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How the Heck Did This Happen? Detailing Johaug’s Breakdown of Responsibility

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

By Chelsea Little

Ever since Therese Johaug tested positive for the banned steroid clostebol – and said that it was an ingredient in a lip medication that she had been given by a team doctor – one question has kept bugging me: how could this happen?

Johaug is among the most famous cross-country skiers in the world. She has seven World Championships gold medals, a relay gold from the 2010 Olympics, and two other individual medals from the 2014 Olympics. She has been at the top of her sport for years and earns commensurate income.

And more than that, she is part of the Norwegian ski team, that organization whose staff size – coaches, directors, and trainers, ski technicians, doctors, a marketing manager (just for cross-country!) and a longtime professional media attaché – makes the U.S. or Canadian teams look like your middle school basketball squad.

Now, thanks to that positive test, Johaug is set to miss the 2018 Olympics. Depending on whether she wants to keep racing as long as Marit Bjørgen has, that may mean the end of her dream to have an individual Olympic gold medal.

This piece is not about whether 18 months is the right length for Johaug to sit out from competition. It’s an attempt to answer that perplexing question: how the heck did she end up testing positive at all?

The decision recently issued by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) details some of the checks in place on the Norwegian ski team to make sure that mistakes are not made.

That’s a good start. But after this point a breakdown happened. And thanks to the decision, we know how, with more specificity and explained in English.

The story does not look good. It starts in Livigno, Italy, with a team doctor (Fredrik Bendiksen) buying two lip creams at a pharmacy.

“On 3 September 2016, Dr Bendiksen purchased two non-prescription pharmaceutical products at a local pharmacy, Keratoplastica and Trofodermin,” the CAS decision states. “He noted that Trofodermin contained the antibiotic neomycin.”

This was important: Bendiksen wanted the antibiotic in order to treat oozing sores on Johaug’s lips caused by a sunburn.

“Once he had noted the Trofodermin contained Neomycin, he did not conduct any further inspection of the packaging and did not make the connection between Clostebol and the Prohibited List,” the decision later noted. “He did not notice the doping warning on the box. He then put the box in a carrier bag, where it remained until he handed the box to Ms Johaug. In normal circumstances, he would always conduct an internet search to verify the safety of any product. He cannot explain why he overlooked the presence of Clostebol and surmises that he failed to detect it due to the stresses affecting him.”

This is surprising. But was already known, as Johaug blamed her doctor from the start and he no longer has a position with the ski team.

The CAS decision continues: “Ms Johaug took the box containing the Trofodermin cream to her hotel room. She removed the tube of cream and the accompanying insert. She noticed the insert was in Italian but threw it away as she did not understand it. She did not inspect the box and threw it away without noticing that the box carried a red ‘doping warning’ on the side. Ms Johaug used the cream from 4 to 15 September 2016.”

That would come back to haunt her. At the opening of the CAS hearing, “[the International Ski Federation] FIS introduced as an exhibit a Trofodermin box displaying the doping warning.”

Ouch – cold as snow, FIS.

More than Bendiksen’s negligence, Johaug’s carelessness is, or should be, especially surprising, for a few reasons.

First of all, “check your medications” is hammered into the heads of athletes, certainly in North America and western Europe.

The high-profile case of Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle, a former Olympic gold medalist who was disqualified from the 2014 Olympics due to contaminated supplements, most recently reminded athletes of the consequence of taking a banned substance by accident.

And Johaug’s own team had recently been through a drugs scandal with Martin Johnsrud Sundby, which should have made all – doctors and athletes alike – more conscious of their obligations and protocols.

The decision noted that by asking Bendiksen whether the cream was “safe” – he reportedly replied that “this cream is not on the doping list” despite not checking – Johaug was fulfilling her contractual obligation to her team.

And in fact, it’s a smart provision in an athlete contract. But doctors are human. They aren’t flawlessly-functioning robots with encyclopedic knowledge of the Prohibited List and a wireless connection to their brains. Humans make mistakes, so the Norwegian team’s system is not perfect.

Relatedly, Johaug’s contractual obligation to her team is not the same as her responsibility under the World Anti-Doping Agency’s rules (called the Code), which is to personally check everything herself.

The Code stipulates that athletes must “take responsibility, in the context of anti-doping, for what they ingest and use,” and “take responsibility to make sure that any medical treatment received does not violate anti-doping policies and rules adopted pursuant to the Code.”

And yet, from Johaug’s team at the tribunal: “Ms Johaug has vigorously submitted that she conducted herself with a great level of care and even went beyond what could ordinarily be expected of someone in her circumstances.”

Beyond what could be expected? Great level of care?

Even I have heard anti-doping personnel say – often in the news after a scandal – “don’t trust anything just because it is given to you by a doctor.”

