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Olympics: One Site?

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

A recent op-ed in the New York Times by former Olympic rower Charles Banks-Altekruse raises some interesting questions.  Banks Altekruse suggests that there be a single site for the Olympics.  He cites cost overruns and political issues as primary reasons.

From personal experience, it has been amazing to see the amount of resources that a poured into a single two-week period.  And the data available do not show much hope of lasting positive impact of the Games on the host city – though every two years, the rhetoric of lasting economic growth is loudly bandied about.

Having now attended three Olympics, I find it hard to see the justification for the excess of the infrastructure needed to host the Games – much of which is then only operated with the help of continuing government subsidies.

Banks-Altekruse mentions a proposal that called for five permanent Olympic sites.  The Games would rotate between them.  I could see five for both the summer and winter Olympics.

Read the article here.

What a difference four years makes…

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Four years ago the US brought 17 athletes to the Olympics.  Realistically only one of those skiers, Kris Freeman, had any shot at a medal.  And that was a long sot – Kris only started six World Cup races that year and his top finish was 18th.

This year, the US will have three cross-country Olympians with World Cup podiums, and none of them is Freeman, who once again, in my opinion, has the best chance for a medal.

Will the US win that elusive cross-country medal, and give Bill Koch some company?  Probably not – the odds are certainly against it.  It is very very hard to win an Olympic medal – as it should be.  And perhaps especially so in cross-country skiing where the field is extremely deep, and there are so many variables in play.

But the good news is that the US has a shot at a medal.  And not too shabby a one.  With Freeman, Andy Newell, Torin Koos, and Kikkan Randall, there will be four American skiers, who, on the right day, can ski as fast as anyone in the world.

Will it be disappointing if there is no medal?  Perhaps for some.  Will the Olympics be a failure?  I would say no.

While there needs to be focus and goals in order to achieve, great expectations can lead to great disappointment.  Regardless of what happens over the next two weeks, it is worth remembering that fours years ago a US ski fan was hard pressed to find much to cheer about.  Now we talk of medals, and what it means if we don’t win any.  Now we have four world class athletes competing, and several others who have proven capable of competing for top-30 results.  In fact, every member of the US team has scored World Cup points.

“2006 was about trying to improve, and get better,” USST Head Coach Pete Vordenberg told me.  “And that was the right thing to do for that time.”

“But this year we have been more focused on this one event then ever before.”

There is still plenty of work to do.  We definitely haven’t made it – we aren’t even close.  But regardless of who does what at US Nationals or North American World Cups, we need to remember how much better things are right now.  As a country, the level of skiing is higher.  The top skiers, are faster than any group of skiers since Koch’s era, and I would argue, that as a team, are as good as any in the history of US skiing.  And while we might not have as many up-and-coming talents as we would like, there is a good group of young skiers who show great potential.  And the second tier, below the World Cup team, is closing the gap.  And while many of the skiers in this group will never compete for a medal or even race a World Cup outside of Canada, they have worked to raise the level of skiing and close the gap with the best.

I hope Kris wins a medal.  Or Andy.  Or Kikkan or Torin.  I hope they all race well and come away with top results.  I also hope that the rest of the team races fast and shows the ski world, that the US should not be counted out.

But regardless of what actually happens, I am excited that we are entering the Olympics with fast skiers to root for, and the excitement of knowing, that in every race, someone will have a chance to be near, if not at the top of the results.  That is a far cry from 2006.

US Olympic Team Selection – Recap

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

The US Olympic Cross-Country Ski Team was named yesterday, and as expected, consisted of the top four men and women on the USSA points list.

The process played out with a minimum of drama and controversy.  The process for qualifying for the team was laid out well over a year ago and the criteria clearly published.

There was nothing ambiguous about the process.  This is in strong contrast to some other countries where selection seems to be based entirely on coaches discretion.  Norway is one such country, Russia another.

Germany, on the other hand, has a very clear standard – and a darn tough one.  To make the Olympic team, a skier must have either a single top-8 World Cup result, or two top-15 finishes.  Either way, this is a high standard.  In fact, Germany won’t come anywhere near their Olympic quota of 18.  In fact, at this point, the team can be at most 13 strong.  It is not implausible, that after reallocation, The US and Germany could have very similar sized teams.

The US has both a clear system and attainable standards.  It seems many people have been confused by the coaches discretion clause in the qualification criteria.  I have received numerous emails and read many comments stating that skier A or skier B should have been named to the team using the discretionary clause.

