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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.

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.

US Mini-Tour Clarification

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

In my recent post congratulating the Maine Winter Sports Center on organizing the SuperTour Finals, I wrote

In many ways the event was groundbreaking.  While it wasn’t the first multi-day race series to be held in the US, it was the first to be so closely modeled on the new international format.

I was sure to make it clear that multi-day events with an overall winner have been held before, but should have given explicit recognition to the Colorado Spring Series of 2004 and 2005.  That event was truly groundbreaking and clearly ahead of its time.  The week of racing contained all the major elements of the current mini-tour format, plus some.  The one big difference is that A) The Colorado series was getting closer to a full Tour de Ski type event than a mini-tour, and B) the final day was not a handicap start based on overall standings – now standard in the international tour format.

Regardless, this event predated the Tour de Ski, and attracted an impressive international field.  Organizers showed a level of creativity and vision that should be recognized.

You can read FasterSkier’s final coverage of that event here.

Dusseldorf: Maybe You Had to be There…

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

I just re-watched the men’s finals from both the Dusseldorf races last weekend, and to be honest, I was bored – nearly to the point of stopping.

Normally sprint races make for extremely exciting spectating – in person and on TV, but Dusseldorf is an excpetion.  And given the amount of resources that go into putting on this event – including blwoing snow in an inddor areana and trucking it out to cover the streets – is this really a good event to have on the schedule.

FIS makes a huge effort to cater to TV, and to make course spectator friendly.  But unlike most World Cup sprint courses, a fan at the race is not going to see much at all.  Take both Whistler and Canmore – there are numerous vantage points that will allow a spectator to see nearly the entire race.

And the flat, narrow, twisty course did not make for more excitement.  Flat and fast means it is hard for anyone to break away.  Narrow and twisty leaves few opportunities for passing.  The men’s sprint final was basically a long single file chain up to the final sprint.  The only interesting move was when Petukhov took the lead.

There were plenty of crashes in the Team Sprint, but I personally don’t find crashes an exciting part of the sport – they can be entertaining occasionally, but I want to see is the best skiers in the world making aggressive moves, strategic decisions, and basically going for it.  I can see broken equipment and people stepping on each others skis at the local high school races.

I am not one of the sprinting naysayers – it is a great format – extremely challenging for the athletes and great to watch.  But FIS needs to be careful about going to “X-Games.”

And in all fairness, seeing the thousands of fans packed along the German streets is cool.  But keep the quality of the racing high, and shoot for a fair course, where luck is not usually the deciding factor.

You can watch the both finals here, as well as a montage of all the crashes.

Sprint Qualifier Only? Lame!

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Yesterday marked the beginning of the 2010 US SuperTour, and also the introduction of a new race format – the qualifier only sprint.  I won’t beat around the bush, or in this case, the sprint course (at least not more than once) – this is completely lame and not what US skiing needs.

I know there are some good reasons for this format, and the main one is that it allows for an additional early season race.  This means another opportunity for skiers to get up to speed in an elite field, and work on the ever-important sprint qualifier, without the logistics and wear of a full sprint day.  Perhaps more importantly it provides a third points race at West Yellowstone – a points race with the a strong Canadian contingent. And those Canadians have the points the US wants!  Canada has plenty of spots for the Olympics, in part because of strong national depth in the sport, but also due to good points management by Cross-Country Canada, athletes and coaches.

But despite all this, a qualifier-only sprint, in my opinion, should not be a regular scheduled event.

First of all, it is not an international race format.  It is part of one, but you will not see a 1.4km individual start race, without heats, on the World Cup, in the Olympics, or just about anywhere else.  If you want to prepare athletes to race at the highest level, you need to have them race the formats of the highest level.

Again, one argument is that this is on opportunity to practice sprint qualifying.  FIS points races should not be “practice.”  If you want to practice, hold non-points events, or do it in training.

From the spectator’s perspective , qualifying-only sprint races combine all the worst elements of ski racing.  It is an individual start so you have no idea how people are doing.  It is very short, so your favorite skiers will pass by once, and once only.  There is no drama, no suspense – just four minutes and done.  Specifically, the West Yellowstone race was even worse, held point-to-point on a narrow trail.  I support the fact that organizers chose a challenging course, but it was impossible for viewers to see the start and finish.

And from the racers point of view? I did not race myself, and have not heard much from those that did, but my guess it was a good opportunity to go fast, and nothing more.

My biggest complaint, however, is the idea of manipulating formats and schedules to maximize points.  I fully support the goal of improving points in the US, and tweaking the race schedule a bit is fine.  But creating formats goes against my ideal for the sport.  And most importantly, while throwing in an extra points race may be helpful, what we really need are faster skiers.  With no disrespet to the extremely hardworking athletes, the fact that a full 20 – yes that is right – 20 seconds separated 1st and 14th place in the women’s race.  Now Daria Gaiazova of Canada (race winner) did score World Cup points in two sprints last year – including in a full field in Lahti – so she is no slouch.  But if 14th place is A) 20 seconds back, and B) 50 years old (Beth Reid, an incredible athlete was 14th), we have plenty else to worry about.

