If you’re a woman, do yourself a favor and hop on the next flight to Russia, stat.
On Friday morning, near the city of Rybinsk, the International Ski Federation (FIS) has scheduled the first of three World Cup races for this weekend. Just 30 female athletes are on the start list—beat one of them, and you’ll be in possession of a World Cup point.
Field sizes in Rybinsk appear to be slightly larger than they were last year, when 25 women and 29 men hit the start line for the pursuit races. But not by a whole lot.
None of the North American teams are sending athletes, while Sweden has scheduled its national championships during the same week.
That’s despite efforts by FIS to make the events in Rybinsk more attractive to athletes traveling from Europe or elsewhere to participate, according to the organization’s cross-country race director, Jurg Capol.
Still, he added, despite the small number of entries, it’s unlikely that FIS will make any major changes to the races in the country.
“Russia has many good cross-country skiers…they come to all World Cups,” he said. “They have, in this sense, a kind of a right to promote skiing, as well, in their home territory.”
Last year, FIS added an extra day of racing to the Rybinsk program, as an extra incentive for teams to make the journey to Russia.
And this season, there was also a charter plane that flew from Munich to Yaroslavl, some 50 miles from Rybinsk. Given that the travel time is only five or six hours, with just a one-hour time difference from Europe, Capol said that the trip shouldn’t be particularly arduous—especially since athletes stay at the race site.
But in 2010, many teams and athletes skipped out to focus on their preparations for the Olympics, on the far side of North America. And this season, it appears that a similar number are opting out in order to get ready for the 2011 World Championships, in Oslo.
One option to make Rybinsk more attractive to athletes would be to move it to a different part of the season—perhaps earlier. But according to Capol, late January to early February is when the snow conditions are best—to run races in Russia any sooner, FIS would likely have to look further east, like in Siberia.
As it is, according to Tiit Pekk, the chair of FIS’s cross-country committee, the organizers in Rybinsk do a good job.
After a few years in which the circuit didn’t visit Russia, he said, the committee from Rybinsk sent a crew around to World Cups around the globe.
“They pretty much went to every single World Cup site,” Pekk said. “They really wanted to learn.”
Also, Capol added, the Rybinsk organizers have invested a lot of money on the stadium and on the race courses—and when FIS told them that they needed a new hotel, they built one, with 90 beds, close to the venue.
“They have done a good job,” he said. “The sport is [at] home in Russia.”
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.