December 3rd, 2010
A year ago I wrote an editorial on the subject of qualifier-only sprint races. At that time, I was less-than-thrilled with the concept, and my feelings have not changed.
The first column was written in the wake of the first qualifier-only event in West Yellowstone. This year, the choice was made to double up, and run two such events on the same day – one classic and one skate.
The event was not a case of making a bad thing worse. At least this time, athletes got to race for more than three to four minutes.
But overall this format is contrived, foolish and embarrassing. Strong words, I know, but when you get into the business of manufacturing race formats and scoring them for FIS points, it is well-deserved.
There are actually some very good reasons why the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) went the route of the double sprint qualifier, and USSA Nordic Director John Farra articulated them well in several conversations and e-mails with FasterSkier.
To start with, all races sanctioned by the International Ski Federation must now be run on homologated courses, with a few exceptions, like city sprints. West Yellowstone does not have the trails to create a course suitable for sprint heat homologation. The wider trails are too flat, and the hilly trails too narrow.
Additionally, the annual Bozeman SuperTour was not on the calendar for this year, and since USSA is cooperating with Canada on scheduling, most top U.S. skiers are heading to the Nor-Ams across the border in December—meaning that the only way to have two scored sprint races in the first SuperTour period was to hold both events in West.
The double sprint qualifier meant there were four scored races, two of which were sprints, in the first period.
But that is where the positives end.
People espouse the benefits of racing more sprint qualifiers—the idea being that if you can’t qualify for heats, nothing else really matters. This is certainly true, but given the nature of sprinting, opportunities to ski in heats are rare. An aspiring young skier could go years of racing qualifiers without skiing in heats.
And anyone who claims that all there is to racing heats is “tactics” is fooling himself. There’s pacing, decisions on when to make moves, and when to hang back. And then there’s the real opportunity for learning: close-quarters skiing.
It takes countless repetitions to feel comfortable racing on a relatively narrow track, at extremely high speeds, with five other fast skiers. We want our athletes feeling confident in these situations, not intimidated, and confidence comes from experience.
A qualifier is the easiest race format to practice: It is called a max-effort interval. There is really no subtlety in skiing by yourself, as hard as you can, for three minutes—and you don’t need a starter 15 seconds ahead of you to hone your pacing.
Heats, on the other hand, are nearly impossible to practice outside of a race environment. Few teams have enough skiers of the same ability level to replicate a competitive sprint heat.
Regardless of skill sets, and the best ways to create fast sprinters, the format is contrived—and it does not exist anywhere else in the world.
A number of coaches and athletes referred to the growing predominance of mini-tours, and the associated prologue event. But a prologue is a completely different race, usually ranging from 2.5k to 3.5k. A three-minute-plus race is not pacing practice for a nine minute race. If we want our athletes to be prepared for international competition, we should be racing the international formats.
Finally, the dual qualifier format is a points grab, and that is embarrassing. Several Canadians who came down for the event mentioned this, in disparaging terms.
The strategy of trying to send more skiers to Europe to improve the points base is an excellent one. The Olympic quota issue of a year ago demonstrated that we need to be very aware of points, and the elite ski community has recognized this. It has taken several significant, proactive steps to improve them.
But those steps should be limited to travel to high-level races, and incentives to improve the fields in the U.S.–not manipulation of the system. It is shameful for the US to create events with the purpose of improving our athletes’ points. It is legal, and it may work, but that doesn’t mean we should do it.
And while it may not be the most crucial concern, the format is likely the least spectator-friendly event in cross-country skiing—especially on the heavily wooded, point-to-point West Yellowstone courses.
The only marginally interesting spot was on the big climbs at the finish, but with no real idea of times, watching the race was like observing an interval workout. The priority in this country should be on athlete development, not fan (or media) friendliness, but it is worth a modicum of consideration.
John Farra of USSA and others are working extremely hard to make sure the US is not in a position where poor points impacts Olympic quotas. This admirable, and I am confident that the US will be in a better position during the run up to the 2014 Games. But with FIS seemingly adding new formats on a monthly basis, the US should focus on races that exist elsewhere, and give our athletes as many chances as possible to race in sprint heats.