What Was He Thinking?! World Cup Athletes and Coaches on D-Dorf Team Sprint

Nathaniel HerzDecember 7, 201011

Stupid, nonsensical, and “completely in the wrong.”

Those were the descriptions by elite cross-country skiers and coaches of German sprinter Josef Wenzl’s actions in the Dusseldorf team sprint on Sunday.

Wenzl’s aggressive attempt at passing Norwegian John Kristian Dahl in the race’s final corner ended with both athletes sprawled in the snow, watching a clear podium finish pass them by in the form of Anders Gloersen (NOR), Emil Joensson (SWE), and David Hofer (ITA).

“Everyone knows that it makes no sense to pass on those final corners; it is simply too dangerous. I can’t understand what

Oystein Pettersen (R) gestures at German sprinter Josef Wenzl.

Wenzl was thinking,” wrote U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover in an e-mail. “I feel bad for [Dahl’s team]. They deserved to be on the podium and receiving their prize money.”

Wenzl did not show any contrition afterwards—indeed, video from the finish pen showed him jawing with Dahl’s teammate Oystein Pettersen, even exchanging a few grabs and light pushes. But later in the day, Wenzl did apologize, according to Vidar Lofshus, the sports director for the Norwegian ski team.

“Wenzl showed great sportsmanship by taking all the blame for the incident, and has excused his behavior to Dahl,” Lofshus wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier.

By Monday, tempers had cooled. Pettersen even told Norwegian media that he had lunch with Wenzl after the incident. But that didn’t change the result sheet—nor the fact that Dahl and Pettersen had missed out at a shot at the $12,000 check for the winning team.

The Norwegians saw the collision as a clear case of obstruction by Wenzl, Lofshus said. And indeed, International Ski Federation (FIS) rules state that it is the responsibility of a passing skier to avoid interference.

But according to the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, the race jury ruled that Dahl was equally at fault as Wenzl, because he took a step to the outside of the corner, towards the German. While the Norwegians disagreed, Lofshus said that “there will be no appeal or protest.”

Pierre Mignerey, a jury member and the assistant cross-country race director for FIS, declined to comment. The jury, though—which included two Germans out of five total members—was the only group willing to take any blame from Wenzl’s shoulders. In interviews and e-mails with four North American athletes and coaches, all took Wenzl’s actions to task.

“I don’t know what [Wenzl] was thinking. They had pulled away from the pack,” said U.S. sprinter Andy Newell in an interview

John Kristian Dahl (L) and Josef Wenzl collide in the final corner of Sunday's Dusseldorf team sprint.

Sunday. “They went two wide into that corner—you don’t ever want to do that at any time in a race, not to mention if you have the podium already wrapped up.”

Canadian sprinter Devon Kershaw also placed responsibility squarely on Wenzl, saying that Dahl had the best line heading into the final turn. But he also said that he recognized it can be tough for sprinters to think clearly at the end of a race. Instead, they’re “completely blasted, stressed out, and amped knowing they have a chance to win the whole thing.”

Kershaw is no stranger to full-contact racing himself—in a Tour de Ski city sprint in Prague in 2008, he made his own Wenzl-esque kamikaze attack against Swedish skier Marcus Hellner.

“I moved in on him, when there was absolutely no reason to—and we both went down,” Kershaw wrote in an e-mail on Monday. “I had qualified first, and was poised to perhaps slot into the top three in the overall tour had I moved through my quarterfinal. Instead, even though Hellner and I had a gap, I took him out fighting for the best line for no reason, and it was a disaster.”

As his own actions demonstrated, “stupid things happen in sprint racing,” Kershaw said.

“With so many dudes, so little space and really only one ‘direct line,’ it’s not really a surprise when things like this happen,” he added.

Especially on the tight and technical Dusseldorf course, where, according to U.S. sprinter Kikkan Randall, “it’s a tricky course to stay on your own feet anyway, let alone with a bunch of people around.”

Dahl and Wenzl in the snow as the podium finishers go by.

Add a home crowd and put thousands of dollars on the line, and you’ve got a potent mix for a 25-year-old German. Dusseldorf is Wenzl’s stomping grounds—it’s where he had his first and only victory, in 2007. But after he finished 46th in Saturday’s sprint and didn’t even make the heats, German Head Coach Jochen Behle ripped Wenzl publicly, telling the press that he “expected much more.”

So if there was any rational explanation for Wenzl’s actions on Sunday, it was that they were born out of desperation: over the last two seasons, he had only once finished on the podium in an individual sprint—and that was at a race in Whistler with a weak field.

And the crash notwithstanding, Wenzl still seemed to impress Behle with his performance in the team sprint, which left the Germans just one clean corner away from the podium. After the race, Behle told Die Welt newspaper that his men had skied well, “even if the results are not exactly what I wanted to see.”

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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  • highstream

    December 7, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Dahl’s outside ski did move into Wenzel as part of the natural action of skiing around any sharp corner. No doubt having seen the replay, Wenzel recognized what the jury refused to.

