National vs Private Teams

November 4, 200916
Team Xtra Personell: Anders Aukland, Jorgen Aukland, Jens Arne Svartedal
Team Xtra Personell: Anders Aukland, Jorgen Aukland, Jens Arne Svartedal

(translated from  11-4-09, “Northug et Cologna sous le même maillot ? ” and  “Ulvang mener Northug må få sin del av landslagskaka”  11-4 09)

  Leaders of the nordic ski world often look to cycling for ideas on how to advance the sport of skiing.  Could the next similiarity come in the creation of more private teams ?  With many national teams experiencing financial problems, the incentives to join a private team with larger funding could be very real.   Perhaps if the top athletes join private teams,  the national federations could then focus on the whole infrastructure of developing the younger athletes.   

  One example of a private professional team is Team Xtra Personell.  Started in 2006, its team members consist of  Jerry Ahrlin, Jens Arne Svartedal, Jorgen Aukland, and Anders Aukland.  It is a team fully funded by sponsors and it provides structure through a full staff of founders, coaches, trainers, technicians, and others.  But its relationship with the Norwegian Federation has not been good, and at times has brought penalties for the members of team Xtra.

     Vegard Ulvang, head of the FIS, is a sworn supporter of the current model of national teams, wherein the best skiers in the nation are on one national team.  He acknowledges the fact that some of the younger skiers, such as Peter Northug of Norway, do not feel they are fairly compensated by their national teams and so have recently considered joining private teams, but says to do this would be disruptive and very negative for the sport.

   Ulvang thinks the Ski Federation needs to find a way for the top skiers  to get compensated fairly by their national teams so that they are earning a bigger slice of the cake.

       Of differing opinion is Fredrik Aukland, head coach of the Swiss national team and advisor to Team Xtra Personell, who  firmly beleives in the future of private teams.  He  thinks it would not be unrealistic to see Swiss skier Dario Cologne and Northug on the same team in the future. 

Peter Northug and Dario Cologne: future teammates?

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  • Patrick Stinson

    November 4, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    So what’s the idea about how that would affect their status for Olympics and World Cup races? On the team, not on the team? A new everything goes Country? maybe they should just hand out brown bibs for miscellaneous fast people.

  • mountaingoat

    November 5, 2009 at 12:48 am

    Wow, it seems like it might end up like football or hockey or baseball, where athletes are traded or ask to be traded so they can earn more money. Makes it hard for the fan to truly root for the home team (nation in this case) when the home team is a mix of all nationalities. can you imagine a womens team of Kikkan, saarinen, bjorgen, and kolwaczyk?

  • Aubrey Smith

    November 5, 2009 at 10:23 am

    Yeah, Patrick, I wondered that as well, but I couldn’t find any info on how that would work –

  • jeff r

    November 5, 2009 at 11:13 am

    I think they’re looking at cycling for their model. Teams would compete on the WC and the Marathon Cups as say Team Stinson or Team Colbert with the Olympics being the only true competition between national teams.

  • NE Racer

    November 5, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    If you look major bicycling publications such as, The articles about trades seem to focus more on other reasons than money. For instance, George Hincapie switched to a continental pro team to support younger riders. Lance Armstrong looks more for a team that has money to get other good riders. Face it, if your sport is xc skiing, biking, or running, your not doing it to get rich.

  • OldManWinter

    November 5, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    I am really torn about this. On one hand, I think this begins to address one problem with elite XC ski racing…chronically underfunded athletes. Look at our our own national contingent: 7 M&F athletes going to the Olympics. Puhleeze! It is senseless for top endurance talent in this nation not to consider running (ie: Ben True) or triathlon first. The educational, career and life sacrifices to be made as a nordic skier in a predominately European-centered sport must be extreme.

    It would seem that this cycling/skiing model tilts the table in favor of the Euro nations that have stronger club systems than the U.S. So where does that leave us? How could a U.S. racer develop and aspire to advance to an elite international team? Again, look at cycling. Many of them live, train and race across the pond for large portions of the year.

