If the decision-making process at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) Spring Congress is exhausting, the annual International Ski Federation (FIS) meetings are even more challenging.
While American skiers often lament the relative lack of visibility of our beloved sport within the US, the FIS Calendar Conference that convened in early June demonstrated that popularity comes at a price. Namely, the larger the number of significant stakeholders—countries, athletes, coaches, administrators and TDs, of course, but also media and sponsors—the more difficult it becomes for committees to reach a compromise and the more complicated resulting decisions seem to those outside the process.
The conference was held in Portoroz, Slovenia this year from June 1 through June 4, and in those five days there were over fifty meetings of various committees, sub committees, and working groups.
The week ended with the World Cup Organizer’s Seminar, where subgroups presented their stances on issues they had worked on, preparing the FIS Council for their final approval a few days later in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana.
The US sent four administrative representatives to the conference: out-going USSA Nordic Director John Farra, USSA official Bob Gross, New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA) Adaptive Programs Coordinator Eileen Carey and New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) Vice President Jeff Byrne.
Representing her fellow cross-country skiers on the athletes subcommittee, along with Finland’s Sami Jauhojaervi, was Kikkan Randall.
Though they attended the same conference, Farra and Randall took part in separate meetings throughout the week, and had slightly different takes on their experiences.
While Randall came away feeling like the concerns of the athletes had been heard, Farra, who sat on a subcommittee created to address the team sprint at World Championships, felt that progress was limited.
“I’ve been a FIS representative long enough to know how slow progress is at the international level,” said Farra in a phone interview. “It often feels like nothing happens, but it’s important for us to be there anyway and have a voice at the table, because that table is full of people from the European perspective. Their athletes can easily race on the weekends and then go home during the week and sleep in their own beds. It’s not deliberate, but they’re not going to think of what the Canadians, Americans or Japanese go through on the World Cup.”
At least one rule change this year attempts to ensure that the top teams don’t cruise through the season with the bare minimum number of starts. The top five-ranked nations from the 2010-2011 season are now required to send athletes to all World Cups, except for one weekend of their choosing.
For the men, that affects Norway, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and Italy. For the women, it applies to Norway, Sweden, Italy, Finland and Poland. The rule is intended to ensure that all World Cups have a good starting field.
“It gives any nation a weekend to rest and not go to Canada, for example. But if you skip more than one weekend, you lose the ability to start the next weekend. It penalizes those top teams for not participating,” explained Farra. Though he adds that “they could still throw in their B athletes to protect themselves from the rule. But it’s a good effort to make the World Cup a legitimate, season-long event.”
Creating a calendar that’s fair to all national teams is only one challenge on the international level. FIS, like USSA, must try to set a racing calendar that meets the approval of skiers with disparate strengths—one that doesn’t favor endurance athletes over sprinters, or one technique over the other.
Farra sat on a working group meant to address the fact that the team sprint at World Championships and the Olympics wasn’t actually playing to sprinters’ strengths.
“Though skiers only go for 1 k at a time, it’s such a long event that it’s not really a sprint,” he said. “If you look at the results, it’s being won by the same athletes winning distance races.”
This is a problem for sprinters because, out of the six events at the Championships and Olympics, there are really five that cater to distance racers, and only one that suits sprinters, according to Farra. While the working group, which includes Norway’s Vegard Ulvang and Slovenia’s Uros Ponikvar, is not quite ready for a wholesale change to the team sprint at this point, “adaptations could happen in the future. It’s good to keep the discussion going.”
Randall said that her experience voicing athletes’ concerns at the conference was a positive one.
She is now three years into a four-year term as an athlete representative, and in her opinion, these were the most productive meetings she’s attended, thanks in large part to her work with Jauhojaervi over the past year to set up an effective network of communication between the athletes.
In order to make sure every team had a voice, she has helped put together a sort of athlete’s commission.
