In the evolution of cross-country skiing at the world-class level, there has been an undeniable push from the International Ski Federation at every stage to make the sport more spectator- and television-friendly. The World Cup depends on sponsorship to survive, and potential sponsors deal in the currency of TV viewership. Over the years, individual start races have given way to mass starts because they are easier for television audiences to follow. A ski exchange penalty was added to the Holmenkollen 30/50 k this year expressly for its potential entertainment value.
As a part of this trend, athletes have also observed that the trails they compete on have become increasingly difficult, both in terms of climbing and descending.
“At each venue, it just seems like they want to outdo each other with the biggest uphill and the steepest, scariest downhill,” says U.S. Ski Team member Holly Brooks.
They have observed, and become increasingly disgruntled by the trend.
“That’s not what cross-country is about,” Brooks continued. “This is not skier cross, this is cross-country. We’re not out there wanting to be shoulder to shoulder doing tight slalom turns down hill on skis that weigh however much our skis weigh. That’s not the point. We’re endurance athletes that like to go fast. Yeah, we can take some down hills, but let’s not make them stupidly challenging.”
Growing unhappiness with the direction they saw the sport heading was partly what led the majority of World Cup athletes to protest the World Cup Finals courses in Falun, Sweden, on Thursday. After arriving at the venue for the last three stages of the mini tour and previewing the course the day before the first race, many were alarmed at how dangerous new features of the downhill were, which had been included in preparation for the 2015 World Championships that will be held in Falun. Several big names in the sport, Norway’s Petter and Thomas Northug included, crashed on the major downhill off the Mordarbakken in pre-race testing. Several Swedish athletes reportedly went to the hospital after crashing at Swedish Nationals on the same course earlier in the season.
“What they had been proposing was just, like — someone would have gotten hurt,” said U.S. athlete Jessie Diggins. “The odds that there wouldn’t have been any crashes were just none. Originally there were like five turns and it was super narrow through the woods and there was almost no padding on the trees. People even crashed last year [when] the course was much safer.”
Furthermore, some thought the course was unfair in an individual start on top of being too hazardous.
“Personally, I’m always one that is for fast down hills and sketchy down hills, but I think the difference between that and what’s going on on this course is: these corners weren’t built well,” said American Andy Newell, who has been racing on the World Cup for ten years. “They need the criticism like they’re getting so the can, for one, bank the corners and make them wider, make them better. The way it is now, for sure it’s dangerous — people could go flying off the course and crash in front of you and cause a major accident — but it’s definitely not even fair in a race like [the prologue] when the S-turns are so different for the first skier as opposed to the 100th skier to go down. The course changes so much when people are scrubbing their skis like that on the down hills.”
Canada’s Alex Harvey put it pretty bluntly: “There’s no need for this in XC skiing,” he wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
The athletes met twice on Thursday to discuss the course, and the majority reached the conclusion that they were prepared not to race unless it was changed to make it safer. They sent a signed petition to the race jury on Thursday afternoon through athlete representative Kikkan Randall.
The jury’s initial response was to change the course for the mass starts but not the individual-start prologue. As someone who has been an athlete representative for four years and has come to understand the needs of the many stakeholders involved in the production of World Cup races, Randall could see the reasons for their resistance to change the course at the last minute.
“Camera cables had already been laid, there wasn’t really an easy way to route around the downhill…if you wanted to go up the Mordarbakken,” she said. “It wasn’t easy to just switch to a different course because there wasn’t really a good other option and with all the other cameras it was really pretty close. We’re making these decisions twelve hours before the race. So it would have been nice if we had a little bit more time to actually sit down with the jury more in advance and talk through the discussion, so it wasn’t so much us versus them. Because there were a lot of things going on and it’s easy to say, ‘Well why aren’t you guys doing something?’ But they’re not able to react that quickly.”
When the athletes received word that the jury would not to make last-minute changes to the prologue course, they collectively refused to budge. They went to bed on Thursday night after giving FIS, the jury and the organizers an ultimatum: no change, no race.
“After we got the official decision we met again as athletes and talked through different scenarios, and the majority decided they were still concerned enough; that unless the course was changed for [the prologue] more than half the field was prepared not to race,” Randall said. “We submitted a proposal to the jury asking them to reconsider their decision and change the course…and if they didn’t make the changes a lot of athletes wouldn’t start.”