    What is the end point of all this? I’m fearful that the U.S. will be left behind with a national system much like the NHL, meaningful only to us. The Olympics have taught me that the U.S. doesn’t have the best hockey players on the planet, but that doesn’t stop hockey arenas from getting filled anyway.

    I’m all for growing the sport in ways that help the nordic community attract and retain top talent. If this can make that happen (and it surely works in cycling), then I’m all for it. I have to support what NER had to say…When Alsgaard was running down yet another victim for a relay victory, I don’t think he was concerned about his endorsements.

  • Tim Kelley

    November 6, 2009 at 2:14 am

    In a way, didn’t this already happen in US skiing? Bode Miller bailed out of the USST for a private ski racing venture – his own. And I believe he raced in the Worlds for the US without being on the USST. But then he partied too much, got fat and slow, sponsorship money tapered off … and now I read he is back on the USST. So I guess that national teams are good programs for elite skiers to come back to when the private teams run out of money.

  • Mike Trecker

    November 6, 2009 at 10:04 am

    First off, don’t touch my man Bode, he is a true example of American success in the face of adversity. Being named to the USST is just the start of a hell of a roller coaster ride. Bode never got slow, and although he may be a touch overweight, that’s how alpine skiers roll. He persevered, trying different methods along the way, and ultimately became the greatest American alpine skier in history! And yes indeed, he produced these results more on his own talent and ability than by being a product of a quality national program.

    Privatization of endurance sports is an active and interesting concept. It certainly is full on in road running as well as in cycling. The classics, The Boston Marathon, The Tour de France et al. lend themselves more to private teams than national programs. Skiing could certainly copy this template more, however, the FIS will not want that to happen as more and more $$ would slip from their grasp into the hands of private teams that offer more exposure. And, the private races would gain greater strength as well. In skiing, the classics are races such as the Holmenkollen 50k and the Vasaloppet, and I actually believe that skiing would be better off focusing on these tough, time honored events, rather than develop gimmicky NASCAR style pits and stadiums with racers going around in circles. Talk about dumbing down a great sport. Look at cycling and road running, the classics crush the concept of criteriums every time.

    Cycling also offers a tactical advantage to trade teams, something that national teams seem to have a problem with. Picture a unified German team under the name Audi, committed to attacking Northug’s team to death instead of waiting around for a sprint that is almost pre-determined. With the prize sharing of private teams, the tactics would become less fuzzy. There would be incentive for domestiques to attack Northug as well as incentive for Northug’s teammates to chase. I am imagining a more exciting sport played out on real trails instead of the comical exhibitions that have become known as cross country ski racing.

    American’s have actually pioneered this concept through Andy Gerlach’s Factory Team, a strong, private team that challenged the norm for the USST. I think that Carl Swenson even turned down a national team position in order to ski for the Factory Team one season. I could be wrong about that however.

    In any case, privatization is an interesting concept, but from where I’m standing, it’s a concept that will have the national teams and the FIS crying and dragging their heels all the way.

    One other note, when someone makes a move and they state, “It’s not about the money”, it’s almost always about the money.

  • chadsalmela

    November 6, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Professional, private teams would work, and if money is the bottom line–meaning the athletes making a bigger cut of the money pulsing through the sport–then private teams turns the sport into a market. If you love cycling as it is, then you will probably love the future of skiing in a similar setup. It seems really simple.

    But it’s not. As a decade-long athlete advocate, the lines of athlete advocacy get very blurry. Financial compensation for Nordic athletes (particularly biathletes) who star on European TV is alarmingly low, but by comparison to cycling, cheating is also relatively low. If you look at Ole Einar Bjoerndalen’s TV draw, his reported income is appalling–though he’s not poor. German biathletes only recently began securing agents, and those who have–almost regardless of how much they won–became the best earners in the sport. But the earning is still limited, and it has to do with the play between TV contracts with the international federations and their sponsors. Biathlon is considered at model of how to boom, but it’s a very tight rope the IBU has to walk between maximizing its ratings, and their asking price for the rights. One could argue that biathlon in Europe figured out how to maximize it’s TV appeal, but has perhaps underperformed financially considering its TV appeal. The positive is that biathletes over the last decade have become European TV stars and can then market themselves better and earn a better living, which for the most part, they have. Prize money also increases. But the question is still out there–how much is biathlon REALLY worth? The IBU, I believe, has played it safe with their partners, not getting too greedy, and the sport continues to enjoy massive popularity, particularly in Norway and Germany. But I have been asking for years, how much better could it be for the athletes? I think it could be.

