U.S., Canada Face Homologation Crunch as FIS Deadline Looms (updated)

Chelsea LittleJuly 1, 20117

Holding elite level events, whether World Cup races, National Championships or just FIS points competitions, pose numerous challenges for organizers and National Governing Bodies in the US and Canada. Over the course of the summer FasterSkier will examine the various issues at hand. Today we start with a piece on homologation, with future topics to include snowmaking and prize money, among others.

Until this year, the U.S. and Canada have had reprieve from the International Ski Federation (FIS) rule requiring that scored races be held on homologated courses. For the 2011-12 season, that will change.

“Basically, the races that are coming up, beginning this calendar year, have to have a certified course in order to be scored,” said Al Serrano, a homologation inspector the Eastern region of the United States.

With just eight homologated ski areas in the U.S. and four in Canada as of May 2011, both countries are facing challenges with getting a variety of race series, including SuperTours and NorAms, scored with FIS points.

“I don’t anticipate one hundred percent compliance for the upcoming season,” said Dave Dyer, Director of Events Management for Cross Country Canada.

What is Homologation?

Homologation is a certification process run by FIS. Just as FIS points are theoretically a universal ranking system for skiers around the world who have never competed against one another, homologation attempts to ensure that racers are competing on courses with similar terrain and technical features no matter where they travel. Homologation also addresses safety issues – although not always successfully, as Petra Majdic showed at the Vancouver Olympics.

“The goal with this FIS homologation work is to create a good group of sites that have courses where FIS points can be awarded in a fair way (and where US/CAN athletes can be tested on courses alike what is used on the WC circuit,” FIS regional coordinator John Aalberg wrote in an e-mail. “I often compare this to golf – you can not play PGA tournaments (‘Continental Cup/Championships’) on a 3-par course, and a person’s golf handicap (‘FIS points’) can not be awarded solely from playing on easy 3-par courses.”

Although FIS requires that all races scored for FIS points take place on homologated courses, the standards are different for World Cup competitions and Continental Cup races, making it more manageable for smaller ski areas to tackle the process.

There are also different requirements for different race formats: courses used for mass start races must be wider than those for interval start races, and classic sprint courses are required to have particularly steep uphills to discourage racers from using skate skis and double poling the entire race.

While the main concerns are generally terrain features – there are a required number of climbs within a range of height differentials and grades for every possible course length – the total climbing over a course is also important, as is stadium setup and other infrastructure.

In some cases, homologation of existing courses is easy. In others, significant trailwork is required and hiring a trail designer is a big help. For a better understanding of the homologation process, read FasterSkier’s into to the concept, published last summer, and the step-by-step guide from last fall.

Why is Homologation So Tough for North America?

When the FIS rules about homologation went into effect, the U.S. and Canada were given extra time to satisfy the certification requirement because there were very few venues which had been through the process.

Why were the countries lagging behind Europe in the first place? Both Dyer and Serrano pointed to one thing: a lack of homologation inspectors.

“There’s been a lot lost in translation both with homologation inspectors and technical delegates in terms of getting them fully certified up to the FIS level,” Serrano said.

“FIS has all of these systems and protocols now… that say okay, this is how we’re going to certify people. The problem with the process was that it’s a mentorship sort of thing. We had one homologation inspector in the United States, John Aalberg. He’s been doing the Olympic Games since the year 2000 and homologation inspections on the side, and not able to mentor anybody, not able to sign off on anybody as a new certifier.

“So we have a system where you’re certified by a peer, but we don’t have any grandfathered certified people.”

While the number of inspectors has increased over the last few years, numbers are still an issue. To make matters worse, Aalberg recently took at job at Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway, and is no longer even living on the continent.

“I live in Norway right now, but am still coordinating some of the homologation work on behalf of FIS,” Aalberg wrote in an e-mail. “Both Canada and US have their own homologation ‘leads’ and groups, and I am mostly involved with questions they have or in case of World Cup courses (Sovereign, Canmore, Callaghan the last few years).”

While the number of inspectors was the root of the homologation crush, other issues remain – like money.

“If you’re talking about just taking an existing course and not spending any money to do earthwork or upgrades or anything like that… and you just want to use the course that you’ve always been using, then it seems kind of expensive,” Serrano explained.

“The floor level cost, the minimum for just one course, is there’s a $200 fee from USSA, and then 100 Swiss Franks so basically $100 from FIS, and then whatever inspector costs, and that’s going to be a minimum of a day, so that’s probably $300 to $500. So even at the bottom level, that’s probably about $800.”

There is also a per-course fee for the certification process. And that’s not all.

“Besides the trail, you have to have infrastructure, like the stadium, grooming staff, and buildings,” said Matt Pauli, a member of USSA’s Rules and Technical Subcommittee.

If trailbuilding and excavation is required, along with the help of a trail design contractor, things get exponentially more expensive. From Serrano’s experience, the costs associated with making a new race course make sense to his client organizations, but the hundreds of dollars in expenses required simply to continue racing on a traditional course are more difficult to justify.

“For instance, Rumford’s whole deal was four courses… so it scales up nicely as you add more courses,” Serrano said. “But in the grand scheme of things that was $30,000 worth of stadium work and $15,000 worth of trailwork. So [homologation] is actually a pretty small expense when you’re talking about building trails and upgrading trails.”

US: On The Right (Certified) Track

This spring at the USSA Congress, a homologation subcommittee was formed and regional coordinators were assigned. USSA hopes to be able to encourage and supervise more homologation projects around the country and allow for the best FIS schedule possible.

“If a project comes to USSA, we see it, and we decide how to best assign an inspector to that particular project,” Serrano said. He is the regional coordinator for the East as well as being a homologation inspector and working on a consulting basis in other regions.

On top of the eight venues which already have certificated, Serrano said that about four ski areas in his region were far enough along in the process to invite an inspector for the initial site visit.

But even though he has been contacted and the ski areas have identified what they need to do in order to have a certificate in hand, Serrano said homologation wasn’t a sure thing for the upcoming season.

“I know at least one place that just doesn’t have any money,” he explained.

However, according to Pauli it is likely that a few more certificates will be in the hands of U.S. ski areas by the time winter rolls around. Pauli is also a homologation inspector himself and coordinates homologation efforts in Alaska and the Midwest, as well as acting as Chief of Race at numerous competitions including U.S. Nationals.

He listed Birch Hill in Fairbanks, Bohart Ranch in Bozeman, and Battle Creek and Theodore Wirth Park in the Twin Cities as areas which should have certificates soon, with Kincaid Park in Anchorage and the Michigan Tech trails in Houghton rehomologating and adding new courses.

Even with those additions, the SuperTour schedule will be affected.

“I think there’s been some certain changes to the race schedule,” Pauli said. “For instance, in West Yellowstone, it’s really hard to get any additional terrain.”

He noted that altitude was also an issue, with FIS setting a maximum elevation for any part of a race course at 1800 meters or just under 6000 feet. This rules out competition for FIS points at venues like Aspen, which hosts the popular Owl Creek Chase.

“Owl Creek won’t be on the SuperTour [in the future] due to the lack of an ability to homologate,” Pauli said.

The SuperTour might be the highest-profile race series in the U.S., but other calendars will be affected as well.

“The one thing that is going to be really difficult is college racing, West and East,” Serrano said. “The Western colleges, they are going to be limited with elevation… if Colorado wants to race at Eldora it’s never going to happen. In the East it’s tough because they just have to go through the process.”

While the Western schools struggle with the altitude limit, Eastern schools will face their own challenges if they want to hang on to FIS points. For instance, Dartmouth College’s Oak Hill, one of the classic carnival venues, has a terrain profile which will never pass the homologation test.

Last year, including NCAA Championships, twelve weekends of college racing were scored for FIS points. Of those weekends, only eight took place at homologated venues, with some venues hosting races more than once.

But although some SuperTour and college races will no longer be FIS competitions, the situation isn’t dire.

“So far as I know, there hasn’t been any panic from USSA,” Serrano said.

Pauli agreed that the U.S. was making good progress.

“What we’re trying to do is get the best we can out of a trail system and meet those standards,” Pauli told FasterSkier. “We’re not trying to get any World Cup courses, just the Continental Cup courses, so it’s not as difficult.”

Canada: No Money, More Problems

In Canada, the story is somewhat different. With only four venues currently holding homologation certificates – and three of those being in Western Canada – the country is not on track to meet the FIS deadline.

The majority of homologated courses in Canada are certified for World Cup competition. Sovereign Lakes, Canmore, and Whistler all have the highest level of certification, and a proposed city sprint in Quebec does not require homologation (FIS allows leeway for “popular events” such as major marathons as well as for city sprints).

As a result, the country will be able to host World Cup races in two different provinces in 2012, but because little progress has been made recently with homologation at smaller venues, the domestic calendar is in jeopardy.

Dyer noted that many NorAm races are hosted by nonprofit clubs which lack the capital necessary to homologate their venues.

“Our structure is very much club-based… so not a lot of money is available,” he told FasterSkier.

Nonetheless, Aalberg provided FasterSkier with a list of Canadian sites currently working on homologation, and there are quite a few. Five venues have started work: Mount Orford, Nakkertok, and Mont Sainte Anne in Quebec, and Sovereign Lakes and Rossland in British Columbia. In addition, Thunder Bay in Ontario and Whitehorse in the Yukon are listed as on track to receive certificates this fall, although they did not appear to have begun the process.