Late Thursday night the jury agreed to meet the athletes’ demands. Organizers cut off the top of the Mordarbakken to reduce speed going into the descent and skipped a few of the downhill turns. Relieved, the athletes met for a final time on Friday morning a few hours before the prologue was set to start and accepted the changes. The race went on, and nobody crashed in any serious ways over the course of three competitions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“I’m glad we could come to a compromise, because in the meeting last night nobody wanted to sit out three races, but we felt we had to send a strong enough message to really effect the change,” Randall said after completing the prologue on Friday afternoon.
Not everyone was sure the desired effect of the protest was actually achieved, however.
“We still came into that last sketchy corner with the same speed,” said Canada’s Lenny Valjas. “It was a weird change. It just made it really short… I guess they only changed it because all the athletes put up such a big stink about it, but the way they changed it, it kept it pretty dangerous still and it turned out to be fine. It was kind of a weird last few days here, what they were doing.”
The last-minute adjustments the organizers could make, as Randall indicated, were limited by time constraints. But beyond the scope of the specific adjustments made to the course throughout the weekend, it was the whole petition process between the athletes and the jury that was notable, for a few important reasons.
In the athletes’ view, it demonstrated that they could successfully get their governing body to listen to their demands and act on their behalf. To do it, they united quickly and close to unanimously around the idea that they were prepared not to race in order to be heard — no small feat, given the disruption it would have caused to the overall World Cup standings in the men’s field if the last three races of World Cup Finals simply hadn’t happened.
“I’ve never seen the athletes come together this much, this quickly,” Randall said.
(Her second two-year term ends this season, and she hopes the votes athletes cast at World Championships back in February will keep her in the position for another term.)
“I know there’s been an issue with alpine in the past and they tried to come together, but they weren’t preparing to not start the next day,” she continued. “So again, I hope in the future we don’t have to get to that point, but it was pretty amazing to see so many athletes come together with a similar concern and be willing to band together and not start.”
Most significantly of all, with the threat of boycott athletes drew a clear line in the sand between what kind of course they are willing race on and what kind they will not. They hope their success in Falun will set some kind of precedent for the future and place some control over the sport’s continued evolution back into their own hands.
“Some athletes were really concerned with their safety, and with a pretty good reason, and they stood up for what they believed in,” summarized U.S. athlete Torin Koos. “Kikkan, Emil Jonsson and Elder Ronning were the most instrumental and outspoken on finding out what the will of the athletes was, and presenting this to FIS… I think FIS deserves some real credit acting on behalf of the athletes.”
Athletes’ primary concern throughout the process was the safety and fairness of course, but they are not oblivious to the concerns of the organizers.
“It’s such a tricky battle, pleasing TV viewers and of course the money that comes with, and pleasing the athletes,” said U.S. athlete Rosie Brennan, who was in Falun at the end of her first stint on the European World Cup. “But it is important for FIS to realize that without the athlete support, the sport isn’t going to attract the attention and money it would otherwise. I am glad to see the athletes have some leverage over what they are doing.”
Holding onto that leverage was one of the athletes’ primary reasons for putting up such a big stink in Falun: they thought they had to draw a line somewhere to demarcate the upper limit of what they consider a reasonable course, and the danger they saw in Falun was what finally pushed to draw it.
“That’s the plan; that’s why we were so adamant about not racing today,” Newell said on Friday after the prologue. “Realistically it would have been OK to race on it today, probably, but we didn’t want to give them that leeway to use that on athletes in the future. Like, ‘Yeah, you guys raced on it that one time, so it’ll be OK now,’ type of thing. I think it was a victory for sure that we showed them that we could come together and make a decision that we didn’t want to race that course so now I think they’re kind of forced to change it, especially for the next two years.”
Before World Championships take place in Falun in 2015 and before World Cup Finals return there in 2014, athletes want to see more changes to the course. The compromise reached this weekend was a quick, temporary fix in their view. It addressed some of the immediate safety concerns, but to the detriment of other aspects of the course — for instance, the changes effectively flattened the profile by turning athletes back down the Mordarbakken partway up.
“The changes made were a good compromise, but still not enough for what we, as athletes, would like to see,” said Liz Stephen (USA). “The lower corner that we skied [in the prologue] will not make for a very good mass start, and taking out more than half of the Mordarbakken isn’t a good solution for World Champs, I don’t think… This was a good compromise for today’s race and this weekend’s races, I think the OC is going to have to come up with a real solution for next year and World Championships in 2015. Fortunately, they have plenty of time.”
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting.