testing protocols must be balanced with the goal of a clean sport.  And the technology is constantly changing, creating an arms race of new methods of cheating, and new methods to catch the offenders.

The FIS and WADA need to address this issue.  The Tour de France was faced with a crisis in 1998, and responded with a strong effort to clean up the sport, including punishing a rider’s team if he is caught.  Is cycling clean?  By no means, but the strong and consistent effort has restored a degree of credibility.  While the cross-country World Cup is not in a state of crisis in regards to doping, there is a growing sense that it is still too easy to get away with cheating.  And one could argue that the 2001 World Championships in Lahti, Finland, when the hometeam was caught blatantly cheating, was similar to the ’98 Tour de France debacle.  But nine years later we are still left wondering if today’s winner reached the top by breaking the rules.