Note: This is the first of a multiple-part series on the 2018 Winter Olympic selection criteria for the U.S. cross-country ski team. A parallel piece compares the cross-country team’s criteria with other U.S. winter sports.
Friday, July 7, will mark seven months to go until the Opening Ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. As athletes across the country ramp up their commitment in this Olympic year, and #roadtopyeongchang trends across various social media platforms, FasterSkier takes a look at the recently released selection criteria and procedures for nomination to the U.S. Olympic team.
Briefly put, what does it take to get to PyeongChang? And what factors will U.S. Ski Team (USST) coaches and (newly rebranded) U.S. Ski & Snowboard leaders apply in deciding who will be wearing red, white and blue next February?
In this article, FasterSkier first breaks down the criteria themselves, then summarizes a recent interview with USST Head Coach Chris Grover about why these criteria were chosen and how they should work.
Inside the criteria: World Cup performance, discretion and potential domestic picks
The criteria themselves are little changed from the standards used to pick the American team for the last two international championship events, World Champs in Falun in 2015 and Lahti in 2017. First comes objective qualification via performance on the World Cup. Second comes the potential use of discretionary picks. Third, if any spots are left over, the highest-ranking athlete on a domestic points list may, but does not have to, be nominated to the team.
As for the overall size of the U.S. team, a maximum of 12 male or 12 female athletes may be nominated, with a final team quota of probably 17 to 20 athletes to be determined closer to the Olympics themselves. (This is up from a total team quota of 17 in 2014, though ultimately only 14 athletes were named for Sochi, and the extra three American spots were redistributed to other nations.)
The U.S. may enter up to four athletes in a single race at the Olympics. The six cross-country events in PyeongChang will be a skiathlon (15 kilometers for women and 30 k for men), individual classic sprint, freestyle team sprint, 10/15 k skate interval start, 4 x 5 k or 4 x 10 k mixed technique relay (classic, classic, skate, skate), and 30/50 k classic mass start.
As for the criteria themselves for making the U.S. Olympic team: In order:
- Objective qualification via World Cup results
Athletes who have achieved a top-eight finish in one of five specific races, or who have a top-50 ranking on either the World Cup sprint or distance list midway through Period II, will be named to the team.
Most precisely, “Any eligible athlete that posts a top-8 individual final World Cup result during the selection period [Nov. 23, 2017, through Jan. 15, 2018] in the following events will be selected to the Team: Sprint C, individual start 10/15 km F, and 15/30 km Skiathlon.”
Looking to the schedule for the 2017/2018 World Cup season, classic sprints will be held on Nov. 24, in Ruka, Finland; Dec. 2, in Lillehammer, Norway; and Jan. 3 in Oberstdorf, Germany (as part of the Tour de Ski). A 10/15 k freestyle individual start will be held in Davos, Switzerland, on Dec. 10. The only skiathlon on the 2017/2018 World Cup calendar will be held in Lillehammer on Dec. 3. Any athlete posting a top-eight final result in one of those five races will be named to the Olympic team.
(The 10/15 k skate pursuits on the schedule don’t count for top-eight purposes – it’s only Olympic formats that are used for qualification. And the 10/15 k skate race in PyeongChang is an interval-start race, not a pursuit.)
So that’s high finishes in individual races. As for cumulative performance across multiple races, “Athletes ranking in the top-50 in the distance World Cup standings or the top-50 in the Sprint World Cup standings as of January 15, 2018 shall be selected to the team.” Jan. 15 marks roughly the midway point of the World Cup calendar. By that point, 18 World Cup races will have been held.
As of the comparable point in the 2016/2017 season, shortly after the Tour de Ski, USST members Sadie Bjornsen, Rosie Brennan, Sophie Caldwell, Jessie Diggins, Simi Hamilton, Noah Hoffman, Andy Newell, Kikkan Randall, Ida Sargent, and Liz Stephen had top-50 rankings in either or both disciplines.
A maximum of five athletes per gender may be selected based on their Sprint World Cup rankings. Tiebreaking procedures come into play at that point if necessary, generally based on an athlete’s single best finish in a sprint race.