“We now have a representative from every country, so we can give and get feedback to every team. During the season we held two meetings with them to figure out the main topics we wanted addressed. We put together a survey for all of the athletes, and out of about 80 of them, we got just over a 50 percent response rate. We then went to the FIS conference with actual data, and I presented that a few times throughout the meetings. They all seemed pretty blown away by the fact that the athletes were so organized,” said Randall.
With solid numbers showing what was important to the athletes, Randall said that she and Jauhojaervi were able to steer the direction of the conversation. At the top of the list was the athletes’ desire to have a representative with them if they got called into the jury room.
“Right away, they said, ‘Okay, if that’s what you want, then it’s done.’ That was our number one concern, and it was passed unanimously,” said Randall.
Another main concern of the athletes entailed giving fair racing opportunities to sprinters on the World Cup.
In the past, whenever there was a sprint race on a given weekend, it was usually on the second day, making it tough for sprinters who want to do the distance race as well.
“We asked for at least a 50-50 split for the sprint to be first. If you look at the calendar that was released, I’d say we got that wish,” said Randall.
The third major issue that Randall brought to the meetings was prize money distribution, particularly on the tours. Right now, “it’s pretty top heavy,” she said, with most of the money going to the top two or three finishers.
The athletes wanted to see a redistribution of that in order to reward a top-10 or top-15 finish, Randall said. And since she had the data to back up the claim that this was what the athletes wanted, the committee paid attention.
“They asked us to come back to them with a proposal of what we want to see,” said Randall. “So that’s one of our tasks for the next year, to put that together and get it back to them, and I think we’ll be able to. Usually we go to FIS and they say ‘Oh, you want more prize money? No, we can’t give you more prize money.’ But now they’re asking us to tell them what we want.”
In addition to making Randall and Jauhojaervi’s representation more effective and credible, the network they’ve set up also improves feedback to the athletes now that the meetings are over: Randall said she was able to send out a summary of what went on at the conference.
“We’re really lucky, in the U.S., that we have such good communication between USSA, the coaches, and the athletes. But other teams sometimes never give this kind of information to their athletes directly. It’s important for them to be able to understand why decisions were made, and who the stakeholders are,” said Randall.
In addition to listening to the concerns of the athletes, the FIS must also consider who is generating viewership and prize money all winter: the sponsors and broadcasting companies.
When trying to make changes to the World Cup calendar, “TV companies that pay to cover the races aren’t flexible on certain days,” Farra explained. “The calendar will always have to revolve around weekends, TV time, holidays and other major events that are going on.”
This came into play in discussions surrounding the addition of a World Uphill Trophy in Poland.
While there won’t be World Cup points at stake at the uphill event this winter, the climb will happen on a Sunday, after the Polish World Cups on Friday and Saturday.
According to FIS Cross Country Director Jürg Capol, the federation is hopeful that the race, which is half climb and half descent, will inject fresh interest into a calendar that lacks an Olympics or major championship. Popularity equals TV time, and TV time equals more prize money.
Other changes made to the schedule in order to generate more excitement for spectators and TV viewers included the addition of an extra day to the Tour de Ski, and a trial run of a new interval start order.
In the Tour, with the addition of a 3 k for women and 5 k for men, the series now has nine events and two rest days.
The new interval start order will be run as a test, at the first World Cup event in Beitostoelen, Norway. The top 30 athletes according to current standings will start in reverse order in the last group, which is the format dictated by the previous rules. But now, those 30 athletes will be separated by at least one skier in between them.
By spreading out the top athletes, FIS is hoping that they will be more visible throughout the race, according to Farra. If it goes well, the system will be implemented over the rest of the season, excluding stage events.
Maintaining and growing a fanbase for skiing is always a concern, said Farra, even in Europe.
“We need skiing to continue to be able to provide prize money. This sport is not just about holding onto tradition. As a sport we are in a fight for TV time, credibility and sustainability,” he said.
For a full list of highlights from the FIS Conference, click here.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.