News about Japan hasn’t been hard to come by for the past two weeks.
Viewers around the world have been able to watch live on television as the damage unfolded from a massive earthquake and tsunami that hit the country; an ensuing nuclear catastrophe has played out on the front pages of the world’s newspapers.
We’d heard little, though, about any impacts of the natural disaster on skiing in the country. Masako Ishida was the only Japanese athlete who was qualified to compete in last weekend’s World Cup Finals; her team withdrew, with little fanfare, to travel home.
We got in touch, via e-mail and Skype, with Dion Lenting, a New Zealand native who now lives in Japan, to find out more. His son, Akira, is a world-class skier, having taken two fifth places at the World Junior Championships in Germany last year.
As Lenting put it, “tsunamis, mountains, and snow don’t mix”—so the direct impact of the disaster on Japanese skiing and ski areas was relatively minimal. Further, most of the nation’s cross-country skiing hotbeds—in Nagano, Niigata, and Akita—are inland, on the west side of the island, while the major damage from the earthquake and tsunami was confined to the east coast.
Hokkaido, another big ski center that hosted the 2007 World Championships in Sapporo, is a separate island to the north of the rest of Japan. The tsunami did hit it, but it was smaller and the damage attenuated; residents there had three hours of warning before the wave came, versus the nine minutes afforded to those on the east coast of the main island.
The racing circuit in Japan, though, is essentially shut down, according to Lenting.
“It’s canned,” he said. “Basically, all cross-country races, at every level throughout the country, were cancelled—from elementary school kids to the second-leg races of the National Championship.”
The Japanese championships were scheduled to run in two halves—one in late February, and the other in mid-March. Lenting said that most of the country’s national team had returned home from Europe to compete in the second portion, rather than staying to contesting the penultimate weekend of the World Cup season in Finland.
At the time of the earthquake, Lenting said, his son Akira was out on the ski trails in Sapporo, having traveled through a Hokkaido port that was later swamped by the tsunami.
All the ferries back to the main island were requisitioned by the country’s armed forces, leaving Akira stuck in Hokkaido for a few days, but he eventually made it home. His season is over, while his first month of school, at the University of Waseda outside of Tokyo, has been cancelled. (The Japanese school year normally begins in April.)
Many ski areas in Japan, Dion Lenting said, have closed for the season early, or will shortly, thanks to a combination of rolling blackouts, a lack of customers, and even increased avalanche risk from earthquakes and aftershocks.
As for lingering effects, Lenting predicted that cross-country skiing would have a tougher time attracting funding into the future.
“I believe there will be even less money around to support skiing in general and cross-country in particular, as any corporate social responsibility monies are funneled into quake relief over the near- and medium-term,” he said.
Skiers Helping Japan
American athlete Kikkan Randall has been leading a group of World Cup cross-country skiers in a show of solidarity with Japan.
Following the earthquake and tsunami, Randall said that a few athletes had been discussing ways to send help to the country; after doing some research, she discovered a band of her alpine counterparts, including American Julia Mancuso, had founded a group called Skiers Helping Japan.
Mancuso and others had posed for photos with handwritten messages in support of the country; she also donated half of her prize money from her efforts at the final alpine World Cup weekend, according to the Associated Press.
The cross-country skiers followed suit, with stars like Marit Bjoergen and Petra Majdic writing their own messages. And while she wasn’t certain, Randall said that she believed some athletes had also pledged prize money.
“It was done directly through the website, so I don’t know who for sure,” she wrote in an e-mail on Monday.
For more information on the effort, visit SkiersHelpingJapan.com.
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.