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Archive for December, 2010

Thanks for Talking

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Over the last several years, as we have worked to expand and improve our coverage of the Nordic sports, we have become ever more reliant on athletes and coaches, both from here in North America, and from around the world.

In major professional sports, dealing with the media is part of the job and par for the course. But in skiing, that has not always been the case. Before the advent of web-based journalism, skiing received almost no coverage in daily print publications. This meant that races were not reported in a timely fashion, and demands on athletes and coaches were commensurate with the level of coverage.

Things have changed as digital technology has increased reach and accessibility. Before cell phones, Skype and email, contacting racers on the road was next to impossible. Now they are rarely out of reach.

At FasterSkier, we spend quite a bit of time on the phone – the best way to get the story is from those who are part of it – and the cooperation and professionalism of elite skiers and coaches have allowed us to do this work.

While the top tier may be expected to talk with the media, there is no requirement to be overly forthcoming, honest, and easy to work with. Yet almost without exception, that has been the case.

Racers and coaches alike take our calls around the world, often within 30 minutes of completing a competition. And on the domestic level we have experienced much the same, despite often challenging connectivity.

Most whom we talk to recognize the importance of journalism for the sport, and while they may not agree with everything we write, they know it is critical that the story be told.

This is a major part of growing the sport – a piece that if neglected, would negate some of the benefits of top results, clinics, school visits, and other outreach efforts.

So thank you to all who are willing to talk, and for regularly making the work of a ski journalist a pleasure.

What Makes a Win?

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

I’ll start with a correction.  In our report on the Women’s 15km Mass Start in La Clusaz, we incorrectly reported the total number of Marit Bjoergen’s World Cup victories. The article has now been corrected.

A representative of the International Ski Federation (FIS) politely informed us that victories in stages of the Tour de Ski, World Cup Finals, and mini-tours do NOT count as World Cup victories.

This policy is confusing, and honestly seems foolish.  It is certainly not one of the critical issues facing elite cross-country skiing, but it is worth noting.

There is a podium ceremony following those races, there is prize money, FIS points are awarded, and World Cup points (albeit half the usual) distributed. The races are just as hard,and take just as much toll on the athletes.

This means that Ivan Babikov, who posted the top time in the Final Climb of the Tour de Ski in 2009, does not have a World Cup win.

And if win’s don’t count, does that mean all results are meaningless?  If I write an article on Devon Kershaw, and want to compare a recent race to his top World Cup finishes ever, should I ignore Tour de Ski results? How do I total Kershaw’s World Cup top-10’s?

Kershaw has two top-3 finishes in Tour de Ski events, but technically FIS does not count those as World Cup podium appearances.

I am sure there is a reason for this, but I can’t imagine a very good one.

This also explains the frustrating nature of the FIS database.  If you select an athlete and request World Cup results, individual races in the multi-day events do not display.  You need to select Tour de Ski, World Cup Finals, etc, individually to see these results.

A win should be a win whether or not it takes place in the Tour de Ski or the Davos World Cups.

Kowalczyk Should Shape up Act

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Being a gracious winner and a good loser is hardly a unique concept in sport, and fortunately in skiing the concept is more often than not practiced.

And when you take home $366,250 in prize money for the 2010 season and have an overall World Cup title, four Olympic medals, three World Championship medals, and 13 World Cup victories, one would expect that winning and losing with grace should not be too hard a challenge.

But Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), one of the greatest Polish sports stars of all time has, for some strange reason, chosen to crusade against Marit Bjoergen’s use of asthma medication, protested a clear disqualification for obstruction, and been relegated for skating in a classic sprint.

She has gained a reputation as a dirty skier on the World Cup, and instead of letting her results speak for themselves, has stooped to the level of attacking her opposition.

With each incident, Kowalczyk loses face in the public eye. She should keep her mouth shut and worry about skiing faster.

And her move on Kikkan Randall in the sprint final in Davos stank of desperation. Kowalczyk does not have the speed to close out a sprint race, and is clearly not at the Bjoergen-esque level of being able to ski away in 1.4km race.

FasterSkier had the opportunity to speak with Kowalczyk in Canmore last year, and she was accommodating and friendly. At Olympic press conferences, she was always complimentary of those who defeated her, and when asked if the minutes spent waiting for the results of a photo finish “were the worst of her life,” she laughed and made some comment about it “just being skiing” – impressive perspective for a professional athletes.

All of this makes her recent behavior even more inexplicable. There seems so little to gain, and she has already lost quite a bit. As one of the great skiers of her generation, it does not behoove her to act in such an immature manner.

She should take a page out of Pete Vordenberg’s book and only worry about the things she can control – not Bjoergen’s inhaler.