And WADA’s “Athlete Reference Guide to the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code,” easily available online, says right on page seven, “It is not a defense to an anti-doping rule violation that, for instance, someone in your entourage or camp gave you a substance…”

As FIS argued, “Ms Johaug implies that her contractual obligations… oblige her to ‘blindly follow the doping-related information from her team doctor’. This is misleading in several respects… nothing in Ms Johaug’s contract required her to deviate from strictly observing her personal duty to make sure no prohibited substance entered her body… On the contrary, Article 5.2.1 h. of her contract explicitly reminds her of her doping-related duties.”

If the Norwegian ski team does not remind athletes of their responsibilities under the WADA Code, and instead relies on its internal system and vast staff which coddle top athletes, it should take a good hard look at its culpability in Johaug’s mess.

(In the decision, there is a note that Johaug only took Anti-Doping Norway’s e-learning test after the positive test arose – not a good indicator of the level of education she received, although who is to blame for that is unclear.)

If the ski team did educate athletes and Johaug simply relied totally on Bendiksen anyway, she should own up and rescind the puzzling claim that she went above and beyond all expectations in her diligence.

Before progressing further I have to admit that, in my past, I took medication from a coach without checking the ingredients against the Prohibited List. I asked what was in it and what the purpose was, and then I took it. So in one sense, I get it.

But there are a few differences: I was 22 and fresh out of college, and Johaug is 29. I had never been drug tested (and never would be, because I wasn’t competing at a high enough level), whereas Johaug had reportedly passed 140 doping tests. I never had to fill out a whereabouts report, which is a constant reminder that one is under anti-doping surveillance, whereas Johaug surely logged her trip to Livigno in the whereabouts database before it happened. And I had never received training about how to check the legality of medications.

That’s not to excuse my behavior – although there almost certainly was nothing banned in my medication, I should have personally made sure before taking it (and checked with a doctor!). I am ashamed that I didn’t fulfill my responsibility to others and to my own health those years ago.

But I’m mentioning this for two reasons. The first, of course, is to admit that I’m being a bit hypocritical.

The second is because I think it’s an instructional example. That behavior is already deemed poor coming from a very mediocre, new-to-full-time-training U23 – and it’s even more confusing coming from someone like Johaug, who won her first World Championships gold in 2011, has been a senior top-level athlete for years, and should definitely have known better how important such precautions can be.

But enough about that. The second surprising aspect of Johaug’s tossing of the medication package is that checking whether a medication is banned could hardly be called difficult.

For Johaug (and Bendiksen), the ingredient was right there on the packaging. A website called Global DRO is free and available to anyone, and lets you type in a medication and see if it is prohibited. A check of “clostebol” gives a pretty clear result.

(It’s true that the website asks for where you are located, and only has a subset of countries as possible answers; that is for users who want to type in the name of their medications, like Trofodermin. The results are always the same for individual ingredients/substances like Clostebol, so users could select any country and use it in this manner.)

And finally, the decision is obviously a summary of proceedings written by a different party and cannot be used to infer Johaug’s attitude or state of mind, but throwing away medication packaging because she couldn’t read it simply seems careless and perhaps even arrogant.

There is a tool called Google Translate, and other tools called smartphones and laptops. Most of us use those tools every day.

Furthermore, “clostebol” is the same in several languages as it is the name of a substance. As CAS writes, “The Panel also observes that the front of the Trofodermin tube clearly indicates ‘Clostebol acetate’ as an ingredient. There was no need even to consult a long list of ingredients to know the important active ingredients in the product.”

Thus, “I don’t understand Italian” is a shockingly naïve defense.

“Although an athlete may not always be expected to follow all the steps outlined in [a prior CAS case], in every circumstance, the Panel finds it striking that Ms Johaug did not perform the most important of them,” CAS wrote in its decision. “She was given the packaging of the Trofodermin but did not conduct even a cursory check of the label. Had she done so, she would most likely have noticed the doping-related warning on the box. Instead, she threw away the box and the accompanying leaflet.”

The takeaway is this.

The Norwegian ski team had a good system to try to prevent mistakes that could lead to costly and embarrassing positive tests. But either the team itself, or individual athletes, became too reliant on this system. They stopped believing that doctors are human and that mistakes happen. They apparently forgot that if they do happen, it is the athlete who bears responsibility. By trusting someone completely, you are taking a big risk.

It’s very unfortunate.

As much as Johaug touts that her situation is crazy and unique, in fact such cases have come to CAS several times before.

In all of them, the jurisprudence has established that “athletes always bear personal responsibility and the failure of a doctor does not exempt the athlete from personal responsibility… An athlete cannot abdicate his or her personal duty to avoid the consumption of a prohibited substance by simply relying on a doctor… It has been consistently held in CAS decisions that an athlete cannot delegate away his or her responsibilities to avoid doping.”

