OpinionProduct NewsA perspective on the US Ski Team and a call for change Part 1

FasterSkier FasterSkierAugust 13, 2007

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The United States Ski Team’s cross country program is broken, has
been for about 25 years, and it’s time it tried a different approach.

It’s doubtful, especially with the present program, the Ski Team will ever approach the standards set in 1982 when the men’s team of Tim Caldwell, Jim Galanes, Bill Koch and Dan Simoneau was one of the best in the world. Today’s Team administrators could at least sit down and take a realistic look at their situation and try to figure out why they aren’t producing faster skiers.

In 1982 Kochie won the overall World Cup title and all four of the skiers mentioned were in the FIS Red Group, those skiers ranked in the top 25 (now 30) of the world who had their travel and room and board expenses paid to all the World Cup races. It’s easy to forget those results and probably most of today’s xc fans don’t even know about them. But since 1982 we have not had one skier, male or female, in either Red Group.

Let’s take a hard look at the present USST program and recent results, then find out why it isn’t working and finally, consider some other possibilities while I throw in some predictions.

Basically, the USST has for several years taken the top cross country skiers in the country, named them to various teams (A or B or development or some such), and then offered them different levels of support depending on their status. The support of course varies with and depends a lot on the financial backing given to them by the USST
Board. But for the most part, the largest chunk of money is used to support the coaching staff and the top skiers at home and abroad. Certain pressures are put on the team skiers to live and train in Park City, or in the case of the lower level skiers, to attend a couple of training camps in Park City. Sounds about what one would expect, doesn’t it? Sounds OK, for sure.

But the system has not worked. This has not been the fault of the coaches or the skiers. The coaches have all been well-meaning, intelligent and hard-working. The skiers have been eager and willing and have done their best. But the fact is we don’t have the talent at present to be a threat to any of the several skiing nations and we haven’t been a threat since 1982.

It’s looking especially bleak for next year. How so, one might ask?
We hear nothing but good reports from Park City. Results were good last year, the budget has increased, the squad is bigger than in many previous years, and everything looks rosy.

Folks, it’s called spin control. Another way to put it is the conveying of actual failures as written successes. This spin is an important part of the program. The USST does a masterful job here (and if the cross country athletes performed as well, we surely would be a power to reckon with). The USST has a virtual monopoly on reports about the team. You can read lots of happy-talk articles in various publications, but almost all the materials are garnered from writers in the pay of the USST. I know of no independent writers who make a living reporting on the USST xc activities.

For several years the USST has successfully focused a lot of attention (read “money”) on new events, beginning many years ago with freestyle, then snowboarding, then recently sprint racing in cross country and ladies’ ski-jumping. Our “Best in the World” has meant to refer to the most medals won in Olympic winter snow competitions and we have usually been ahead of the curve, as the saying goes, and have gained a lot of recognition, especially in the newer events. But as the other countries have taken up these new sports our medal production has tailed off simply because the competition has gotten a lot tougher.

Sprint racing is typical. Articles this year tout the medals (three) the US won last year in World Cup sprint races. “First World Cup medal in X years,” and so on. But a closer look at the cross country sprint competition tells us quite a bit. As I implied above, we were one of the first countries to hire staff and name skiers as specialists in sprinting. As of last year, there were only a handful of countries who were as serious as we have been about sprints and so our results, our “podiums” (I hate that word), have come against rather weak competition. A podium in Russia or China, for instance, is not as meaningful as one at the FIS or Olympics, and these of course have been missing for us. Nevertheless, next year’s A Team features four sprint skiers and one other, a distance skier.

A few other countries are now seeing the advantage of hiring sprint coaches and starting a more formal program. For instance, a former
USST coach is now the new, first sprint coach for Switzerland. They have named eight skiers to their sprint team. Expect those podiums to be harder to come by.

But, you can be sure the PR department in Park City will find something good to publicize. After all, it’s their job. It’s good for fund-raising, as a starter, and they are right in doing the advertising. However, it may get to the stage when they have to brag about “the highest US World Cup finish in Rybinsk using red klister during heavy winds.”