    While Wenzel’s action may have desperate in part, it’s hard to describe what occurred in the women’s team race that way: the first Slovenian skier repeatedly running over others’ skis from the first go-around; Pirjo Muranen of Finland, who ought to know better, doing a 180 in the exchange zone, taking out both Swedish skiers (why no DQ?); and Muranen’s partner, Kirsi Peraelae, running over the skis of the French woman on “Mt.Dusseldorf,” ending the chances of the French, who had been running second for quite awhile. Perhaps the absence of many of the big guns let some of the kids feel license to play.

  • hbxcskier

    December 7, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    Great article. Hats off to Polsa for eating lunch with the German after the race, what a great show of sportsmanship.
    I thought Hattestad was on Gloersen’s team (Norway II) not Dahl’s (Norway I).

  • Nathaniel Herz

    December 7, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Yup–my mistake.

  • cyhumbert

    December 7, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Honestly, I’m not seeing it the same way others seem to be. Wenzl had Dahl clearly beat to that corner, by at least a half a ski-length. He was in front, and so really had the choice of the line. He was generous in giving Dahl (a tiny bit of) room on the inside, and Dahl chose to squeeze in that tiny bit of space. If anyone should have backed off and avoided the two abreast situation in the corner, it should have been Dahl, in my opinion.

  • mikey

    December 8, 2010 at 6:49 am

    One of those racing things. Google-tube Senna vs. Prost and you will see the same no quarter attitude. That’s why they call it racing. Easy for us to analyze the situation from the comfort of our computers complete with slow motion and endless replays. Put yourself in their position where you have to make a decision in split seconds through the ‘red mist’. Wenzl and Dahl are competitors and it is not in their makeup to yield the position because they simply want to win. Had either one stepped aside and said ‘No, you first. I insist.’ there would be critics who say they were not racing and did not deserve to win.

  • Lars

    December 8, 2010 at 10:01 am

    Nobody says he neede to stepaside only give Dahl enoff rom to avoid a collision. IT was a stupid move by Wenzl and it cost both him and Dahl podium spots. But it was also a relatively unimportant race so lets just hope that hes learned and that we won`T see something like this in Oslo.

  • Martin Hall

    December 8, 2010 at 10:10 am

    As you see Wenzl falling he is clearly in front of Dahl, his stupidity was in trying to close the door on Dahl—he should have stayed outside and Dahl had only to dbl pole thru the gap he had.
    It didn’t work out that way as Dahl took a skate step and the race was over for the both of them. In a way the no protest or disqualification was best as they both penalized each other—Dahl was behind and gets very little consideration from me and Wenzl gets no sympathy from me for trying to force the door shut. Two dumb moves make for a fall.

  • highstream

    December 8, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    Guess I don’t understand how an outside skier quickly moving from skiing out wide side by side to in close one half a ski ahead at a corner gives the inside skier enough room to ski, or time to change technique, such as to a double pole. If the desire to pass and a slight ski edge is enough, then what’s the point of racing? Might as well just slug it with skis and poles out at the start line.

  • JoranElias

    December 8, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    Full disclosure: I’m closer to Team Wenzl here than Team Dahl, although I think they both took some mighty big gambles and both deserve some responsibility for what happened.

    Mostly what I think this discussion highlights is that the rules governing this type of situation need to be clarified and updated.

    To the best of my knowledge the rules say only the following: “In all competitions obstruction is defined as deliberately impeding, blocking (by not following best line), charging or pushing any competitor with any part of the body or ski equipment. When overtaking occurs, competitors must not cause any obstruction. In general it is the responsibility of the overtaking skier to avoid any obstruction.”

    The issue here is that this standard is both vague and inconsistently applied. Not everyone is going to agree on what the “best line” is for instance. We’re also forced to judge intentionality: did Wenzl _intend_ to cut Dahl off and skied an imperfect line in order to do that? How would we know?

    Additionally, I feel like the sort of shady behavior that’s attracting attention in sprints often doesn’t get a second glance in mass starts. I think we’ve all skied in big packs before. Is it even possible to maneuver in situations like that without causing “any obstruction”? Any?

    If you look earlier in that race, you’ll see Jonsson blatantly cutting off the other Norwegian on an earlier, less sharp corner. He’s barely a boot length ahead and just boxes him right into the barrier. The guy has to literally stand up and break. I think if you follow the letter of the rule, you’d have to DQ Jonsson as well.

    If we want to hold sprint races on narrow, twisty courses, and we want them to be visually exciting (as in cycling sprint finishes) I think it would make sense to amend the rules to specify more precisely what is/is not allowed in these types of races.

    Despite being amended in 2008, I think, it feels like this rule was conceived in a pre-mass start, pre-sprint era, where the only issues of “obstruction” arose when skiers passed each other in time trial style competitions. We can’t very well expect that kind of rule to make much sense for the type of sprint racing FIS is trying to foster here.

  • doughboy

    December 8, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Track and Field solved this long ago. Explicit lane markings to be followed when in traffic, and explicit clearances that must be satisfied before changing lanes. Would this make it too boring?

  • sluggingsammy

    December 9, 2010 at 1:45 am

    “In general it is the responsibility of the overtaking skier to avoid any obstruction.”

    I don’t know where the lack or need of clarification comes from. Wenzl was overtaking Dahl, but did not avoid Dahl’s necessary path to navigate the course.

    Double poling around that corner?! Come on Marty, surely it hasn’t been that long since you’ve gone fast enough to know that only skating around a turn like that keeps you on course.

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