In other words: there is no such thing as a mistake. Mistakes have consequences. That should strike care into the actions of all athletes, if not fear into their hearts.

Commenting Policy Reminder

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

As we continue with our coverage of international and domestic races this season, we want to remind our readers of our commenting policy:

RULES FOR COMMENTING ONLINE

1) Comments must be contained to the topic of the articles only. Comments that stray from the direct subject of the article will be deleted.

2) Readers are free to comment on and debate other readers’ comments, but comments must specifically address the issue(s) raised. Comments containing personal insults directed toward another reader in any form will be deleted.

3) Comments must be civil in tone, and there will be no name calling of any kind. Uncivil or inappropriate comments will be deleted, as will any comment containing profanities.

4) Comments that are potentially libelous, including those that contain accusations not supported by facts, will be deleted.

Commenters who abuse these policies will have their email registrations revoked. A valid email is required to comment, and comments posted with fake email addresses will be deleted.

Questions, comments or concerns: please email info@fasterskier.com.

Mo Money, Mo…Skiing!

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

The familiar platitude “money makes the world go ‘round” is as tired as Petter Northug approaching the top of the Alpe Cermis. But while such pointless sayings may induce lung burning and nausea akin to those experienced on the Final Climb, cash (or at least the promise of cash) is how we negotiate the practical transactions of daily life.

You may not need much money to hammer out level 4 bounding intervals, but try performing that session on an escalator in Chicago O’Hare or JFK, and see if it earns you a ticket to Europe.

Hard work, dedication, teamwork, great coaching and the encouragement of friends and family may be the key ingredients in the development of skiers but the opportunity to excel requires money.

In a perfect world, US cross-country skiing and nordic combined would be flush with cash from corporate sponsors and government funding, allowing top skiers and up-and-comers alike to focus on performing and improving.

It is not news that we don’t live in that world. The US Ski Team has worked hard to support the very best at a level that allows them to focus on racing, but that leaves little for the tiers below, and those on the A-team are well-funded only by the standards of this sport in the US.

As US skiing has moved from mediocrity (at best) to true international competitiveness over the past decade, and with a strong contingent of younger athletes demonstrating this is not a temporary spike, the need for financial support has grown.

If we want to see continued success and growth in the sport, we as a community need to do more than just cheer.

The challenge is that most already do. There are so many demands for money — the local club, individual athletes, regional organizations — all need support and all are critical to the mission of growing the sport and developing great skiers. And this isn’t considering all the other worthy causes unrelated to skiing and the countless hours that volunteers, parents and coaches dedicate to the sport.

But we still need to add another layer — call it the foundation or the peak — either analogy fits for the national level.

It is no secret that as a community and sport that we cannot count on USSA to come forward with any support beyond the top level. There is going to be no well-funded development program or all expenses covered trips to Europe for any but those scoring points on the World Cup.

Clubs are now commonplace and are the first line in development. Regional organizations, led by the New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA) and followed by Central Cross-Country (CXC) have taken over from USSA, allowing for better programming and a commitment to vision.

The National Nordic Foundation (NNF) was created to fill the gaping holes left by USSA on the national level — the one area where there was still nothing beyond what USSA would offer. From the relatively modest goal of raising $25,000 several years ago, NNF is now attempting to bring in $250,000 to support the development of elite cross-country and nordic combined athletes.

A major ingredient in the evolution of the sport in this country has been a commitment to racing in Europe and training camps that bring together promising skiers at all levels of the pipeline.

This is what NNF raises money to support, and the organization has grown from a nearly dormant project to one of keys to the future success of our sport.

With just two days remaining in the annual fund drive, NNF is looking to hit an important $15,000 matching grant on the nordic combined side, and is within striking distance of the full funding goal of $125,000 for cross-country.

We all have to decide where to put our dollars. Some may be able to afford significant contributions at all levels, but others have to make choices.

The hope is that we don’t steal from Peter to pay Paul, and we can’t afford to ignore one level to support another. But the good news is that there are good options and every dollar helps wherever it goes.

It wasn’t that long ago that organized local clubs with elite programs were mainly a Scandinavian oddity, and regional organizations like NENSA and CXC did not exist.

The only choice was USSA, and for a myriad of reasons this was not appealing to many.

So with the kickoff to the 2013 season just days away, I encourage you to look at the options, and if possible make a contribution, be it to your club, your region, NNF, or to all three.

 

Ski Community Comes Through Again

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

With November just a day away we are on the cusp of another ski season — opening SuperTours in West Yellowstone, World Cup racing in Sweden the same weekend, the exciting prospect of Canadian World Cups in December…plenty to look forward to before the holidays even roll around.