    Why then does FIS fight this move, as Ulvang does? The IBU example is one reason. While the IBU example sounds smart, the increased earning makes anti-doping ever more challenging, as last year’s rash of Russian positives in biathlon attest. Now consider how private teams would affect FIS athletes. It’s not that hard. Just look at cycling.

    You can say, “private teams will earn athletes more money,” and they will, but private team’s sponsors want something for their money too. They will want a longer race season and more races to recoup their investments. They will want more access to the athletes for their purposes–because, come on, they NOW OWN YOUR ASS. The line between fair play and not-so-fair play becomes a little easier to cross when someone owns your ass to the tune of a million Euros a year, and they want more super human efforts more often for all of us to marvel at as they happen. This is good business.

    Ask yourself if you care about the athletes you love. Ulvang, I believe does, and that’s why he’s fighting it. My first sport was cycling. I loved cycling, but I won’t let my kid become a high-level bike racer for obvious reasons. I would like to hold out the hope that by the time he’s 20, I’ll feel good about him trying to be a top level ski racer if he wants to. If FIS follows cycling, he’ll play hockey, or tennis, or something else.

  • Mike Trecker

    November 6, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    Thanks for picking up where I left off, I didn’t want to be that long winded but agree with everything you said. And that explains this problem in a nutshell. It’s incredibly complicated. Bottom line is I wouldn’t mind seeing a little more cooperation between organizations like the NSF and Team Xtra Personell rather than penalties for the private team as mentioned at the lead of the story. I’d be interested in the specific penalties and what the punishment was for.

  • OldManWinter

    November 6, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    I would like to separate the doping concerns from the financials.

    In an earlier time, I raced college-age triathletes, and was shocked at how often I noted huge, purple steroid welts on the back of their shoulders. This wasn’t about money, this was about a tin pot and 8 seconds of polite applause. Doping isn’t just a cycling/triathlon/skiing problem, its a fundamental flaw in human nature. Whenever there is a prize to be won, it seems someone is willing to cheat to get it. I think it is a little unfair to indict cycling (which I will agree is probably the most drug-soaked of endurance sports) only because we aren’t entirely clean yet either. Just ask Becky Scott…she had to compete against drug dopers, and it didn’t stop her from winning a
    gold medal. I’ll conceed that the pressures would be greater, but cheaters will cheat no matter what the endeavor. Anti-doping measures need to be part of the structural DNA, no matter what structure the sport takes.

    So, if we remove doping, what is the harm of a team structure? More money and exposure for hard-working endurance athletes that have sacrificed everything else in their lives to earn it? Is that wrong? We have professional everything…baseball, football, ballroom dancing…Why shouldn’t your child be able to aspire to life as a nordic ski racer?

  • davord

    November 7, 2009 at 8:41 am

    I don’t think we should immerse ourselves into this doping subject too much. As much as it has become a major distraction and has certainly caused moments of upheavel, anger and dissapointment, we should look forward and try to look out for ourselves and how we can improve skiing in this country.

    I hate to say it, but these sorts of discussions are sort of becoming like the French and the French media during the cycling season and most notably during the TDF. They haven’t had a Tour winner in 25 years and have continually been hunting down any potential ‘foreign’ dopers that have dominated the race for what probably seems centuries to them. Picking on guys like Armstrong, Ullrich, Basso, etc., has become more of a nuisance than anything else (even though I would be shocked to find out that all of them were clean). The French have resorted more and more towards this ‘doping’ complex that when anybody is better than their cycling heroes, they must be on drugs (well, most likely they are, but so are most of the well known professional cyclist these days, or any days for that matter).

    We have to look forward. Not back to what the possible reasons were on why our results haven’t been what they should be, even though we have made some progress in the last 5-6 years. Hard work and perserverance is what is going to get things done, not complaining about money and doping and why this and why that.

