The US Nordic community has a doper problem. The problem is that we have a tendency to allow dopers to occupy too much of our field of vision. Doping alone has never made a winner, and if we want to improve our results we need to be prepared to learn winning ways from winners.
Simply put, as a nation we haven’t done very well. We’ve got very large participation – we’re one of the “big” markets in the world. We’ve got well developed programs for all ages. But we have very poor results compared with much of the world. As I’ve watched Kris Freeman strive toward international success and as I’ve tried to contribute to his efforts, I’ve come to realize that there is more to winning races than simply becoming the fittest guy out there. Our skiers consistently under-deliver on their physical potential against international competition. We need to be focusing on a better understanding of the sport and what it takes to deliver medal-worthy performances. I think many of us, myself included, have been too quick to vilify dopers – to place cheaters as an obstacle in our path to success.
My suggestion is not to ignore the dopers. I believe we need to study and understand the procedures and processes currently used by cheaters in our sport. Only by understanding the advantage the dopers have can we understand the deficit that we need to make up in our pursuit of podium results. We need to pay attention to the nations and individuals we suspect of cheating, and we need to pay attention to their results. I believe the picture that emerges from this examination is one of a few very suspicious successful athletes, and a much larger number of very suspicious mediocre athletes. Looking at the season-long World Cup results, or even just at major championship results, I believe that there are plenty of successful athletes we have no reason to suspect of cheating. While it is indisputable that doping practices can give an unfair advantage, it’s also indisputable that winners have other qualities, whether they’re cheating or not. Doping alone has never won medals.
When Kris was fourth at World Championships this year he told me that when he’s that close to real success, when he feels that the best are beatable, it’s easy to believe that they may not be cheaters. What is clear for Kris, as it is for the rest of the World Cup field, is that the difference between his best performance and an average performance is huge. Kris’s 15K in Liberec was between one and two percent better than any other race he had this season. That’s 30 to 45 seconds in a 15K – the difference between 4th and 16th, or the difference between a win and a top-10. If Kris has a bad day, he can be minutes back. This is true for the entire field – a bad day can be quite bad. I’m not aware of any other endurance sport where the difference between a good day and a bad day is as large. Success in cross country ski racing is all about delivering good days.
We have a tendency to focus on the measurable physiological characteristics of successful athletes. This is natural, but it fails to paint a complete picture of success. While it’s a sure bet that a World Cup winner will have a pretty darned high maximal VO2, there is no way to predict results from a population of elite skiers based on testing uptake. My personal observation is that peak performances in different sports depend on different factors. In skiing a great performance depends on having access to really high energy. This is hardly a measurable scientific variable – but it’s an observable fact. A winning performance is always a notably energetic performance – watching Kris race World Cups it’s easy to see when he’s nailing it, and when he’s going to be one or two percent off.
While we can’t necessarily measure or document “energy”, I’m convinced that we need to focus much more attention on the ability to bring peak energy to races. Sure – fitness is first. You can’t be successful without great fitness. But I’ve watched endless cases where guys with demonstrably great training practices and fantastic fitness fundamentally fail to delivery winning performances, even against their “lesser” teammates. We can’t afford to ignore fitness, and as a population we need to produce fitter athletes across the board. But we need to focus more attention on developing good racers rather than developing good trainers.
What does this have to do with dopers? Not terribly much – and that’s my point. The goal has to be delivering peak performances when it counts. Nobody on this planet is good enough to win an Olympic medal without a peak race effort. Dopers may have a leg-up on delivering that peak performance, but it’s still a skill that must be learned and developed. Plenty of dopers never make it. Andrus Veerpalu has an astonishing record of producing winning performances. Many of us have been skeptical of him for a long time, and he’s recently been named in the humanplasma doping scandal. But there’s more to learn from a guy like Veerpalu than just where to get help with transfusions. While he may deserve to be stripped of all his medals, he is probably the single most talented big race skier in the last ten years. If we allow the suspicion of doping to stand as an obstacle to beating him then we’ll never succeed. When Kris heard that Veerpalu had been named his first reaction was to ask whether his medal from Liberec would be stripped. There is no chance that Veerpalu will have any medals taken from him unless he confesses to something. FIS will not pursue this matter. Kris was disappointed – “damn, I want a medal” he said. Well, he can get a medal but it’s going to come in the future, and to do it he’s going to have to beat a bunch of guys, many of whom will be cheating.
Dopers don’t have the answer – they have a shortcut that may get them a little closer to the goal. We don’t need to have all the cheaters identified and removed in order to succeed. We need to find the answer that all winners have found. A handful of Americans have stumbled upon the answer at times. Kris did in 2003. Bill Koch did in 1976. Reproducing that first breakthrough performance can be a hard thing. Kochie finally won the World Cup overall six years after his Olympic medal. Kris produced his second 4th place World Championship result six years after his first. Until we find a way to reproduce these performances without wasting six years trying we’ll have a hard time in this sport. While we don’t have many potential Olympic medalists in this country, we’ve got plenty of athletes who can be regular point-getters on the World Cup. Until these skiers can deliver their best performances when it counts, there will be no path to success for developing athletes. If we can’t reach a better understanding of this sport then our best hope for success will be the next lightning strike that comes along.