While he admitted that the homologation requirement was a struggle for Canada, Dyer was quick to support the concept.

“FIS is trying to ensure that races are safe,” Dyer said. “We would never substitute safety. They also want to ensure that they are quality courses. The philosophy is great, but the application of the philosophy is different in a nontraditional ski community. I hope that FIS is understanding and keeps letting us race for points.”

Chelsea Little

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  • joeconn4

    July 1, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Breaking news…The FIS falls further from being relevant for the vast majority of North American racers.

  • Chelsea Little

    July 1, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    A reader e-mailed us to ask which eight venues were homologated in the U.S. Here’s a list of the courses in North America, as of May 2011:

    Houghton, Michigan
    Rumford, Maine
    Jackson, New Hampshire
    Kinkaid Park, Anchorage, Alaska
    Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont
    West Yellowstone, Montana
    Sun Valley, Idaho
    Soldier Hollow, Heber, Utah

    somewhere in New Brunswick (unspecified)
    Sovereign Lake, British Columbia
    Canmore, Alberta
    Whistler, British Columbia

    FIS regularly publishes a list of homologated venues by nation, which can be found, along with the homologation manual, at http://www.fis-ski.com/uk/disciplines/cross-country-rules/cross-country-rules/homologations.html

  • Mike Trecker

    July 1, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Even though altitude and terrain have made it difficult for us, The Aspen Nordic Festival and the Owl Creek Chase will continue to work on what we have built, working with the colleges and juniors whenever possible, providing top level prize money for the elites and continuing a strong tradition as one of the toughest, proving ground races in the world. Thanks to all that have come to Aspen since we have started with SuperTour and we look forward to hosting you once again as soon as possible.

  • nexer

    July 1, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    How is West Yellowstone homologated since it’s above the legal elevation for a FIS race?

  • cork1

    July 2, 2011 at 11:16 am

    @nexer — I had the same question, but:
    “313.1.5 At OWG, WSC, JWSC and WC competitions, the highest point of a CrossCountry course should not exceed 1800 m.”

    Saying that altitude “rules out competition for FIS points at venues like Aspen, which hosts the popular Owl Creek Chase,” might be an overstatement. I would assume the West Yellowstone wouldn’t have gone through the hassle of homologation if they couldn’t have any FIS races there.

    West’s “sprint” (1.6/1.7km) courses are eligible for FIS points, as they’re homologated, but not their distance courses/races.

  • Tim Kelley

    July 6, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    If you take in the big picture view of this modern day homologation craze you have to ask some basic questions. For starters: Why?

    Think about it: Why is it impossible to have a big ski race today without inspections and permits when it was possible to do this for the last century or more? Why is it necessary for the North American ski community to bow to regulatory whims of a few FIS players that live in Europe? Why do race organizers go along with this unnecessary barrage of new bureaucracy? Have skiers lost their resolve to: “Just Say No”?

    Ya gotta wonder, do cross country skiers follow the news these days? Due to unrestrained bureaucratic growth in complexity and cost – countries are falling apart. Ever hear of Greece? Even the US could be flirting with debt default in years to come. So is it smart for the sport of cross country skiing to become a metaphor of Greece, or the US federal government?

    In the best interest of the sport, it seems that leaders in North America should tell the FIS to be more transparent. If the FIS wants to actually grow the sport of xc ski racing on Planet Earth they need to regulate it less. And more people in North American should realize this, stand up for the sport and not be “yes men/woman” and do anything the FIS asks of them. That only makes the sport even more costly.

    On the ligher side: I’ve got to admit that the mixed signals the FIS and the USSA gives regarding xc skiing is quite entertaining. On one hand they say we need to grow the sport and make it more visible and exciting. On the other hand they want more and more regulation of the sport. In the days of old a draw to go to ski races was to experience unique features of ski courses: like legendary brutal uphills, or notorious psycho downhills. But nowadays how does a race organizer attract participants and generate excitement? With a homologated course it’s: “Come and race our venue! You will love it! It’s just like everyone else’s course!” I don’t think that logic would pass Marketing 101.

  • carliecasey

    July 8, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    West Yellowstone is homologated for sprint qualifiers only. Their sprint trail is not wide enough for sprint heats.

    Also, as far as I understand the differences between Continental Cup races (including our SuperTour series in the US and the NorAms in Canada) vs. the World Cup, World Ski Championships, Junior World Ski Championships and Winter Olympics, only the later must be under the 1800 meter elevation limit to homologate. Courses above the 1800 meters elevation can still homologate with FIS for Continental Cup events.

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