- Discretionary selection
Spots on the U.S. Olympic team will presumably remain open after the application of the objective criterion of World Cup performance. In that case, “the USSA Cross Country Head Coach may use discretion … to determine team nominations” for additional spots on the Olympic team.
Grover would at that point recommend additional athletes to a three-person committee, composed of U.S. Ski & Snowboard President Tiger Shaw, Executive Vice President of Athletics Luke Bodensteiner, and athlete representative Rosie Brennan.
If Brennan stands exposed to a potential conflict of interest from discretionary selection (that is, through no fault of her own, she “stands to benefit privately from a decision made by the Selection Committee,” as would happen if she had not qualified objectively and were being considered for discretionary selection), then she would be directed not to engage in any conduct “meant to unduly influence” the selection committee regarding her potential selection to the Olympic team.
Grover is then directed to consider any of (a) “outstanding competition results” from both this season and last season, (b) “Recent positive direction or trend of competition results indicating a potential for Olympic success,” or (c) “Indication of medal potential in future Olympic or World Championship competition (such as international age group results and rankings) that would be materially enhanced by selection to the team.”
U.S. Ski & Snowboard was not required to make discretion a means of selection to the team. It also has the discretion not to use discretion at all; as the document states, Grover may use discretion to determine additional team nominations, but does not have to.
- Domestic selection. Maybe.
If there are any spots remaining on the team after applying criteria (1) and (2), U.S. Ski & Snowboard may consider the highest-ranked domestic athlete, one per gender. But it technically doesn’t have to.
(There is some ambiguity within the selection document itself as to whether more than one team spot could be filled via a domestic ranking list. On the one hand, selection criterion 3 uses the plural when it talks about “any remaining positions,” and “those positions may be filled.” On the other hand, it also mentions “the athlete with the highest rank on the 2018 Olympic Winter Games Selection List,” and both “athlete” and “rank” are in the singular. In practice, Grover clarified in a recent phone interview that the national team is potentially open to bringing more than one skier per gender, pointing out that four men and two women were brought to Lahti off the domestic rankings list.)
The 2018 Olympic Winter Games Selection List, as with the comparable list for 2017 World Champs in Lahti, is essentially the “normal” 2017/2018 SuperTour points list, plus substantial bonus points for 2018 U.S. National Championships. An athlete’s best two finishes in a single discipline (sprint or distance, not skate or classic) will be counted.
The SuperTour point totals system, and bonus points for podium finishes at 2018 U.S. nationals, appear to be precisely the same as those used last winter for Lahti. That is, first through third at the December SuperTour races will be worth 30, 25, and 21 points, respectively. The addition of nationals-only bonus points means that first through third in the four races in Anchorage count for 45, 35, and 26 points, respectively. When an athlete’s best two finishes are counted, a second and third at U.S. nationals (61 points) would be worth more than two firsts (60 points) at “normal” SuperTour races.
For this reason, in last year’s preview for 2017 U.S. nationals, FasterSkier quoted longtime racer Kris Freeman as stating that “the allocation of bonus points to Nationals essentially makes the remainder of the SuperTours irrelevant. Nationals is now World Champ and Olympic Trials which is fine, but let’s call them what they are.”
The math is the same this season as last season. This season, U.S. nationals start in Anchorage on Jan. 3, 2018. The four races there will be a skate sprint, classic sprint, 10/15 k skate interval start, and 20/30 k classic mass start.
Discretion and selection to international championship events
The appropriate role of discretion when selecting athletes for a World Ski Championships or Olympic team is a subject of recurring interest for fans and supporters of American cross-country skiing, and has frequently arisen on this site.
For example, here’s USST Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb in an interview with FasterSkier in July 2016, answering the question, “Is it fair to say that making discretionary picks is one of the harder parts of your job as a coach?” Whitcomb replied, “For sure. We love not to do it. But in any criteria, discretion can often be one of the most important pieces. We really envy these Olympic Trials [for the American track and field athletes for the 2016 Rio Olympics] that we’re watching right now, where the top three go and fourth is either an alternate or they don’t go, and it’s just much more objective.”