I believe it is safe to say that most readers of FasterSkier not only love cross-country skiing, they are passionate about competition — whether they race themselves, or are fans of friends, family or North America’s best. In many cases it is a combination of all of the preceding. In that respect skiing is like many other sports — watching, rooting, playing, with the added benefit that participation and competition are highly accessible (how many football fans can watch the big game one day, and be out playing in an actual match the next?).

People like to believe their sport of choice is different — more exciting, harder, just generally better than others. In that respect we are all biased toward what we like to do ourselves, and how we choose to be entertained and inspired.

But I do believe there is something unique about skiing (and when I write skiing I refer to all the “nordic” disciplines — cross-country, biathlon, nordic combined), and that is the community that forms around the sport. This community is close-knit, mutually supportive, and generally made of very good people. Being a skier gives access to this community, and that is a wonderful thing.

Granted, at times the closeness can be somewhat stifling, and decision making power too consolidated. Overall, however, it is the community that allows the sport to exist — from financial support for World Cup racers, to grass-roots local clubs and programs — and there is somthing about the sport that fosters such a community — a wonderful feedback loop.

This all may seem a little cliche, but sometimes cliches are appropriate. Last week we published an article on the Anchorage ski community rallying behind one of their own who was injured.

Spearheaded by 12-year-old Luke Jager, a fund-raising running race raised $15,000 for Jager’s friend Mary Robicheaux, who was seriously hurt after being struck by a car while riding her bike.

The efforts of the Anchorage ski community on behalf of Robicheaux are impressive and heartwarming, but ultimately not surprising. This is what the ski community does.

“The AK ski community is a small group, so I think regardless whether or not you know someone personally, because we all share the same love of a similar sport, that creates a bond,” Rob Whitney, husband of US Ski Team member Holly Brooks, and a long-time member of the ski commuity as an athlete, coach and supporter wrote to FasterSkier in an email.

Whitney could have been describing the greater ski community. We all know similar stories on the local, regional, and even national levels. This is why skiing is different.

 

So Much Ski Racing

Saturday, November 26th, 2011

It is a beautiful morning in West Yellowstone, with somewhat more seasonal temperatures in the single digits – perfect for classic skiing.

It is quite a weekend in the North American ski racing world with the opening continental cup races in West, and the Kuusamo Mini-Tour in Finland, including NOrdic Combined races. Add to that a stacked field in the last pre-World cup biathlon events in featuring a stacked field. These races will determine the final selection for the US biathlon team for the World Cup opener.

ANd there is plenty of excitement with Kikkan Randall (USA) and Lenny Valjas (CAN) both cracking the finals in the classic sprint on Friday, and Randall sitting in 5th in the overall mini-tour standings.

While it has been a mixed bag overall for the North Americans, it is very exciting that every race features skiers who could stand on the podium on any given day.

The performance of the American women has been especially notable over the first week of World Cup racing, with LIz Stephen turning in two top-30s in her first two distance races, and Holly Brooks placing 17th in the Kuusamo 5k. And that doesn’t include strong performance from some of the younger skiers who are out mainly for experience at this point.

We also know that the Canadian men will turn things around.

Here in West, there is the usual festive atmosphere and great skiing. Bringing thousands of people together to celebrate skiing is pretty cool.

Likes

Kikkan Randall – She is so good and still keeps improving. Enjoy this because we are in the presence of greatness

Watching Leif Zimmermann V1 – When he is on, Leif floats up the climbs. Pretty sweet that he always gets it done in West.

Ditto for Morgan Arritola – Skis so smooth. Most of the top finishers in Friday’s skate appeared to be working less than many others. Just an illusion, but a testimonty to efficiency, and how these courses need to be raced.

Jessie Diggins leaving it all on the course – No one goes harder. Of course other skiers bring their A-game, but with Jessie you really see it.

Minnesota highschool kids volunteering at the SuperTour races – video to follow

The End of the Expo in West – A fun time, but exhausting. Glad to participate, and glad it is done. Are stickers really that cool 🙂

The helpful folk running the Ski Festival and SuperTour races here – they have done a great job, and gone out of their way to help us provide the best coverage we can.

An entire collegiate ski team showing up one night in the lobby of our hotel to partake of free hot chocolate

Dislikes

People who are content with the status quo in ski racing in North America – the “its just skiing” attitude is not helpful. Perspective is important, but so is pushing the envelope.

Impending departure to a land of no snow.

Slow internet – West Yellowstone has a single pipe feeding the town, and it doesn’t have much capacity. When everyone gets in from skiing, it slows to a crawl. An upgrade is supposedly in the works.

