Olympic Quotas Revisited

Nathaniel HerzNovember 10, 20091
An Olympic berth is going to be harder to come by.  Justin Freeman racing at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino.
An Olympic berth is going to be harder to come by. Justin Freeman racing at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino.

For anyone who thinks that the U.S. got a raw deal with the introduction of a new Olympic quota system, you’re right.

According to FIS Cross-Country Race Director Jürg Capol, just two nations had their quotas significantly affected by the switch-the U.S. and Kazakhstan. For the rest, he wrote in an e-mail, their quotas are more or less the same as they would have been under the Torino guidelines from 2006.

Those numbers should rise before the Games begin in February. But in the meantime, American athletes are still training with the same intensity that they have been all summer because, as SVSEF’s Colin Rodgers says, “it just comes down to skiing fast.”

What is a quota?

A quota is the number of skiers that a country is allowed to bring to compete in the Olympics.

How is a quota decided upon?

Most countries will get a basic quota of at least one male and one female skier, as long as they have athletes whose race results meet a minimum points threshold. Then, FIS ranks skiers on a list, and nations are awarded additional places based on the position of their skiers on that list. Finally, nations can earn additional quota places if their skiers perform well on the World Cup circuit.

What is the U.S. quota for the 2010 Olympic Games?

Right now, the U.S. quota stands at seven, although it is very likely that that number will grow based on the performance of American athletes during the early winter. Also, if other countries do not take their full quotas of skiers, the U.S. may get a few more spots.

Why is the U.S. quota so small?

The new FIS quota guidelines give more weight to skiers who have strong distance and sprint results, as opposed to those that excel in just one discipline. Since the U.S. has many specialists, its quota was smaller under the new system than it would have been under the old one.

What are the quotas of some other countries?

The maximum quota size is 20 skiers. The complete list is available here in pdf form.

Canada: 17
Germany: 18
Japan: 7
New Zealand: 3
Norway: 20
Russia: 20

What is the U.S. doing to increase its quota?

USSA Nordic Director John Farra has been in touch with the coaches of athletes with strong FIS points in one discipline to encourage them to improve their points in their weaker discipline.

USSA has also undertaken some long-term strategies to ensure that domestic skiers have more opportunities to improve their FIS points.

Based on current projections, the U.S. has a quota of seven skiers-a number derived using a complex formula that takes into account World Cup standings and FIS points. As long as powerhouse nations like Norway and Sweden don’t bring their own full quotas of 20-which they haven’t in the past-a few of the unused spots should trickle down to the Americans.

It’s a different system than the one used in Torino in 2006-the old one was replaced at the behest of the IOC in an effort to limit the total number of skiers at the Olympics. The new selection criteria favor those who excel in both sprint and distance races, and since so many American skiers are specialists in one discipline or the other, the country’s quota has suffered as a result.

Andrew Johnson at the 2002 Salt Lake Games.
Andrew Johnson at the 2002 Salt Lake Games.

Murmurs about the low quota had been circulating since the summer, and Farra said that he had been reluctant to go public with the information out of concern for hurting skiers’ motivation. But on October 15, the ski blog JohnnyKlister.com linked to a FIS document showing the new numbers, and since then most athletes have been clued in.

Despite the news, those on the bubble have tried to remain focused on their training, given that there is little they can do individually to impact the quota.

In an e-mail to FasterSkier, XC Oregon’s Brayton Osgood said that when he planned his training in April, he was under the impression that there would be eight American men going to the Olympics. Given that the number will probably be less than that, he said it would definitely be harder to make the team, but that his approach is still the same.

“I really try not to get stressed about the things beyond my control. Our Olympic quotas are definitely beyond my control right now,” Osgood said.

Rodgers also acknowledged that making the team would be harder, but he pointed out that this would make American athletes dig deeper to qualify.

“The more competitive it is to make the team, the better the athletes will be that go,” he wrote in an e-mail. Like Osgood, Rodgers also said that he didn’t have any power to change the quota system, and was instead focused on skiing as fast as he could.

While athletes have stayed focused on their training, USSA has been working behind the scenes to try to increase the American quota.

In an open letter published on the USSA web site, Farra wrote that he had identified nine skiers with good FIS points in either sprint or distance competitions, but not both. With a few decent results in their weaker disciplines, Farra said, these nine could net the U.S. an extra quota spot.

Two of the athletes will be racing the early season World Cups with the U.S. Ski Team, and Farra said that they will be working with their coaches do what they can to shore up their FIS points in their weaker discipline.

Farra also contacted the coaches of the other seven skiers on the domestic circuit, and he wrote that they had been “receptive and anxious to help.”

However, since skiers create quota places for their countries rather than for themselves, they have less of an incentive to put a lot of effort into doing well at races that don’t suit their strengths.

In an interview with FasterSkier, USST Head Coach Pete Vordenberg said that he “won’t make major changes to who starts what to increase points.” Kris Freeman might start a few more sprints, he added, but “that will be to get quick, too.” Plus, Vordenberg said, bringing a huge number of skiers to the Olympics isn’t good, because the work they would create for USST staff could might distract from the focus of winning medals.

More promising are the structural changes being instituted by USSA to improve the FIS points of the American skiers that aren’t competing in Europe. First, Farra said, USSA and Cross Country Canada have cooperated this year to minimize the overlap of their big domestic races, which will allow the Canadians to race in the U.S. and vice versa. With deeper, more competitive fields, these races should give participants better FIS points.

Second, Farra said, USSA has blocked out a part of the winter during which it will encourage top domestic athletes to travel to Europe for OPA Cup races-that continent’s version of the Super Tour. Since OPA Cups usually have better fields than the Super Tour, these will also be good opportunities for Americans to improve their FIS points.

Both of these programs are new, and Farra said that in the future the U.S. will have to take a much more active approach if it wants to ensure a large quota.

While taking a large team to Vancouver might not help the USST win medals on the short term, Farra did say that bringing a larger number of second-tier athletes is still important, because the promise of skiing in the Olympics helps to fuel “the whole domestic structure.”

Osgood is an example of this, as he wrote in his e-mail to FasterSkier that he has continued competing for longer than he otherwise might have “because of a chance to race in the Olympics.”

“And I’m not the only skier who has done so,” he said.

The payoff for Farra’s efforts won’t be known until the end of January, when FIS releases the final quota numbers. Until then, athletes like Osgood and Rodgers will working as hard as they can to make the team. They’ll get their answer from USSA when the last few spots on the Olympic team are announced on January 29th-barely two weeks before the Games begin.

Topher Sabot contributed reporting.

Nathaniel Herz

Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.

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One comment

  • tetlowjm

    November 10, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Odd to think that some skiers chances of making the olympics rely on how fast Kris Freeman sprints, or Andy Newell races a 10K.

    Of course, overall, there is no limit to any individual making the olympics, and their destiny is in their own hands. But for the short term it seems that some skiers chances rely on how fast theiry countrymen ski.

    Best of luck to all, ski fast!

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