    Has Kris Freeman lost out on medals a number of times in his world cup/world champs career to some dopers? Maybe, maybe not. We can’t dwell upon that too much, otherwise we can get stressed out about things that are out of our control. Best thing is to give your all, enjoy everything, because these “what if?”stories can get stressful and annoying and nobody wants or needs that.

  • triguy

    November 7, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    One thing I would wonder is how these private teams will make more money? Is that a certain thing or are we just assuming that because they are private they will have more money? How much money can these private teams provide? Can it be enough to run full world cup support and year-round training support plus pay athlete salaries and coaches/wax techs? To run a proper team with full support would be around 100-200k/racer or about 1 million+ per year.

    Most of the time people want the best of both worlds, they want the private team to pay them but when it comes to going to races they want the National federation to pay for them and support them. Really they just want to float around to whomever has what they need.

    And as mentioned before I’d agree that it will increase the amount of doping and will make a fairly toxic environment for the racers. Once someone is paying you a salary to be a racer, things change. You race sick or injured, enter races that don’t make sense for your plan so you can score points or get exposure for the team/sponsors.

    Current athletes have plenty of opportunity to look for sponsors and make a good living with the National teams. They have to be a little creative to find sponsors that don’t conflict with National sponsors, but really it isn’t that hard.

  • Martin Hall

    November 10, 2009 at 10:03 am

    triguy has it right—National Teams win—think of all the logistics of a program to support this or any team—look at Sweden—with its ski and waxing truck and 6-10 technicians, stone grinder on board, it’s own plane ( more teams will be doing this–watch), vehicle sponsorship, sports med and science teams, physio therapists, 4-6 coaches, office personnel, sports marketing, all the other support personnel that develop programs such as Bill Koch, Jack Rabbit to keep skiers coming, symposiums, clinics, your sport education programs, national and international racing and schedules in the country, interaction and cooperation with regional and divisional programs and more—with out all this, it is a spiral down—not up! How do the private teams make this all happen? They don’t!

    Bode Miller failed—he used and needed all this to get to the top and then chucked it out the window—if it worked his way, there would be more skiers doing it. Got any more names of people doing this? Bode didn’t know when he had it good—he just out smarted himself. Welcome back!

    It takes one hell of a lot of people to launch one racer. This isn’t called the White Circus for no reason.

    The 2 North American countries are gaining—Canada more then the US—but program sophistication is way ahead of where it was 10 years ago and that 10 years was a head of the 10 before that, etc. These teams are gaining—this last 10 years there have been a lot of medals in the cross country arena for these teams and more of that talk this time. The only other time this happened was in the 70s to 80s. Canada is talking of a relay medal—when has that ever happened—never—but, it is a real possibility. They have the depth—4 solid guys. Now they have to get them all there right side up! That takes one big support program that only a National team can put together.
    We are gaining!!

  • Mike Trecker

    November 10, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    In 2007 when he formed his own Team America, Bode Miller picked up 4 World Cup wins and won the Super G World Cup title. In 2008 he won 5 times and secured his second overall World Cup championship. Bode failed? If that’s failure, I reccomend it. In fact, Bode won one overall title as part of the USST and one on his own. That record sounds pretty even.

    From Wikipedia: Miller is known for his reckless style, often risking crashes to increase his chances of winning a given race; in his book, Bode: Go Fast, Be Good, Have Fun, Miller stated that his goal as a skier was not to win medals, but rather to ski “as fast as the natural universe will allow.” – Wikipedia

    On that last goal, he certainly succeeded. Were it not for a clash of egos with the USST Bode may have excelled further. Even though its the U.S. Ski Team, it’s still an individual sport. Thankfully our XC USST has decided to get out of Kris Freeman’s way and encourage his phenomenal talents and unique training style. Props to Vordy for that.

  • Cloxxki

    November 28, 2009 at 11:53 am

    I have seen lady mountainbike racers improve 20 minutes per XC races, the moment they switched to a different team. Teams are instable, many changes and uncertainty. Teams make athletes faster, for sure. But how much of that is competition and smarter training?
    One loose thought. I think the Norwegians would get slower when not on the strong National program.

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