Ski fans who get nostalgic thinking back to the days of the two-day pursuit can take heart—you’re not the only ones.
When cross-country skiers Kikkan Randall and Sami Jauhojaervi travel to the International Ski Federation’s (FIS’s) spring meetings, they could be advocating a revival of the format, based on feedback from their colleagues on the World Cup circuit.
As the two athlete representatives to FIS from the discipline of cross-country, Randall and Jauhojaervi, who’s Finnish, will speak for their teammates and competitors alike when the meetings get underway in Portoroz, Slovenia, in early June.
After compiling a laundry list of requests and complaints from athletes in a preliminary brainstorming session at the World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden, in late March, the two have been working since then to narrow down and refine them, so that they can present a clear and persuasive picture when the FIS meetings roll around. In an interview in Sun Valley during the SuperTour Finals, Randall said that she was in the process of designing a survey that will be sent to the World Cup athletes to gauge opinion, since many of them were hesitant to weigh in verbally, in Falun.
“Hopefully, if there’s any major themes or pressing issues, then we have a month to plan, so that when we get to the meetings in Slovenia, we can be prepared to…fight for something,” Randall said. “Last year, we kind of showed up…we could say, ‘we talked to some athletes, and this is what we’re hearing.’ But now, this gives us a chance to say, ‘no, the majority of athletes really feel this way, and we need to change it.’”
Just what kinds of things do the athletes want? Randall described a half-dozen preliminary ideas that came out of the gathering in Falun: –First, there was the suggestion, from “several athletes” from different countries, to run the traditional two-day pursuit, instead of the continuous, mass-start race that’s on the current schedule. “There’s some people that are in favor of that…If you’re in a case where you’re in a major championship, and there’s the individual skate race, and then [the] duathlon, it’s supposed to be equal, but it favors the skaters,” Randall said. “It’s also a huge logistical challenge for the teams, because they’ve got to have two pairs of skis ready on a day, and tons of resources go into it.”
–The burgeoning World Cup calendar was another topic in Falun, Randall said, with some athletes complaining that there are too many races on the schedule. “There’s some concern that if you truly want to be in contention for the overall, then you have to be in most of the races. And if, after several seasons of chasing these races, we’re going to start burning out skiers—we’d lower the age of our skiers,” she said. One potential solution, Randall said, would be to structure the season more like biathlon’s, with more races each weekend, and longer breaks in between.
–In that vein, Randall said that the athletes discussed the persistently poor attendance at the Rybinsk World Cup, in Russia, and potentially instituting rules requiring a minimum number of starters or nations in attendance at an event, before points can be awarded.
–The season-opening mini-tour in Kuusamo has also been a hot topic, Randall said—in fact, she sent out a survey afterwards that drew 40 responses. She said some athletes felt that the event is skewed towards distance skiers, with just one sprint out of three races, and a strict quota limiting the number of sprinters who can contest the whole event. “All your sprinters can’t necessarily do the sprint,” Randall said, “and it’s only half points, and the prize money only goes to the top three.” (In normal World Cup sprint races, prize money is awarded to the top 10.)
“We just need to discuss ways to make the sprint a little more important,” she added. “Whether you make it a stand-alone event, and for those that want to continue on, it factors in, or you award full points, or you make the prize money deeper, or something.”
–Prize money was another theme. In both mini-tours—in Kuusamo, and in Falun—as well as in the Tour de Ski, cash is awarded to the top 10 in the overall, but only to the top three in each stage. “A few people make out like bandits, and then, [for] a ton of people that just did—in the case of the Tour de Ski—eight hard races, or maybe pretty close…it’s pennies or nothing,” Randall said. “So that’s going to be a good discussion.”
–Finally, there was the new double-pole start used for skate sprint races, which many athletes, Randall said, felt was “stupid,” and even “dangerous,” in the case of some of the men. “Their idea was just to keep the look of it consistent,” Randall said. But “all of the guys…apply so much power to their poles that when they’re amped, and ready to really bust out of the gate, some people, like [6’7”] Jesper Modin, might break their poles.”
After their most recent survey comes back, Randall said that she and Jauhojaervi would correspond with FIS officials about the topics that they’d like to see on the agenda when the federation’s cross-country committee meets in Slovenia. While the athlete representatives don’t have the power to write proposals, or bring them to the table, Randall said that the committee has been open to her in the past.
“I’m optimistic that everybody listens,” she said. Readying for their trip to Slovenia has been one of the tasks for Randall and Jauhojaervi—but it hasn’t been their only one. Since the beginning of the season, the two have also been working to create a committee of athletes within the sport of cross-country, to better facilitate the transfer of information between the skiers, their representatives, and FIS.
That initiative was set back somewhat as the season got rolling, Randall said, and “we didn’t get quite as much work done as we would have liked.” But, she added, “we have identified representatives for about two-thirds of the major countries—so that’s a start.”
There are other ways for Randall to canvass her colleagues, too. An e-mail list of World Cup athletes is edging up on 100 members, she said, and there’s a Facebook group for them, as well. At this point, the biggest problem may not be getting the word out, but rather, getting people to voice their opinions.
“It’s surprising how a lot of people have complaints, but they don’t necessarily speak up,” Randall said. “Most people are pretty quiet.”
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.