From the Editors Blog Banner

Olympics

What Are The Olympics?

Friday, October 3rd, 2014
Watching freestyle skiing at the Olympics: with my family in Tignes, France, 1992 (l), ad with FasterSkier family Alex Kochon in Sochi, 2014.

Watching freestyle skiing at the Olympics: with my family in Tignes, France, 1992 (l), and with FasterSkier family Alex Kochon in Sochi, 2014.

When Norway withdrew its bid to host the 2022 Olympics in Oslo on Wednesday, there was widespread dismay in the sports world.

For us as nordic skiers, it felt like a particularly harsh blow. Oslo is a nice place for everyone, but for cross-country skiers, jumpers, and biathletes, it is heaven. Holmenkollen is already one of the most storied venues in the world, a favorite World Cup stop in each nordic discipline.

Norway has famously good governance. They have money, but they get things done. An Oslo Games would have been well-organized and efficient. And existing infrastructure could have been used to a great extent, to reduce the ballooning cost of hosting a Games.

Outside the athletes village with aunt Liz, Lillehammer, 1994.

Outside the athletes village with aunt Liz, Lillehammer, 1994.

To begin to answer why Norway turned down this opportunity to play host, it might help to ask ourselves what the Olympics are really about.

When I think about the Olympics, I think back to the early 1990’s when my family traveled first to Albertville, France, and then to Lillehammer, Norway, to watch my aunt compete in freestyle skiing.

I was only five years old in Albertville, and sometimes I struggle to tell whether my memories are really my own. But this I know: we ate a pizza that had an egg on it, in the French style; and for my grandfather’s birthday, he got a flaming dessert from a restaurant.

The Tignes ski area extended from the freestyle venues up and over the mountains – nestled up against Mont Blanc, it is possible to ski into Switzerland. I remember that I became a much, much better alpine skier on that trip, as did my father, who grew up in Atlanta. And I remember the sting when my parents, uncle, and aunt took the gondola up the mountain to ski real trails, and I was left at home with my then-two-year-old cousin. That sucked.

As a comparison: did anyone go to Sochi to ski? What sucked there was that I brought my skis, and never got to use them.

In Tignes, my extended family rented rooms directly across from the competition slopes, so that we could stand on the balcony and look out at the moguls field and the aerials jumps.

I can tell you right now that that will never happen at another Olympics, ever again. The line between athletes and everyone else did not used to be such a clear divide, and the separation of spectators from both the sport itself and the culture of the host city was historically not so stark. In Sochi 22 years later, buildings and stadiums lacked any local character. Not even athletes, generally, could live in a spot that looked out on their competition trails. And the only way to tell you were in Russia was the Cyrillic on the signs, and the militarized security force.

Lillehammer, 1994.

Lillehammer, 1994.

In Lillehammer, the family rented an apartment in town. One of my strongest memories from that trip is of my uncle and aunt buying reindeer burgers and that same younger cousin getting to eat one. My own parents, former vegetarians, were definitely not going to buy reindeer. Much like the missed gondola ski trip, that sucked.

I remember visiting Maihaugen, the museum village of old Norwegian farm buildings. I remember cross-country skiing on the trails out of town, and falling down, and seeing so many other people on skis – more skiers than I had ever seen in my life, more skiers than I could have imagined before traveling to Norway.

I remember my aunt joining us in the stands to watch. In the photos, her credential is hidden underneath a heavy jacket; unlike the Sochi credentials that every spectator wore around their neck like a chain, our family had paper tickets tucked away in our pockets. Everything was relaxed. She also came to our apartment for a joint birthday party for my father, grandfather, and uncle. There were costumes and the adults drank wine.

Maybe this is one of the biggest things that stands out between my experience at the Olympics as a kid, and my experience in Russia last year: athletes weren’t separated from the public as they are now. I visited the Endurance Village in Sochi. That required applying for a special visitor’s pass in addition to my media credentials, days in advance. Transport there was crazy, and it wasn’t in a place that was on the way to anything. Conversely, if athletes wanted to leave to see their families, they couldn’t just walk across town – it was a day-long commitment.

Skiing in Norway, 1994.

Skiing in Norway, 1994.

One of our favorite family photos from Lillehammer is me, outside the Olympic village, jumping in the air with my aunt in front of the flags from every participating country. She could come and go as she pleased (I think), to her family birthday parties or just for a walk. And we could go see her. Our main concern was whether we would be distracting.

Much has been made of the IOC’s list of demands for a host city, which reads like a tour rider for a rock star. But while that is the root of the money problems, perhaps another part of the problem is that the Olympic spirit has simply changed since the last time the Games visited Norway. The Scandinavian sports powerhouse may be wealthy, but they have got to be one of the least ostentatious rich countries in the world.

The oil boom only happened in the 1970’s. Today, Norway has the highest per-capita Gross National Income (GNI) in the world, ahead of Qatar, Switzerland, and everyone else. In 1960, its GDP was smaller than the Bahamas. Norway’s oil riches are new enough that the country remembers what it’s like to be poor. The IOC’s current attitude is the antithesis of how Norwegians treat their wealth, and the Games might no longer fully represent how they like their sport, either.

The IOC reportedly demanded that its members be introduced to the King before an Oslo opening ceremony, and have a cocktail party paid for by the Royal Palace.

Do you know who gets to meet the King in Norway? The skier who wins a Holmenkollen World Cup, that’s who. And usually, they’re so awed that they don’t know what to say. The first words out of their mouths are never, “Balvenie on the rocks”.

Perhaps the IOC should try learning something from Norway, instead of insisting that it be the other way around.