This clause is in there for extraordinary circumstances, where an athlete who would have a significant impact on the team would not qualify based on the other criteria.

It is NOT there to put an athlete racing marginally better on the team.  The US Ski Team is interested in winning medals, and the system has resulted in all athletes with medal potential being on the team.

Every system of qualification will have issues.  There is no way to be 100% fair, and at some point there will be a situation where a less-deserving athlete qualifies.

But that is not the case this year.  The team that deserves to go to Vancouver is going.  Because ultimately it is not about who works the hardest or makes the most sacrifices.  It is about who skis the fastest during the qualification period – as measured by FIS points.  That is what the qualification critera state. Should this criteria be changed?  That is a discussion for another time, and one worth having, as it is always worthwhile to review and rethink.

We all have our personal favorites we were  rooting for, but emotions aside, I don’t believe anyone can make the argument that our medal chances are compromised by any one individual not making the team.

Hopefully the US will gain additional spots in reallocation, and several more athletes will get the chance of a lifetime – to compete in the Olympics.

Congratulations to everyone who made the team.  And congratulations to everyone who gave it their all, but came up short.

One Last Prediction – US Olympic Team

Monday, January 18th, 2010

With the final quota number in (for now) and the first round of the team named tomorrow, I thought I would weigh in on the possible selections.

In my mind it isn’t complicated.  I believe that the team will be picked off of straight points resulting in the following:

Kris Freeman
Andy Newell
Torin Koos
James Southam

Kikkan Randall
Liz Stephen
Morgan Arritola
Caitlin Compton

There doesn’t seem to be any reason for discretionary picks.  None of the skiers on the bubble will be competing for a medal, and none just off the team have been skiing at a level significantly higher than their points ranking.

The one place where I could be wrong is the break down between men and women.  There is no reason the team has to have equal numbers.

On the one hand, you can definitely make the argument that Garrott Kuzzy has more potential for a strong result than Caitlin Compton.  On the flip side, if you don’t take Compton, you don’t have a relay, and at this point, a women’s relay team actually has a better chance of a decent result than a men’s.

But it is very possible that in the quest for medals, no relay teams will be entered.

I’m going with four and four, but wouldn’t be surprised to see five men and three women.

The Magnificent Seven

Friday, October 16th, 2009

It recently became public knowledge that the US currently has only seven spots for the 2010 Olympics.  That is seven spots for men and women combined!  This would mean that it would be impossible to field relays for both genders.  Now there is a very good chance that the US will end up with more spots, so spending too much time worrying about our meagre seven is not time well spent.  As John Farra said on the USSA site when announcing the quota, the best thing to do is go out and ski fast.

But it is interesting to consider the seven spots within the overall picture of US skiing.  Is it really such a bad thing?  A disaster of epic proportions?  Not really.  In fact one could make the argument that seven skiers is a perfectly fine number for the US to take.

When you look at the US field, there are a limited number of athletes who have achieved significant sustained international success – Kris Freeman, Kikkan Randall, Andy Newell and Torin Koos.  The latter three have all stood on a World Cup podium, and Kris has twice been fourth at the World Championships.  If the US is going to win a medal at the Olympics, it is going to come from one of these four (though it is not outside the realm of possibility that a Team Sprint pairing of Kikkan and LiZ Stephen could also get it done).

Other likely team members include Stephen and Morgan Arritola – both skiers with great potential, and some fine results under their belts – but still a step away from the highest level.  On the men’s side James Southam has shown marked improvement, and is at the least, competitive in a World Cup field.  That is seven.  And at this point, there is not anyone else who wouldn’t be happy with a top 40 result.  This is not to take anything away from our athletes – there is no lack of effort and commitment.  But the results don’t lie.

Do we need more people at the Olympics to round out the back of the field?  Is it worth the expense, and the added burden on coaches and support staff to bring more athletes if they don’t have a shot to win a medal?

This question is certainly debatable.  On the one hand, the goal is to win medals.  Bringing back of the pack skiers to the Olympics does not seem to support this goal.  But it isn’t so clear cut.  Morgan and Liz both turned in impressive results at World Championships – performances that surely boosted their confidence and were an important part of their development.  If they go to the Olympics, they will do so with a World Championships on their resume, and all the associated experience.  If the criteria for Liberec 2009 was medal potential only, they would never of had the opportunity to step up.

So these events are an important part of an athlete’s development, and gaining experience and confidence through storng personal results is extremely valuable.