And here’s Grover in January 2017, slightly ahead of the naming of the U.S. team for Lahti: “The real key thing is that, at the bottom of the selection, we followed the selection criteria. That’s key. Discretion really belongs to be used at the top, for those athletes who have a chance to come over and have big races at World Championships, and by big races I mean someone who can go on the podium, or the top five, top 10, or top 15. Look for some selections from USA, but I wouldn’t look for a lot of discretion at the end of the day.”
Or here’s Grover in January 2014, discussing why he and the rest of U.S. team leadership abjured discretion completely in taking Brian Gregg to Sochi but not Matt Liebsch, when only 0.04 points separated the two on the domestic men’s distance list: “We really tried to apply the selection criteria in the most fair way possible.That becomes, for sure, a challenge, especially on the men’s side when you get down to the sixth, seventh, eighth guys, you’re really splitting hairs because the FIS points are so close at that point. Because they were so close we opted not to use discretion. It really wasn’t a fair way to do it.”
(As things played out in Sochi, USSA selected 14 athletes out of a total possible quota of 17. Grover explained at the time, shortly after selections were made and before the Olympics began, that they had only intended to bring those athletes whom they planned on starting in races. “With seven women and seven men, we have our start positions filled,” Grover told FasterSkier before the Games. “Seven and seven was the magic number for us.” Liebsch is reported to have considered legal action to gain a spot on the U.S. team for Sochi, but found that that it was “too late” for him to do so. In Sochi a few weeks later, U.S. athlete Torin Koos did not start the 50 k skate race, a race format in which Liebsch had previously won at the American Birkebeiner.)
The U.S. Ski Team’s views on discretion
Grover, the longtime USST head coach, is aware that people feel strongly about the substance and application of selection criteria for U.S. championship teams. “I think overall I’d say people get a little bit mired up and tied up with selection criteria, and whether it’s fair or not, or how this potentially sees them falling within that criteria,” Grover told FasterSkier in a recent phone interview.
But Grover has a simple message for domestic athletes hoping to go to PyeongChang: “All you need to do is to ski fast, you need to go out there and win races, or to reach podiums. And if you can do that, your chances of being selected to the team are quite good.”
The current criteria are “better than ever, more fair than ever,” Grover continued. “I think [it] gives athletes the most direct path possible to a major championship team.”
Grover urged domestic athletes not to obsess over the apparent prioritization of discretion over domestic race results as a means of picking the Olympic team. Addressing a hypothetical non-national team member, he said, “As as an athlete domestically, don’t get hung up in the order that those things come down in the selection criteria. Discretion has to be next, because a discretionary athlete that’s picked needs to be picked because they are a top athlete who should be on the team, who has somehow been missed by the selection criteria.
“So that’s the placement it has to be,” he continued. “And that’s consistent with selection criteria across different disciplines, in different sports. So that’s just the way that the procedure needs to work. But it doesn’t mean that a large number of discretionary athletes will necessarily be selected prior to the domestic field.”
The statements that discretion “has” to have this status, and that this is “consistent with … different sports,” are not necessarily correct. As reported today in another article on FasterSkier, discretion plays a less prominent role in every other U.S. Ski & Snowboard sport.
Grover also underscored that the use of discretion within American skiing pales in comparison to its role in Norway or Russia.
“We’re competing against teams that are using 100-percent discretion to name their teams,” Grover emphasized. “So in the U.S., we have kind of the most democratic, objective, fair, I guess you could say – other nations, our Scandinavian peers, might call this an American system that we use for selecting athletes. It’s very cut-and-dried.”
The four countries that Grover mentioned by name in his interview as the Americans’ main competition – Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia – all finished ahead of the U.S. in the final Nations Cup standings for the 2016/2017 World Cup season.
Grover also stressed that U.S. Ski & Snowboard used only one discretionary pick for the Lahti roster, taking USST athlete Erik Bjornsen. “And the reason that we used one discretionary spot to select Erik was because he basically fell between the two criteria. He didn’t quite make the top-50 in the world standard because he had gotten sick during the selection process, and he wasn’t home domestically to race in the races domestically, but I think very few people out there would argue that that wasn’t a good use or a smart use of one discretionary spot.”
