A month ago I wrote a short column on the benefits of the small size of the cross-country ski community in the U.S. Shortly thereafter, I received an e-mail from a collegiate ski coach posing an interesting question.
“It seems like being a small sport is tough,” the query read, “because criticism tends to be withheld, or worse, is passive aggressive. After all, it’s tough to be critical of someone you’ll see again weekend after weekend. Do you think we’re stunted by this?”
I have spent the last several weeks pondering this question, and have come to the conclusion that yes, the ski community is hurt by its size.
There is an element of “small-town” syndrome: behind-the-back gossip, petty sniping, and passive aggressive behavior, all while putting on a friendly face when you bump into your neighbor on the street – or in this case, on the side of the race course.
As the editor of FasterSkier, I am constantly butting up against this issue. The tight-knit community often means that people are unwilling to talk about certain issues, fearful of offending someone or burning a bridge. Open discourse is limited, and anonymous opinions rampant.
It is ironic that the small nature of the sport leads to a lack of transparency, when exactly what we need to grow the sport is free discussion and the freedom to be critical.
As we at FasterSkier have worked to raise the bar of cross-country ski journalism, we have tackled more controversial issues. Each time we dig into something, we take a risk that there may be repercussions. We are not just one of many media organizations asking hard questions – we are pretty much the only one. And that means there is nowhere to hide. Do we take the stance of information at all costs? Or are some things not worth the potential fallout?
There are always gray areas, but in general we go with the former, because that is our job, and we believe that doing our job properly is good for the sport. However, athletes, coaches, parents, and supporters are all faced with the same question. “Is it worth rocking the boat to say what I think?”
I believe the answer is too often “no, it isn’t worth it.”
The solution, in my mind is extremely simple, but hard to implement. We must recognize that we are all on the same side. We all want the same thing, albeit in different forms: the growth and success of the sport. We want both Olympic medals as well as a vibrant community of passionate people who love the sport and the associated lifestyle.
We can disagree on how those goals should be reached, but hurt feelings shouldn’t be the inevitable result. A big part of this picture, as it so often is, is ego. We need to be respectful in criticism and considerate of differing opinions, and we need to recognize a healthy discourse is necessary to keep the sport moving forward.
I am constantly amazed at the hostility that underlies many issues and interactions in the ski community. Too many people feel they have all the answers, and too many people take offense when questioned.
It is not all bad – in fact, there are many constructive discussions and collaborations. The sport is experiencing a resurgence, in large part due to the work of committed individuals striving to make things better. But we can do a better job on our communication and our openness, as too much of the positive work takes place behind closed doors or in elite circles. Ultimately, we all must be free to express opinions and ideas, without fear of pissing someone off.