So much for Justyna Kowalczyk’s home-field advantage.
For the first time in her career, the International Ski Federation (FIS) has scheduled World Cup races in Kowalczyk’s native Poland, in February of 2012. But if officials at FIS have their way, Kowalczyk, a notoriously poor descender, will have to successfully navigate five kilometers of technical downhill before she can step onto the podium there.
According to FIS Cross-Country Race Director Jürg Capol, a federation committee discussed a new type of event last weekend at its fall meetings in Switzerland: five kilometers of uphill, followed by five kilometers of technical descending—perhaps even including slalom-style gates. A test race is in the works for this coming spring, after which FIS will decide whether or not to introduce the format at the Polish World Cup in 2012.
In an interview, Capol said that the idea for the race grew out of the federation’s desire to inject some excitement into the sport during the lull that typically follows the Tour de Ski—especially in 2012, a year without an Olympic Games or World Championships.
“We would like to have a kind of story here, [in] the second part of the season,” Capol said, adding that he was looking for something that would be “appetizing for fans.”
The Polish venue, in the resort town of Szklarska Poręba, had an alpine slope that was suitable for the new format, and Capol made a visit to examine the site in September.
The course, he said, is distinct from the climb that ends the Tour de Ski, on Italy’s Alpe Cermis: It’s not as steep, and of course, it includes the descent.
“It would be kind of a Super-G—some gates…to reduce the speed a little bit,” Capol said, referring to the alpine skiing discipline of the super-giant slalom. “It should be a part of the game, the downhill.”
While it’s fast for cross-country skiing, Capol maintained that the descent was tame by alpine standards. And according to U.S. Ski and Snowboard
Association (USSA) Nordic Director John Farra, who attended the meetings in Switzerland, the total amount of climbing in the course—504 meters—isn’t much more than is included in a typical 10-kilometer race. FIS-sanctioned competitions of that distance normally include between 250 and 420 meters of uphill.
“It’s a subtle shift, and I think there’s a true desire…for being open to different formats, being open to different concepts,” Farra said.
Indeed, Capol and FIS Cross-Country Committee Chair Vegard Ulvang have been credited with the success of several new fan-friendly formats and rules introduced on the World Cup circuit over the past few years. But earlier this year, a number of athletes criticized the federation for abdicating tradition and taking those innovations too far—especially when the individual-start 50-kilometer race, an event with a rich history, was left off the calendar for the 2010-2011 season.
Capol acknowledged those concerns, and he noted that the individual-start 50-kilometer would return next year.
“All stakeholders are important, and of course, athletes are the main stakeholders, because they are doing the show—they are the gladiators,” he said. “Of course, we try to integrate those inputs.”
However, Capol said that he had not yet consulted athletes about the proposed new format; he maintained that soliciting too much feedback in the planning stages could stymie the sport’s growth. “We’re still in the stages of the idea,” he said.
Before that idea can come to fruition, Szklarska Poręba will have to hold the test race, which Capol said he would like to schedule for the end of the season, in late March or early April. Ideally, he said, a few World Cup athletes would be able to take part.
A positive test would likely pave the way for the World Cup in 2012, though that decision would not be made until next spring’s FIS meetings. If there are problems, Capol said, the Polish races would simply revert to standard formats, held on courses nearby.
Meanwhile, Kowalczyk will have to work on her technique. She lost her lead in the Olympic sprint final to Norway’s Marit Bjoergen on the last downhill corner, and at a race later that year, she admitted that her descending could use some work.
“For me, better up than down,” she said.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.