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Archive for February, 2011

World Championship Expectations

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Just a little over a year ago, the U.S. and Canadian ski teams were right in the middle of very different Olympics. The Canadian men’s team never reached the podium, but they spent the two-week period knocking on the door, and nearly breaking it down.

The U.S., on the other hand, with the exception of Kikkan Randall, turned in a series of races ranging from abysmal, to solid-yet-unspectacular. At this point, that is all water under the bridge, but on the eve of the World Championships it is worth a quick look back – not to analyze results or rehash what may or may not have gone wrong, but to be sure that the North American ski communities are in the right frame of mind for the events.

Expectations can be dangerous things, and last year, at least to this observer, the ski fans in the US had an unreasonable amount for the hometown skiers. A good portion of this was due to rhetoric coming from the U.S. Ski Team – talk that was meant to be positive and inspiring, but which ultimately led to the belief that the US would win a medal in Vancouver.

But regardless of where it came from, this idea was not a good thing – not for anyone involved in the sport. What may have been an generally disappointing Olympics, but with plenty of bright spots, came across as an unmitigated disaster – unfairly so.

When the belief is that victory is at hand, anything less is not going to shine particularly bright. It was absurd to think a medal was a likelihood in Vancouver. In the events being contested, the US had a grand total of four World Cup podium finishes – three by Andy Newell.

If you can’t podium on the World Cup, why would the Olympics be any different? Everyone is targeting medals there. That doesn’t mean that medals can’t be a goal, but expecting them is not only pointless—it is entitled and completely unrealistic.

This time around, the Americans have a much more realistic shot at a medal – Kikkan Randall is arguably the favorite in the skate sprint. But if she finishes fifth, and Kris Freeman takes a tenth in the 15k, and Newell cracks the top-20 in the men’s sprint, and Noah Hoffman is close to 30th in the pursuit, these World Championships can still be a great event for the U.S.

The point is obvious – performance should evaluated with a healthy doe of perspective. It is extremely hard to win a medal. A vast majority of talented athletes will leave without one. The goal should be to ski strong races – whatever that means for each competitor.

There is a group of younger skiers from the US who are in Norway to gain experience and see what the big show really is. Just being here is a victory.

And the veterans will try as hard as they can. At this point, that is enough.

Medals sell, so USSA wants them – that makes sense. But the US ski community should know better – that there is so much more to the sport than hardware. The Norwegians seem to get that. They want their men and women to win, but their passion goes far beyond the podium. They applaud everyone who is a good competitor, and they don’t get greedy. If Marit Bjoergen was American and left Oslo with a single gold, the reaction would undoubtedly be one of disappointment. That might not be the case here.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to shift the focus from the results. Ski racing in Norway is as much a celebration – “winter joy,” as one Norwegian described the Championships – as it is about winning. It is worth keeping that in mind over the next ten days. All the discussions about the status of U.S. skiing can wait for a bit. Those discussions never seem to go away, but now seems like a good time to at least put them on hold.