Happy Thanksgiving from West Yellowstone

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

It has been a beautiful Thanksgiving day in West Yellowstone, with sunny skies and temperatures climbing to 40F. The skiing is excellent and the atmosphere quite festive. There is nothing like good weather and good skiing to make people very happy.

The first races went off smoothly and tomorrow’s distance races should be a more interesting spectator experience.

All participating in the races, as athletes, coaches, organizers and volunteers have to be pleased there was no repeat of last year when a blizzard postponed the sprints to Thanksgiving day, and temperatures were frigid.

We at FasterSkier will even be able to avoid a mushy pasta or PB&J Thanksgiving, thanks to the race day off and some generous invites.

Likes
Skiing – ’nuff said
Sun – see above
Friendly locals in West – everyone is welcoming and interested in the out-of-towners – even those who aren’t really into the whole XC skiing thing.
Free Heel and Wheel – One of the best ski shops in the world – mixing ski gear and a coffee shop/cafe is brilliant. Lunch every day.
Sprint Qualifiers are over
Skiing out the door and to “work”

Dislikes
Sprint qualifiers – so boring to watch (no idea what is going on) and pretty tough to write about
Not skiing – One wants to ski 2-3 times per day. But work calls.
Not getting to watch Nat Herz challenge the costumed children and parents in the annual West Yellowstone Turkey Trot

So long and thanks for all the fish…

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

This column has been a long time coming – fortunately I am a subscriber to “better late than never” philosophy.

As most frequent FasterSkier readers know, former FasterSkier Associate Editor Nat Herz retired at the end of last season. After two hard years on the circuit, he decided to take a well earned break relaxing in New York City and spending his free time pursuing a masters degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.

The story of how Nat came to work for FasterSkier is worth telling. The summer before his senior year at Bowdoin, I received an email from Nat, requesting a blog. Fortunately for all involved, this was early on in the dvelopment of the FS blogs, and our goal was to provide a variety of perspectives on the sport. Of course the first thing I did was look up his results on the internet—lets just say that ski speed wasn’t going to get him in the door.

But we already had Andy Newell and Kikkan Randall on board, so the “riduclous fast World Cup skier” slots were well covered. The “slow, yet enthusiastic, collegiate skier for a second-tier team” blog we were looking to fill was still open, and Nat did a good job of selling himself.

It also helped that my sister coached Nat for a year at the Putney School and bascially said “he is a great guy.”

We get blog requests all the time, and we have been fairly liberal in giving people an opportunity. Most are failures, not even once being able to post a once-a-week minimum. The fact that Nat not only wrote regularly, his entries were by far the most entertaining on the site.

Despite being a no-name in the greater US ski world, he quickly built up a following. Impressed by his work on the blog, and looking to expand FasterSkier’s coverage, I asked Nat if would be interested in spending a year working for FasterSkier. The deal was sealed over dinner at the Bowdoin dining hall following a classic rollerski in Brunswick—during which Nat was clearly trying to impress me—or at least not embarrass himself—oh how things have changed.

It would be a disservice at this point to use the tired cliche “the rest is history.” Nat had an immediate impact on FasterSkier, bringing a passion for skiing AND journalism. Despite a brief defection to an unnamed sort-of rival publication, Nat jumped in with both feet.

When I bought FasterSkier from founders Cory Smith and Torbjorn Karlsen, I received an email from Scott Jerome, the coach at the University of Fairbanks, asking what direction I would take the site. He believed there would be support for cross-country ski focussed rigorous journalism. This was definitely the biggest component in my vision for the site, but I also knew that it would take time—I did not come from a journalism background and recognized that there would be a significant learning curve. I also knew we had to increase revenue to support increased coverage.

We made steady progress, but the hiring of Nat was a watershed event. A quick look through the archives demonstrates this quickly enough. Quite a bit of our content two+ years ago  was not original, coming in the form of press releases and reprints from FIS and the like. We certainly did our own work, but nowhere near the scope of what we do now. Most of the content on FasterSkier now is original, written by FasterSkier staff.

Nat accelerated this process, constantly pushing for more and, most importantly, higher quality writing. Nat has helped shift the entire culture of FasterSkier, to one where skiing and journalistic integrity coexist. It would be exhausting to list everything that Nat was part of during his time with us, but the fact that we are now an internationally recognized publication is in no small part due to his efforts.

I have learned in both my careers (ski journalism and farming) that no one individual is irreplaceable. But Nat left a huge hole behind, one that we didn’t even try to specifically fill. It was not realistic to expect anyone to put in the time and effort as Nat, and to bring a similar skill set.

We decided, to keep moving forward, we would have to hire two people to step in. And that is with no disrespect to Audrey Mangan and Alex Matthews who have joined us. Both women are doing an excellent job and bring their own unique experience and skills, while pushing the site in new directions.

