As the 2016/2017 race season approaches, plans are proceeding for the International Ski Federation’s (FIS) Nordic Junior/U23 World Championships to return to the U.S. With both the U.S. Cross Country Championships (which take place Jan. 7-12) followed by Junior Worlds (Jan. 30-Feb. 5), the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation (UOLF) has a full plate this winter.
Scheduled for just two-and-a-half weeks after U.S. nationals at Soldier Hollow, preparations are well underway.
“Without a doubt it’s the largest nordic event we’ve had in Utah since the 2002 [Winter Olympic] Games,” said Greg Poirier, the organizing committee’s technical advisor who has been instrumental in bringing the championships to Park City and Soldier Hollow, Utah. “And it’s been 30 or 31 years since we’ve had Junior World Championships in this country.
“This has been a dream of mine for quite a while, to bring the championships back to the USA,” he said.
The last time Junior Worlds took place in the U.S. was 1986 in Lake Placid, N.Y. Senior World Championships goes back even further to 1950. That year, Lake Placid was supposed to hold the senior championships, but could only host the jumping events due to lack of snow. The cross-country events were moved to Rumford, Maine.
“If it goes well, pat me on the back; if it goes bad, then I had nothing to do with it,” Poirier, who previously coached for U.S. Nordic Combined when his hometown was awarded the upcoming Junior Worlds in 2015, said with a laugh.
According to Poirier, the UOLF and Soldier Hollow are ready to host the championships.
“If we did nothing from now to January 30, facility-wise, we’re ready to go,” he said in early August. “From a technical point of view, I think we’re on schedule. The courses, the ski jumps, the actual competitive side of the event. If athletes showed up tomorrow, we’re ready. We still have to build the stadium and make everything kind of pretty.”
In addition to women’s individual ski jumping and a co-ed team competition, Poirier said that the 2017 Junior Worlds will have a women’s ski jumping team event, which includes four women per team “just like the men’s competition. It’s something the [local] organizing committee wanted to do,” he said.
Poirier initially approached the local organizing committee (OC), seeking approval for this women’s team event. The local OC then asked the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association (USSA) to ask FIS to add it to the championships program. FIS did so, based on its desire to include women’s ski jumping as a team event for years to follow. Poirier said they were still several years away from women’s nordic combined events.
Logistically, Junior Worlds are a bigger event than U.S. nationals. UOLF Vice President of Sport and Venues Marc Norman expects more than 800 athletes and 400 support staff. The cross-country and nordic-combined skiers and their support staff will be housed in Midway, Utah (near the Soldier Hollow venue), while jumpers and their coaches will stay in Park City (near the jump hills). In contrast, Norman expected about 450 skiers, including some from Canada and Australia, to compete at 2017 U.S. nationals. He anticipated more than 300 volunteers for Junior Worlds, compared to about 100 for nationals.
The Soldier Hollow Charter School, a K-6 public charter school located in the heart of the ski stadium, operates partly in the timing building. Because the school will closed for vacation during Junior Worlds, organizers will have access to the whole building. While school will be in session during U.S. nationals, by agreement, there will be designated space in the building for timing.
Updated Sprint Course
While the distance courses remain the same, there will be changes to the sprint course Soldier Hollow has used for the last several years. The long downhill to the stadium after the last big climb will be broken up.
“The sprint is kind of clustered up,” Luke Bodensteiner, USSA’s executive vice president of athletics, said on the phone in August. “It’s become a 200-meter race at times. So they’ve made some modifications … to break up that last long downhill.”
Previously, racers would crest the last climb and descend into a downhill straightaway. That created a substantial draft, helping the tail end of a broken-up group regain contact on that final downhill.
According to USSA Nordic Director Robert Lazzaroni, the revised sprint course will also be used for nationals. Lazzaroni serves as the USSA advisor on the 2017 Junior Worlds organizing committee.
While the facility side of preparation is going well, finding dollars has been a challenge.
“I know they feel they’re behind,” Bodensteiner said. “They’re concerned about how fundraising is going. We remain optimistic it will be a financially healthy event. That’s a concern with any of these events, and Junior Worlds is no exception.”
“The base budget to put on the event is $365,000,” Norman wrote in an email in late September. “We also have an enhanced budget that would allow us to exceed the minimum FIS requirements at a cost of $465,000. Hopefully we can find additional sponsors, suppliers, and donors that will help us close the gap to the base budget and even allow for us to do some or all of the enhanced pieces (more event look, athlete functions, event broadcast, etc…).”
Bodensteiner explained that there was no guaranteed revenue source, and said that organizers would “have to really hump” to raise funds. “Before we decided to bid for the event, we collectively identified enough revenue sources that were reliable that we could make it work. There’s still a little bit of unknown, but it’s not atypical for events to be in that position.”
As of mid-October, USANA Health Sciences, a nutritional supplement company, had signed on as the title sponsor for 2017 Junior Worlds.
“We are still working on sponsorships for the event to fully meet our budget,” Norman wrote on Oct. 12.
“Junior Worlds is a little different beast than other events that we run,” Bodensteiner said. “The World Cup events that we run, you have a broader media footprint. You’re looking at national and in some cases international sponsors for those. They’re easier to get out in front of. With the Junior Worlds here, even though it’s an international event, it’s going to be reliant on local sponsorship. Oftentimes those don’t materialize until the last minute.”
When asked if hosting the Junior Worlds bid would lead to USSA bidding for World Cup events, Bodensteiner hesitated.
“We’re at the point where we’re anticipating it,” he said.
Although there have been discussions, Bodensteiner said they hadn’t really identified a way to run a FIS Cross-Country World Cup without incurring a substantial financial loss.
“We haven’t found a financial pathway that makes it realistic,” he said.
Bodensteiner outlined some of the cost differences between hosting Junior World Championships and a World Cup in a follow-up email.
“The main cost drivers are prize money (both for the races hosted and a share of the season overall prizes), lodging and travel cost reimbursement for the top group of athletes and their staff (and a number of Continental Cup athletes), event production (grooming, timing, snowmaking, staffing, wax rooms, course installations, travel costs for various FIS officials, medical evacuation, etc), and TV production (camera installations on course, cabling, satellite truck to send a live signal, production crew to shoot, edit the feed and graphics, etc),” he wrote. “Obviously some of this gets recouped through the sale of sponsorship and TV rights. FIS also keeps a portion of the advertising rights for its own purposes, which do not get passed along to the host organizer.”
If U.S. athletes achieve the goals set by USSA, will there be additional funding for junior cross-country development?
“When we budget for our programs, we always look at results at different levels,” Bodensteiner said. “We look where ‘our best bet is’ and allocate support to be the best in the world. Results at multiple levels including Junior Worlds are always a consideration.”