There may not have been medals, but a flower ceremony, the chance to stand on the podium, and most importantly a spot in the 10/15km classic race next week awaited the top finishers in today’s World Championship qualifying race.
The qualifying event debuted in 2009 at the Liberec World Championships and according to FIS Cross-Country Race Director Jurg Capol, was added to rectify two issues from the 2007 Sapporo Championships.
Capol cited both athlete safety and television scheduling as reason to limit the field size in the only individual start races held at Championship events – the 10 and 15 kilometer races – this year in the classic technique.
Any male athlete with more than 90 FIS distance points, and any female with more than 120 of the same must finish within the top-10 in the qualifying race to earn a start spot in the Championship event.
The Sapporo courses featured challenging, twisty downhills, and with the recent trend toward short loops, the top skiers were regularly coming up behind the slower ones. Capol described the scenario of a Marcus Hellner, for example, looking for the fastest line through a series of steep corners, only to find a snowplowing Phillip Boit, or the like, in his path.
“That’s a risk for both, actually,” said Capol. “Because the first one—he is not afraid, but he drives the brakes.”
The other factor, according to Capol, is the length of time it takes to run the entire event. Each additional skiers adds 30 seconds.
“From the TV perspective, it takes too long a time until you have…the decision,” Capol said, referring to final results.
So the qualifying race was born. The top-10 cutoff is based on an analysis of the rest of the field, and the timing in regards to television.
And while there were no big names and no hardware, Norwegian ski fans showed up in force. No official attendance numbers were available, but the stands, while not packed, were far from empty, and a steady stream of people were making their way up from the train stop over an hour before the women started at 12:30.
The mood was festive, stadium announcer Kjell Erik Kristiansen held nothing back in his usual exuberant and wry style, and as is their wont, the spectators cheered for every racer.
Dartmouth graduate and New Zealand Native Ben Koons skied to a 16.9 second victory over Callum Smith (GBR) in the men’s 10km classic race. Koons, starting at number 36 in the 47-man field, was ushered to the leader’s “throne” where he sat, skis in lap shaking the hand of each successive finisher, and waiting to see if his time would hold up.
When the last racer crossed the line, Koons was announced as “the first winner of the 2011 World Championships,” and along with Smith and third place finisher Sergey Mikayelyan (ARM), prepared for the flower ceremony.
“Standing on the podium at World Championships,” Koons said later with a laugh, “I’ll take it.”
With temperatures hovering around 20F, a bit of fresh snow, and firm tracks, Koons described the conditions as “about as good classic skiing as it gets.”
The 2010 Olympian is now on track for a total of four World Championship starts. He will contest the sprint, the 30km pursuit, the 15km classic, the team sprint paired with brother Nils, and of course, the 50k.
“Today my goal was to get top-10 and make it to the start line [of the 15k],” Koons said. “The goal for the 50k is to finish.”
Koons was feeling good after his victory, and finally getting word from family and friends in Christ Church, New Zealand, the site of a recent earthquake.
“It has been a rough couple of days trying to track down friends and family in Christ Church, and I have just recently found out that everyone is ok,” he said. “That plus this [the win] is great.”
Just 16 women started the 5km with Dane Niviaq Chemnitz Berthelsen cruising to a 42-second victory over Nina Broznic (CRO). Ingrida Ardisauskaite (LTU) finished third.
In 2009, US skier Morgan Smyth won the women’s 5km event, but this year no Americans or Canadians needed the race to qualify. Australians Mark Van Der Ploeg and Ewan Watson both cracked the top-10, but teammate Nick Grimmer just missed out, placing 11th, a mere three seconds out of tenth.
Beejan Kangarloo, who recently competed in the Asian Winter Games for Iran, placed 28th. Kangarloo is also a Canadian citizen, and makes his home in Alberta.
The skiers who did not make the cut will still get to race at World Championships – just not in the 10/15km race. The sprint, 30km pursuit, and 50k event are all open to single racers, while both the team sprint and distance relays are an option if an athlete has the requisite teammate(s).
Philip Boit, the Kenyan runner-turned-skier placed 42nd as he gears up for his last major Championship event. Boit became famous when Bjorn Daehlie returned to the finish coral to greet him in the 1998 Olympics. He will retire following the Oslo World Championships.
Nat Herz contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.