The fact that we felt we needed two highly qualified and motivated people to replace Nat speaks to that fact that he is truly exceptional. I would worry this would go to his head, but I know I only need remind him that over the course of an entire summer he only managed to defeat me in whiffle ball a single time. That should keep him on an even keel.

Nat’s work was not only valuable to FasterSkier, but to the ski community as a whole. I hope that everyone will join me in thanking him for his efforts.

The good news is that he is remaining involved with the site, pitching stories, providing advice and feedback to staff, and contributing the occasional article. He might even provide some primetime race coverage later in the winter.

On personal level, Nat has become a great friend and was a pleasure to travel with—from Vancouver to Oslo, and many places in between. I feel lucky to have shared so many great experiences with Nat over the last two years.

The Selection Criteria Challenge

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Team Selection Criteria:

The naming of national teams, as well as squads for major championship events is a process often filled with disappointment, controversy and confusion. In many ways that is the nature of the beast. Bubble athletes (skiers who are right on the cusp of making the cut) will always exist, and it is the job of coaches and team leaders to balance long-term development with the desire to field fast teams in the present.

Chelsea Little’s recent article on Zina Kocher, arguably the best female Canadian biathlete of the last half-decade, highlights one of the main challenges for athletes— the lack of explicit selection criteria.

Kocher, despite her past success, was left off the Canadian A-team and offered a spot on the B-team instead. Coming off her worst season in years, Kocher declined the offer and joined the independent Biathlon Alberta Regional Training Center.

Kocher told FasterSkier that Biathlon Canada did not publish criteria for 2012 until after the 2011 season— meaning she spent the winter unawares of the accomplishments needed to remain on the team.

On an individual level, this is certainly a hardship. Elite athletes are usually extremely goal oriented— you don’t become an Olympian by just going out and simply trying your best. Reaching the highest level of a sport requires incredible focus, and making a national team or championship squad is often a culmination goal— one that a series of smaller goals will lead up to.

In most cases, however, it is difficult to plan how to achieve these goals, often coming down to “I need to ski very fast.”

But the interests of individuals do not necessarily align with those of national programs.

The main argument against explicit criteria is that it takes flexibility away from coaches. The ability to adapt to changing athlete demographics, aging teams, specific race formats, etc. is important.

The US Ski Team (USST) has opted for a two-prong approach, providing explicit criteria for the top tier. Only those skiers who are competitive on the World Cup will meet the standards, while those who are strong domestically will need to be discretionary selections.

While this may be hard for those racing at the B-team level, the approach does make sense. If you are truly an international caliber racer, you are on the team. If you are not yet, you can still make it, but a number of non-quantifiable factors will be considered, including stage of development, recent improvement, injury and illness, and a host of others.

The system is not always perfect— take for example the case of Torin Koos, who just missed the explicit criteria. He was left off the team despite being one the fastest skiers in the country, and capable of strong World Cup results. But his inconsistency and age led the team to conclude he was not going to take another step forward with the program. But the decision was controversial, and could easily have gone the other way. Koos was just a few FIS points away from hitting automatic qualification.

Many other skiers, who missed out on discretionary selections to the US B-team (or were removed from that team) might also feel that this approach is not ideal.

Age is a major component in selection, and one that perhaps creates the most significant issues. The USST has spent time developing profiles of successful athletes, trying to pinpoint where skiers need to be at certain ages in order to compete for Olympic medals during their career.

These do not lead to hard and fast rules, but it boils down to the fact that as skiers get older they need to go faster than their younger competitors to make the cut.

We see this all the time in the US, where the fastest skiers, after the truly elite World Cup racers, are not named to the team. Recent examples include James Southam, Lars Flora and Holly Brooks, all of whom established themselves at the top of the domestic racing scene and in some cases produced impressive international results as well.

But based on their ages, national team selection was not going to occur without a significant leap forward.

All of three skiers mentioned above have made Olympic and World Championship teams, and the USST has often stated that those teams are less about development, and more about present success, providing an opportunity to “reward” the hard efforts of non-national team athletes.

But the criteria for these teams is as undefined as on the national level. Discretion is listed above everything else in the official selection guide. A skier with Olympic aspirations does not know ho he or she must perform— other than very well.

Once again, however, the USST wants to be able to maintain flexibility, considering who is skiing fast as the events approach, as well as strength in specific techniques and race formats.

Internationally, there is a mix of approaches. When it comes to championship teams, some countries are purely discretionary, with performance in specific races weighing in heavily.

This was the case in Norway where the World Championship sprint team was finalized just weeks before the big event based on results of a single World Cup sprint race— an approach that involves implicit or “understood” criteria. Those skiers knew how they needed to perform in order to make the Olympic team, even though that information was not official.