If I counted correctly, there are about 150 podiums available during next season’s World Cup schedule. This is counting relays and all team members of the top three finishers. With 150 ( let’s call them medals for a while) up for grabs, one might expect a strong skiing nation to win fistfulls. Let’s see what happens. Be assured that three medals–the number we were bragging about last season– do not constitute an impressive haul for a nation’s winnings

Then we are reminded of all the World Cup points the US won last year as compared to recent years, such as those in the ‘90’s. This is like comparing apples and oranges because the sprint races were not on the program then (and that’s where we got most of our WC points last year) and there were not nearly as many medals available in World Cup competition. Unfortunately, some of the USST reports border on propaganda. But basically, we have gained most of our WC points at the less important races.

Important races? Ask any Norwegian whether he would rather have a
Holmenkollen medal, or one from a World Cup. The Holmenkollen is a very tough competition and if you want to measure real success in racing, look at those results. Or at Falun results, or Finnish Ski Games results. To check this out for yourself, take the result sheets from some interval start races at the Olympics or the FIS and compare the time differential between 1st and 10th or 20th place with those differences at Holmenkollen, the Swedish Ski Games or the Finnish Ski Games. You’ll see where the stiffest competition is. Then check to see how many WC points we grabbed in those big events last year.

We need further study on results to put things in perspective or make them more realistic. With the advent of so many mass start races, the finishing times have all telescoped in. These races bear similarity to mass start biking events where the pack gets dragged along for kilometer after kilometer and then the finishes, especially after top few, are so close that bunches of riders are given the same times. Skiing hasn’t reached that finish system yet (as far as I know), but it’s an idea worth considering. The point here is that in former days we used to look at results (all interval starts) and measure or calculate the time behind, or better, the percentage of the time behind. If you look at any present day cross country results and compare the percent behind for a 20th place finish in a freestyle, mass start race with that in a classic interval start race, I can guarantee there will be a big discrepancy. Any mass start race, free or classic, has closer finish times and so when we read that so-and-so was only two minutes out of 10th place in a mass start race, it really doesn’t mean as much as being two minutes out in an interval start race. But, spin control dictates using information to advantage and so you can expect to hear more of this sort of thing…..only x seconds out of placing in y place. There’s hope!

Finally, we should take a look at last year’s results at the World Championships in Sapporo. The World Championships, along with the Olympic Games, are the most important races for most of the countries in the world. They are the meets of record. They are advertised several years in advance, everyone has the race schedule well in advance, and there is little excuse for not being there or not knowing what to expect. It’s time someone blew the whistle on our lack of progress.

The US sent 12 skiers to compete at Sapporo and here are the finish places along with the number of finishers in the order of the events: Ladies’ individual sprint– 22,24/71; Men’s individual sprint– 5,21,31,47/78. Ladies’ team sprint–11/18, did not qualify for the finals; Men’s team sprint–15/20, did not qualify for the finals. Ladies’ 15 km pursuit–41,52/52; Men’s 30 km pursuit–19,50,52,52/58.Ladies’ 10km free–52,55,60/72; Men’s 15 km free–55,56,76,78/115. 4×5 Ladies’ relay–14/16; 4×10 Men’s relay–NO
TEAM! Ladies’ 30 km–one starter, no finisher; Men’s 50 km–12,36,49/49.

There were two bright spots, the men’s 5th place individual sprint finish and the men’s 50 km 12th place finish in a mass start. Otherwise, the results were disappointing, to use the nicest description I can think of. The FIS has started an outreach program and in the most popular event, the men’s 15 km free, there were representatives from 40 different countries and about 120 entries. In fact, skiers from 20 different countries beat our first finisher. Even had they beaten just our second place finisher it would have been an indictment of the US team.

Several oldtimers were outraged that the US did not enter the men’s relay, saying this is the mark of a country, it’s simply expected and it’s good sportsmanship. Historians will have to delve into the records to find the last time the US did not enter a men’s team in the relay when they had seven possible starters (as at Sapporo), or even six, or five, or, heaven help us, only four.

For comparison, in the 1982 World Championships in Oslo and in the
Swedish Ski Games in Falun, the four men mentioned above garnered four top 15 finishes and three medals. There were no sprint races back then.

As a product of years and years of a program with the same administration, all the hype, happy talk and all the other things that emanate from Park City, these latest results don’t quite cut it.

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