And when disqualified for a blatant case of obstruction, she should take her punishment and move on. The “this will not stand” attitude from the Kowalczyk camp is less than impressive.

I feel confident that had an American or Canadian similarly stepped in front of an opponent in the finish stretch, because they knew they couldn’t win otherwise, coaches, athletes and fans would be embarrassed, and most definitely not supportive.

Kowalczyk is an incredible athlete and an amazing skier. Along with several other women, she has brought great excitement to the sport, weekend after weekend, and her dedication is impressive.

Hopefully she can go back to making headlines with her racing and hold her line on the way to the finish.

Sprint Qualifiers Not the Answer

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

A year ago I wrote an editorial on the subject of qualifier-only sprint races. At that time, I was less-than-thrilled with the concept, and my feelings have not changed.

The first column was written in the wake of the first qualifier-only event in West Yellowstone. This year, the choice was made to double up, and run two such events on the same day – one classic and one skate.

The event was not a case of making a bad thing worse. At least this time, athletes got to race for more than three to four minutes.

But overall this format is contrived, foolish and embarrassing.  Strong words, I know, but when you get into the business of manufacturing race formats and scoring them for FIS points, it is well-deserved.

There are actually some very good reasons why the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) went the route of the double sprint qualifier, and USSA Nordic Director John Farra articulated them well in several conversations and e-mails with FasterSkier.

To start with, all races sanctioned by the International Ski Federation must now be run on homologated courses, with a few exceptions, like city sprints. West Yellowstone does not have the trails to create a course suitable for sprint heat homologation. The wider trails are too flat, and the hilly trails too narrow.

Additionally, the annual Bozeman SuperTour was not on the calendar for this year, and since USSA is cooperating with Canada on scheduling, most top U.S. skiers are heading to the Nor-Ams across the border in December—meaning that the only way to have two scored sprint races in the first SuperTour period was to hold both events in West.

The double sprint qualifier meant there were four scored races, two of which were sprints, in the first period.

But that is where the positives end.

People espouse the benefits of racing more sprint qualifiers—the idea being that if you can’t qualify for heats, nothing else really matters. This is certainly true, but given the nature of sprinting, opportunities to ski in heats are rare. An aspiring young skier could go years of racing qualifiers without skiing in heats.

And anyone who claims that all there is to racing heats is “tactics” is fooling himself. There’s pacing, decisions on when to make moves, and when to hang back. And then there’s the real opportunity for learning: close-quarters skiing.

It takes countless repetitions to feel comfortable racing on a relatively narrow track, at extremely high speeds, with five other fast skiers. We want our athletes feeling confident in these situations, not intimidated, and confidence comes from experience.

A qualifier is the easiest race format to practice: It is called a max-effort interval. There is really no subtlety in skiing by yourself, as hard as you can, for three minutes—and you don’t need a starter 15 seconds ahead of you to hone your pacing.

Heats, on the other hand, are nearly impossible to practice outside of a race environment. Few teams have enough skiers of the same ability level to replicate a competitive sprint heat.

Regardless of skill sets, and the best ways to create fast sprinters, the format is contrived—and it does not exist anywhere else in the world.

A number of coaches and athletes referred to the growing predominance of mini-tours, and the associated prologue event. But a prologue is a completely different race, usually ranging from 2.5k to 3.5k. A three-minute-plus race is not pacing practice for a nine minute race. If we want our athletes to be prepared for international competition, we should be racing the international formats.

Finally, the dual qualifier format is a points grab, and that is embarrassing. Several Canadians who came down for the event mentioned this, in disparaging terms.

The strategy of trying to send more skiers to Europe to improve the points base is an excellent one. The Olympic quota issue of a year ago demonstrated that we need to be very aware of points, and the elite ski community has recognized this. It has taken several significant, proactive steps to improve them.

But those steps should be limited to travel to high-level races, and incentives to improve the fields in the U.S.–not manipulation of the system. It is shameful for the US to create events with the purpose of improving our athletes’ points. It is legal, and it may work, but that doesn’t mean we should do it.

And while it may not be the most crucial concern, the format is likely the least spectator-friendly event in cross-country skiing—especially on the heavily wooded, point-to-point West Yellowstone courses.

The only marginally interesting spot was on the big climbs at the finish, but with no real idea of times, watching the race was like observing an interval workout. The priority in this country should be on athlete development, not fan (or media) friendliness, but it is worth a modicum of consideration.

John Farra of USSA and others are working extremely hard to make sure the US is not in a position where poor points impacts Olympic quotas. This admirable, and I am confident that the US will be in a better position during the run up to the 2014 Games. But with FIS seemingly adding new formats on a monthly basis, the US should focus on races that exist elsewhere, and give our athletes as many chances as possible to race in sprint heats.