Other countries, like Germany and Canada have very clear methods of qualification— for example a top-10 World Cup finish or two top-20’s.

National team selection follows similar patterns, but is arguably more critical in North America. If you miss out on the Swedish national team, there is not only strong club support, but access to elite level racing is relatively easy. And with a majority of World Cup races in Europe, “call-ups” for non-national team athletes are common.

In the US and Canada non-national team options have grown significantly in past years, and European racing opportunities are increasing. But for many, particularly older athletes, missing out on the team can have a significant impact on career-trajectory.

While the details are complicated, ultimately, the issue of criteria is fairly simple. Teams need to maintain flexibility in order to pursue a mix of long-term and short-term goals. With limited resources, as in the US, a “mistake” can have lasting repercussions.

On the flip side, athletes prefer to have goals to strive for with clearly defined benchmarks. At the very least it can be frustrating to never really know where you stand, and while optimism is critical, it can often lead to disappointment.

In Kocher’s case, it seems absurd that explicit criteria are defined after a season is complete. This is somewhat disingenuous— at that point, the team should just be considered discretionary, as retroactive criteria will be defined to create the team that coaches would like.

But we are unlikely to see a move toward more explicit criteria. Doing so would lessen disappointment and wounded feelings, but the goal is not to make people happy, or even to help any one individual reach their personal goals— it is to create the fastest teams possible.

In the case of the USST, there is only one goal— to win Olympic medals— and everything is structured with that in mind, and coaches make decisions accordingly.

Thus there will always be controversy around the naming of teams. A lack of explicit criteria will exacerbate this, but clear standards would not eliminate issues. People will take issue in both cases— either with the selections or the criteria.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Friday, July 29th, 2011

Environmental activism, or at the least, awareness, is inextricably linked with the sport of cross-country skiing. The obvious and simple connection is that of snow. To ski, we need it, and the issue of global climate change is obviously relevant.

But the ties of environmentalism and skiing extend beyond snow and climate change. The value of open space, appreciation for the natural world, and related issues involving habitat, lifestyle, water quality, and much more can factor into the discussion.

On Monday, FasterSkier published an article by Audrey Mangan on the proposed snowmaking system at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in northern Vermont. The snowmaking plans aided Craftsbury in earning the right to host the 2012 SuperTour Finals, and in its attempt to position itself as a potential Thanksgiving on-snow destination.

Snowmaking is inherently not green. Significant electric power is needed to run snow guns, diesel fuel is burned moving artificial snow around, and water is usually drawn from a pond or lake.

But we live in a world of trade-offs, and we face choices of varying degrees of “evils.”

Kermit knows all about the challenges of being green.

If snowmaking does allow Craftsbury to host November skiing, New Englanders would no longer have to fly to points west for early-season snow, to potential significant environmental benefit. When you combine plane travel and car hours to reach the various snow meccas in the western portion of North America, there’s no denying the impact.

As is often the case, however, the picture quickly gets muddy. My own personal November travel plans have little immediate impact–my absence is not going to reduce the number of 737’s taking off on any given day. If enough people cut back on plane travel, there will eventually be change. But the impact of snowmaking is immediate–fuel is burned and power consumed.

My point here is that when it comes to being green, the issues are rarely as black and white as many would make it seem. But in some sense that is irrelevant. When it comes to being green and skiing, the challenge faced by all who participate in the sport is that these two things are inherently antithetical.

It is common for cross-country skiers to assume the high ground, often with a passionate arrogance, in relation to our alpine brethren. It is easy to look at diesel-guzzling generators powering high speed chairlifts, the constant snowmaking, the infrastructure required at a resort village, and conclude the cross-country skiing can glide away free of any responsibility.

But environmental issues aren’t purely relative. Just because cross-country skiing is better than alpine skiing in some respects doesn’t mean that we, as practitioners, absolved of responsibility. And the reality is that cross-country ski racing is decidedly not green–anyone who pretends it is so is fooling themselves.

Snow cats and snowmobiles burn diesel and gas respectively, and many of the older machines are far from efficient–both in terms of their emissions, and their fuel economy.

Travel, even in parts of the world with a high density of venues and races, is frequent and lengthy.

High end equipment is manufactured out of highly processed materials, and wax is very much a non-renewable resource.

Even recreational skiers can’t escape these issues–there will always be traveling to skiing, trail grooming, etc. The only truly green form of skiing would be to construct a pair of wooden skis without power tools and use them out your backdoor.

Some of us are lucky enough to actually be able to ski from our homes, and can self-groom a trail, but in general, being a cross-country skier, especially a racer, is to make the decision to participate in an un-environmental activity.