—Chelsea Little, editor-at-large

Family ski trip on one of Liz's off days from competition, Tignes, 1992.

Family ski trip on one of Liz’s off days from competition, Tignes, 1992.

IBU Election Is Symptomatic of International Sports Bodies’ Lack of Term Limits

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

At the beginning of the month, Norway’s Anders Besseberg was re-elected as the President of the International Biathlon Union.

Besseberg has led the federation since it left a joint union with modern pentathlon in 1993, and has overseen incredible development of the sport.

How far has biathlon come since then? In 1992, women competed in the Olympics for the first time; today, Darya Domracheva rivals Martin Fourcade’s popularity and Magdalena Neuner wields her fame like a gavel from her comfortable retirement. Likewise, the sprint at the 1992 Olympics featured men from 27 countries; in Sochi, the tally was 31 countries.

As a supporting cast of Executive Board members have come and gone, Besseberg has stayed. With a tenure of over 20 years, he is one of the longest-serving heads of a major international sports federation.

Long-serving presidents are definitely not unusual in the sports world. International Ski Federation President Gian Franco Kasper and FIFA’s Sepp Blatter have both led their organizations since 1998. Lamine Diak has headed track and field’s IAAF since 1999, as has Francesco Ricci Bitti of the International Tennis Federation.

But Besseberg has six years on even Kasper and Blatter. Ottavio Cinquanta of the International Speedskating Union comes close to Besseberg’s mark, having held his presidency since 1994. Even if Besseberg is a great President – which in many ways he obviously has been – 20 years is too long.

The federations do not have term limits for their presidents, although there has recently been a call for FIFA to adopt term limits as Blatter decided to run for his fifth consecutive term. With the challenges plaguing FIFA, in terms of corruption and World Cup host cities, many feel that it is inappropriate for him to continue.

Nothing so sinister is happening in biathlon, a sport which is respected as being well-run. Its biggest (or at least most public) challenges revolve around doping, something which represents a struggle for all endurance sports.

But even without obvious conflict caused by his leadership, Besseberg himself seems to recognize at some level that change is good – and that he might need to leave so that the organization can rediscover its youth and vigor.

“I was in principle determined not to continue [as president], because even though I do not feel old, I know when I was born,” 68-year-old Besseberg told NRK after the election. In a separate interview earlier, he said he hadn’t decided to run until just before the deadline for declaring.

This time, what pushed him over the edge was the involvement of Russia’s Alexander Tikhonov in the race. Tikhonov is a decorated Russian biathlete who had previously served as First Vice President, so knew the organization well. But the retired World Champion has also been convicted for his involvement in the attempted murder of a regional politician in Russia.

Obviously, having such an individual as President would harm the reputation and integrity of the organization.

Another challenger declared as well: Canada’s Dr. Jim Carrabre, a respected anti-doping advocate who has served as Vice President of Medical Issues for years and taken with it the attendant position on the Executive Board.

But Besseberg did not find Carrabre to be a suitable successor either. In the same NRK interview before the election, he said that “I would not consider the other candidates.”

Carrabre may have had a chance were it not for the Russian’s involvement. As it was, many voters at Congress were rightfully jumpy at the prospect of the gangster heading their federation. Rather than risking splitting votes between the two other candidates, stuck with the incumbent to ensure that Tikhonov would not be elected.

Besseberg received 33 votes, Tikhonov 11, and Carrabre 6.

It’s tough to imagine taking on the role of President of a hugely profitable sport’s international federation without ever having done so before. The job does not come with a roadmap, much less a list of required qualifications or job experience.

But if two previous members of his own Executive Board are not qualified to lead the IBU, then who exactly does Besseberg have in mind for the job when he does eventually and inevitably step down? Or is it that there are strong candidates out there, but they are afraid to run against the longtime leader?

If there are really no viable candidates in the biathlon world, then Besseberg himself should perhaps be held partially accountable. If true, then he has apparently been neglecting to cultivate others within his organization who might eventually lead it.

And the presidency is not the only aspect of leadership where the IBU displays stagnancy. The composition of the Executive Board remained largely unchanged after the election despite some high-profile campaigns. Only two positions saw turnover: Victor Maigurov took over the First Vice President position from a fellow Russian, and Sweden’s Olle Dahlin filling the post of Vice President for Development, previously held by the late Czech Vaclav Firtik. For five of the eight positions, the incumbent ran unopposed.

This is troubling: change is good and necessary for the development of sport, like in all other aspects of professional life.

At the past Congress, Besseberg’s Executive Board proposed, and then successfully saw passed, several noteworthy changes and improvements to the sport.

They implemented a new Junior IBU Cup circuit, to offer young racers better opportunities for high-level competition. They changed the scoring system to be more fair to smaller, developing teams (a proposal that was initially developed by the Technical Committee, and then pitched to the board). And they tackled thorny issues having to do with mid-race cancellations and weather challenges that have plagued the World Cup in the last two seasons.

But some sources of innovation seem halfhearted and gimmicky. The Super Sprint Mixed Relay joined the list of approved World Cup formats, despite tepid reception after a test race in Oslo last season.

And more could be done to develop the sport outside of Europe.

The sport is certainly not headed in the wrong direction under Besseberg’s leadership. He will continue to innovate and provide the IBU with a strong financial foundation, just as he has for 20 years.

But here’s hoping that this is his final sprint to the finish line, to leave his legacy and make the sport the best it can be – and that by the time the next Congress rolls around, there is a qualified candidate who can provide the IBU with a fresh face at the very top.

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:

Men
Kris Freeman
Andy Newell
Torin Koos
James Southam

Women
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 www.wsjusa.com. 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.

(more…)