Will the points take care of themselves if US skiers are fast enough?  Not necessarily.  USSA needs to be proactive on the points front – not thinking enough about points got us into the Olympic quota issue in the first place – and I applaud the work that is going into the matter.  But providing incentives for top athletes to participate, working with Canada, and getting more skiers to Europe are all better alternatives than a contrived race format.

The Rich Get Richer

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Today we ran an article on the Swedish Ski Team’s new private plane.  A year after acquiring a state-of-the art wax truck, the Swedes now have the ability to fly anywhere in Europe at the drop of that hat.  As Johan Sares, head of marketing for the Swedish National Team, explained, the team will no longer have to deal with crowded airport lines and the risk of illness that comes with air travel.  This is no small matter – illness is arguably the single biggest concern of elite ski racers over the course of the season – one untimely cold can derail an entire season.

This announcement comes in the wake of a FasterSkier report by Nat Herz on the current economic state of USSA.  SuperTour prize money was decreased during the season last year and salaries for all USSA/USST were cut.  According to USSA Nordic Director, John Farra, the decrease in the size of this season’s US Cross-Country Team, was in part motivated by budgetary issues.

As a baseball fan, this reads like the classic story line of the New York Yankees and any number of small market teams – the Oakland A’s may fit well – they are a well-run organization that has flashes of great success, but are constantly limited by lack of resources.  The Yankees have a payroll nearly twice that of the next closest team, and have virtually unlimited resources.  Meanwhile the A’s, and their brethren have to cut costs in any number of ways.

The Yankees aren’t doing anything wrong, and neither are the Swedes.  There are no rules that limit the amount of money that a National Team can spend on waxing or transportation.  But just like every free agent signing makes the Yankees tougher to beat, each airplane or wax truck that teams like the Swedes purchase, add to the challenge for the less moneyed.  The gap between the “haves” and “have nots” grows.

I’m sure USST Head Coach Pete Vordenberg would have no comment on the Swede’s airplane.  As with issues of doping, how the Swedish National Team gets to races is out of the control of the USST, and Pete has made it clear he doesn’t waste his time and energy on such things.

Is it fair?  Perhaps not, but interestingly enough, athletics is not really about fairness.  It isn’t fair that Bjorn Daehlie has a VO2Max of 90.  It isn’t fair that Michael Jordan’s vertical leap dwarfed that of just about everyone else.  We don’t try to control natural discrepancies in physical gifts, nor should we want to.  But the idea of a level playing field is a myth.  Someone always has an advantage – Emil Joensson now has an additional advantage over Andy Newell, but Newell has advantages over Colin Rodgers (for example).  The rich always tend to get richer.  Andy worked his butt off and was named to the US National A Team years ago.  While compared to Sweden, it may be meager, he still enjoys a level of support exponentially greater than an athlete just below the National Team level.  It isn’t about fairness, it is about going fast.

This isn’t to say that anything goes.  It is all about going fast, as long as you play by the rules.  Therefore no doping.  But even doping rules aren’t really about fairness – they are about safety.

Governing bodies make decisions on what should be allowed and what shouldn’t – and there are always gray areas.  Altitude tents?  Currently legal, but seriously questioned.  And even the court of public opinion can impact this – note Bjorn Daehlie’s decision not to use an altitude tent because of the outcry by Norwegian ski fans.  The believed Daehlie was crossing a line of fairness.  But if you outlaw altitude tents because not everyone can afford them, I would think Sweden’s plane would have to go.  Legislating based on fairness is a slippery slope.

There is one area where the idea of fair play should rule – and that is within the scope of play.  The rules of competition should create a situation where no one is disadvantaged due to external factors.  This is why World Cup course are now required to be so wide, and homologation standards exist.  I shouldn’t be prevented from winning because I couldn’t pass on a narrow course – I most certainly should not win if my genetics, training, and commitment don’t allow me to.

While World Cup course width is an example of an attempt at fairness, the opposite can be seen at some regional Junior Olympic Qualifiers in New England.  Each year there is at least one 10km Mass Start race.  The field often numbers close to 100 athletes, and the average course doesn’t quite measure up to World Cup standards on the width front.  Athletes starting at the middle to back of the field are at a severe disadvantage.  While the leaders ski away in a small pack, the rest of the field is a chaotic mess of accordions on every climb, crashes, and broken equipment.    This is not fair as the rules of the competition prevent some athletes from challenging for the victory.  A similar situation is the Swedish Vasaloppet.  While most other major ski marathons have gone to wave starts, the Vasaloppet insists on a mass start of over 10,000 people, leading to significant and well thought out protestations.

Ultimately, sport is not fair – there are always some who have a leg up.  Pete has it right – you focus on what you can control, and don’t worry about the other stuff.  The Swedes can enjoy their plane, and everyone else will still try to beat them on the course. And that course, along with the rules governing it, should give everyone a shot at the top spot – if they have what it takes.