While there are some who are so committed to the cause of environmentalism that they are willing to structure their entire lives around principles of sustainability and conservation, most who take up the green mantle will go to a point, but not the extreme. Some recognize the inherent hypocrisy; others exist in a state of denial.

Would the state of the environment be better if no ski trails were groomed, no snowmaking installed, no long trips undertaken? Certainly. Obviously, the impact of such a change would be minimal compared to deforestation and the like, but the point is that skiing is not green. You may be hurting the environment less by cross-country skiing as opposed to racing motorcycles, but you are still part of the problem, not the solution.

At the end of the day, one of the most important things is to recognize the choices we make and the impact that they have. The Craftsbury Green Racing Project, a relatively new elite racing team based at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, took the bold step of making the environment part of its mission., and in doing so have come under some criticism–mainly because, as I said above, skiing is not green.

Naming the team as such may have been a mistake, in my opinion. It sets up an unwinnable battle: no matter how much they try, the team will be participating in all sorts of un-green activities as they pursue high-level ski racing.

Their mission is clear on this front, reading in part:

–       use sustainable systems in our own lives and in our communities

–       influence others in our communities to make environmentally conscious decisions

Both of these goals are attainable within the constructs of elite ski racing. Nowhere does it say the GRP strives to be 100% green. Instead, the message is simply to reduce impact without compromising the goals of the athletes–unquestionably a positive concept.

Other clubs and programs make similar efforts at various levels, though without the glitz of the name. This is a good thing, and something that should be continued.

Is there any point here? Basically that it is important to be realistic about what it means to be a ski racer – especially in regards to the environment. Do what you can, and make your choices with intention and recognize the hypocrisy.

And be careful about riding the high horse when it comes to criticizing other sports.

A Spade a Spade

Friday, July 8th, 2011

Last week a short post on the FIS website announced a relatively inconsequential format name change – we didn’t even deem it news-worthy as the impact on the actual competitions is non-existent.

But upon reflection, doing away with the title of “pursuit” for the 15/30km mixed technique event is actually somewhat important.

For any ski fan who was around when the pursuit format actually existed as a medal event, the use of the title “pursuit” for the current version made absolutely no sense.

The traditional pursuit involved a 5/10km classic individual start on day one, followed by a 10/15km skate on day two. The second race was a true pursuit – the winner of the classic event started first, with everyone else “pursuing” him or her from a deficit equal to the results on day one.

Simple enough and very exciting. The two day format left time for speculation and predictions after the first race, building drama, and the skate often provided commensurate excitement – who can forget Stefania Belmondo charging back from some obscene deficit to take a stunning victory on numerous occasions?

She would not stand waiting in the starting gate, instead she would lean into the start official straining against the arm on her shoulder like a caged animal, finally breaking free and charging down the trail – this was indeed a true pursuit with inferior skaters the prey strung out down the trail.

Of course there were plenty of races when someone – often Bjorn Daehlie – would hold such a large lead after the classic, that there would be little to thrill at the front. But such is the nature of racing – not every event is going to provide the sprint finish, and that should be just fine. It can be just as pleasurable to watch a feat of pure domination.

What I have just described is now considered a “handicap start,” and is making a comeback exclusively in the Tour de Ski and mini-tour events. The last event of a Tour is always a handicap event, with the start list based on the overall rankings. The Tour de Ski also includes several handicap races earlier in the event as well.

It has been great to see the return of the true pursuit, and it is shocking it has taken FIS so long to call a spade a spade in regards to the medal race.

The last ten years has been a time of experimentation for FIS – new formats, notably the sprint – have been added, and a push to make races more spectator-friendly have resulted in numerous tweaks.

The pursuit fell victim to the push to please the fans, and it evolved to its current format  – that which is now appropriately called a skiathlon, a mass start race involving two techniques.

The traditional pursuit made its debut in 1988 and was abandoned after the 1998 Olympics and replaced by a brutal one day affair. Athletes and support staff were not pleased – it made for a long and exhausting day – two races several hours apart in two different techniques. It was quickly replaced by the “continuous pursuit,” which as I have now pointed out on numerous occasions, involves no pursuing whatsoever.

The event as we know it now debuted in 2003 after several years of distance changes and format shifts.

Why does this matter? If you want people to watch skiing, support the sport, and be excited by the races, the formats need to be understandable and make sense. Calling the skiathlon a pursuit was confusing, and honestly pretty stupid.

From the journalists’ perspective it has been difficult to write about the format – if FIS calls it a pursuit, so must we, but it is challenging to explain the format in any way that makes sense in relation to the name.

Is this earth shattering? Will it suddenly catapult cross-country skiing to the forefront of the North American sports world? No. It won’t really make much of a difference, but it is nice to see things done right and for FIS to at least marginally simplify the sometimes daunting array of race formats by using appropriate descriptors.