It is also important to reward US skiers who have put in years of work to reach the Olympics.  Just beacuse they haven’t reached medal-potential status, should not mean they are without value.  We need to encourage skiers to pursue the sport, and their dreams.  And helping them achieve those dreams is one way to do that.

Ultimately, as with so many things, I believe the middle ground is the best option.  The overall focus should be on the athletes who can win medals, but limiting the team so severely is ultimately not the best.  The 17 who went to Torino was probably too many, but seven is too few.  Ten seems like a nice round number, with enough men and women for full relay teams – if a competitive team can be created.  This number will ensure starters in most events, and enough depth if one or two team members fall ill.  The number should also be manageable for the coaching staff and support staff.

Hopefully US skiers will be fast this fall and early winter, and pick up three more spots for Vancouver.  And even better, in the future, it would be great to see a dozen skiers, all vying for top spots in the international field.

The Gold Standard?

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

According to USSA Nordic Director, John Farra, the job of the US Ski Team is to win Olympic Medals.  Not World Championship Medals, not World Cup Titles, Olympic Medals.  This was the reason that no US Women’s Jumping Team was named for next year – Women’s Jumping is not currently on the 2010 Olympic program, and therefore, there are no medals to be won in the sport.

Is this a good thing, to specifically target on event that only happens every four years?  And in cross-country, and event that may not play to the strengths of our top athletes?  It is no harder to win an Olympic Medal than a World Championship medal.  In the 15km men’s classic race in the 2006 Olympics, 57 skiers posted under 100 FIS points.  In the 2008 World Championships, the number was 59.  Granted, the World Championships happen every two years, meaning that fewer Olympic medals are available, and therefore making them more valuable.  But an Olympic Medal does not demonstrate greater skill or mastery of the sport.

And winning an overall World Cup title is arguably significantly more difficult than a top-three finish in any single event.  Such a feat requires an amazing ability to perform at the top level for months, avoiding significant injury or illness.

But in the US the Olympics are  the Gold Standard.  The general public couldn’t care less about World Championships and World Cups.  Kikkan Randall’s World Championship silver was an historic moment in US skiing, and while it got some play in the national media, imagine the response had it been in the Olympics.  A Bob Costas Olympic Special Moment feature would just be the start.  And thus the sponsors, who are interested in promoting their products, are going to want to see results that the widest audience notices.

As a passionate ski fan, I was no less excited about Kikkan’s silver than if it had occurred in 2010 in Vancouver.  But I am in a tiny minority, and USSA needs to attract sponsor dollars and membership contributions.  The short of it is they can sell Olympic medals.  This is a reality of sport.  Financial backing is needed and therefore sponsors and the public will dictate the definition of success.  This is not unique to skiing.  When is the last time that you checked in on the bobsled World Cup or World Championship results?

But the Olympics as the Gold Standard is limiting – both to the US Ski Team as a whole and to individual athletes.  Kikkan will be hard-pressed to repeat World Championship performance in Vancouver given the strength of her skate sprinting (the Vancouver sprint is classic), and the US Ski Team is putting all of its eggs in one basket by focussing on a single two week period of racing.  Ultimately, however, as in so many things, money is the final word, and as long as the Olympics bring in the bucks, the Games will be the focus.

Let Them Jump!

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

While FasterSkier has not generally covered ski jumping in the past, we have been providing updates on the ongoing controversy involving Women’s Ski Jumping and the 2010 Olympic Games.  The International Olympic Committee (IOC) did not approve Women’s Ski Jumping for the Games, and in an effort to gain inclusion, a group of elite female ski jumpers sued in Canadian court on the premise that the IOC was violating the Canadian Charter granting equal rights.

The IOC has argued they do not fall under the auspices of Canadian law as they are an international organization based in Switzerland.  I am not a lawyer or a legal expert in any way, and I do know that there is precedent for this type of argument, but the idea that any international organization could ignore what amounts to human rights protections is absurd, and exceedingly dangerous.  Even the US military is subject to the laws of the nation in which they are deployed.

The trial wrapped up last Friday, and now both sides are waiting for the ruling.  A recap of the legal proceedings can be found here. You can get the women’s perspective at The site features a number of videos, including a trailer for the documentary, “Fighting Gravity.”

But legal issues aside, it is deplorable that the IOC, an organization that claims to promote the values of fair play and ethical principle would chose to exclude female ski jumpers from the Olympics without good reason.