Grover further stressed that the team had used, as he initially put it, “zero discretion” when selecting athletes for Falun World Championships in 2015. (In a subsequent email to FasterSkier, Grover clarified that “We used zero discretion in the original selection of 16 athletes (8 men and 8 women) to the Falun Team, but we did add Ben [Saxton] at a later date via discretion after he finished 6th in the sprint at U23 Champs.”)
Writing criteria for the top vs. the bottom
Grover cited the decision to bring Erik Bjornsen to Lahti as an exemplary use of discretion, underscoring that Bjornsen was a skilled athlete who “had some of the very best individual results there” among American skiers.
“So that is absolutely our intention,” Grover continued, “it has been our intention, and it will be our intention going forward, is that we use discretion on the rare case where there’s an injury, or an illness, with a top athlete, and/or the criteria fail to select someone that I think most everyone would agree should be there representing the United States.”
At world champs in Lahti in 2017, Bjornsen finished 18th in the 15 k classic and teamed up with Simi Hamilton to finish fifth in the team sprint. At world champs in Falun in 2015, Saxton finished 54th in classic sprint qualifying, roughly nine seconds from making the heats.
While Grover is confident that discretion is most appropriately used for a top-performing U.S. athlete, he acknowledged some issues regarding the final athletes selected (or not selected) to a team.
Summarizing his discussion with domestic senior club coaches about the selection criteria used for Lahti, and any potential changes before PyeongChang, Grover said, “All the responses I got back were positive, people were like, Yeah, it worked well. It’s never perfect at the bottom, but I don’t really see any way to improve it.”
Indeed, he noted, the U.S. Ski & Snowboard working group “struggled with” how to select “athletes at the bottom of the selection, and make it as fair as possible. And what you come up with at the end is, in the end there’s no real perfect way to do it, and there’s going to be challenges to the way that any selection criteria works at the very bottom of the selection.”
Current success vs. preparing for the future
Another issue surrounding selection is the question of current competitiveness vs. taking a young athlete to a “practice” Olympics just for the experience – that is, is the Olympics for development or for podiums. In 2014, for example, regarding the recently named team for Sochi, Grover said, “The Olympics is the pinnacle of the performance or competition pipeline.”
Development occurs at many lower levels, Grover noted (Europa Cups, World Juniors, etc.), but “It does not and should not come at the World Championships or the Olympics. … It’s not a development trip; it’s a competition trip at the very highest level.”
Similarly, earlier this year Grover explained that junior skier Katharine Ogden (a.k.a. “KO”) was not selected for Lahti on the grounds that “athletes should first aim to be successful at – in the age group that they’re competing against. So for KO, that means World Juniors, and being successful at World Juniors.”
The third prong of discretionary selection for the current Olympic team, “Indication of medal potential in future Olympic or World Championship competition (such as international age group results and rankings) that would be materially enhanced by selection to the team,” may be said to go against these principles.
But Grover explained that this “future medal potential” path to discretionary selection is rarely if ever used, even when the Olympic team is selected with an eye to current podium potential.
“We haven’t used it that way,” Grover said. “Obviously the language is there if we were to choose to use it, but in the past we really have not used it that way, and I don’t anticipate using it going forward into this season. … We want … the fastest skiers on the start line in Korea, and those are the ones that we’re gonna be selecting.”
Different standards for men and women?
An additional issue in selecting American skiers is that the women are currently, proportionally speaking, faster than the men – that is, the U.S. women, as a team, have recently tended to achieve better results within the women’s World Cup field than the U.S. men do within the men’s World Cup field.
It is also true that the international men’s field is more top-heavy than the women’s field, across the course of a single World Cup season, meaning that a greater number of World Cup points is needed to crack the top-50 of a discipline ranking.
(As of the end of the 2016/2017 World Cup season, 50th place in the men’s distance ranking had 66 points; in the women’s distance rankings, 42 points. For sprinting, it was 28 points to make the top-50 on the men’s side, 22 points for women.)
Perhaps for these reasons, multiple athletes have confirmed to FasterSkier the substance of a suggestion made at a recent athletes’ meeting at the season-ending 2017 U.S. Distance Nationals in Fairbanks: That the selection criteria should be made more challenging on the women’s side, such as by making the objective cutoff there be a top-40 or even a top-30 discipline ranking rather than top-50.
“I understand where the person who asked that question, where kind of they’re coming from” Grover told FasterSkier, when asked generally if there had ever been discussions about making the objective criteria different between the genders.
“They’re referring to the fact that there’s greater depth on the men’s side … there’s a lot more men ranked – that have FIS points that are say 30 and under, versus the number of women perhaps that have 30 FIS points or less.”
(This is a correct statement about the distribution of FIS points, at least in distance rankings.)
But, Grover continued, “top results are top results at the end of the day. And there’s three medals that are handed out, for men and for women. And if that means that selecting an athlete who ends up to be, say, 46th in the top, in terms of the top 50 in a discipline list by the middle of January, that athlete might be closer to contributing to a top result or a podium than one of the guys.”
For this reason, Grover questioned the aims served by this suggestion. “Is the end objective for that person just to provide more opportunities for men to come over and be 50th place at the Olympics? Because if that is the objective, then I don’t think it’s worthwhile pursuing. What we’re trying to do is have top results … to really compete. And that means selecting those athletes who are the closest to the top placings.”
Unfair advantages to Tour de Ski starters?
Another concern raised about the criteria is the argument that, as Freeman wrote in his recent opinion piece on FasterSkier, “The Tour de Ski ended up being a points feeding frenzy,” given the attrition-ravaged field that saw only 31 women finish the seven-stage Tour. (There were 40 finishers on the men’s side.)
Freeman also argued that it was illogical to use a non-championship event for selection to the USST, “whose primary stated goal is to win medals. … Is racing up a hill at the end of a nine-day tour really a fair way to determine who goes to the World Championships or Olympics?”
Grover’s stance is that it’s more difficult to finish in the overall top 30 of the Tour de Ski than reach the podium at U.S. nationals. Due to recent changes in FIS rules that will allow more pure sprinters to start the 2017/2018 Tour de Ski without counting against their nation’s start quota, he foresees a greater number of finishers in this year’s Tour.
“I would anticipate that this year you’re going to have much better numbers of athletes that are actually finishing the Tour,” he said, “and so the standard there won’t be quite as ‘easy,’ quote-unquote. It’s not necessarily easy, but won’t be as easy as it was this last year.
“Is it easier to score points, even at the end of a Tour de Ski if you can survive it, versus to have a podium at U.S. nationals, given that a bunch of the top USA athletes are doing the Tour de Ski at the same time?” he asked. “I would still guess that it’s easier to reach the podium at U.S. nationals, and thereby that would make it an easier path for an athlete to make the Olympic team.”
FasterSkier has separately addressed Freeman’s argument regarding the “access problem” of obtaining Tour or World Cup start rights in the first place. FasterSkier has also considered the approach used by the US Biathlon Association, which makes it “not a foregone conclusion” that athletes receiving World Cup starts will necessarily make the Olympics.
The bottom line
“At the end of the day,” Grover concluded, “I would anticipate that we’ll be able to bring the athletes that we want to bring so that we can fill every potential start spot at the Games. … We will fill every start at the Olympics.”
Grover and U.S. Ski & Snowboard intend to do so by making sure “that we capture any athlete who can reach the podium, any athlete who can reach the top five, the top 10, the top 15. That’s the absolute critical element, is that we give ourselves the best chance to be successful.”
And Grover believes that the current criteria are “the best way to do that.” We “were trying to create a more equitable, more concrete, easier to understand and visualize path for domestic athletes, racing SuperTour, to qualify for a major championship team,” Grover said. The result, he concludes, is “better than ever, more fair than ever. … So, you know, I feel good, I feel really good about the criteria, I feel like we got the most fair criteria for the Olympic selection that we’ve had, and I’m excited to see how it turns out.”
— Jason Albert and Chelsea Little contributed reporting
Stay tuned for more on this topic, including an article on American athletes’ reaction to the Olympic selection criteria and how they feel the exercise of discretion has affected them and U.S. skiing. And be sure to read about the role of discretion across other U.S. Ski & Snowboard sports, particularly biathlon.