Saturday’s news that Justyna Kowalczyk would skip the Tour de Ski and forgo her run for her fifth-straight title in the event came as a bit of a shock to the ski world.
What now? Why ever would she do that? Upon closer inspection, it became clear that the decision wasn’t unfounded – she and her coach were upset that five of seven of the stages were skate races – and they weren’t alone in the sentiment.
Ironically, the International Ski Federation (FIS) Athlete Representative Kikkan Randall didn’t field a single complaint about it. Granted, she was training in Davos, Switzerland, while more than 200 others were racing the eighth-annual Tour, which started Saturday in Oberhof, Germany.
“I even sent a message soliciting feedback,” Randall wrote in an email on Sunday.
The day before, high-profile skiers like Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby vented to media outlets like NRK about the lack of classic races and late changes to the Tour schedule, notably switching Sunday’s 9-kilometer classic pursuit to a freestyle sprint on a 1.5-kilometer track in Oberhof.
On Tuesday, the third stage of the Tour is another freestyle sprint in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, making the first three stages skate races and all less than 3 or 4.5 kilometers in length.
“This is a parody,” Sundby told NRK on Saturday. “This is not what we skiers trained for and are passionate about. Now we are here only to provide sponsors and TV viewers what they want and go a few rounds around the stadium. This is nonsense.”
Kowalczyk understood the decisions stemmed from weather woes, with little manmade snow to work with in Oberhof, but she said the athletes should have been part of the decision.
“FIS management practitioners do not treat us with respect,” she told Poland’s Gazeta.
Randall was concerned that athletes weren’t using the best channels to get their point across.
“It’s too bad because I have seen athlete feedback taken and reacted to positively by FIS when given the right way,” she wrote. “Athletes must engage in the process, not just complain about it!”
Kowalczyk indirectly reached out to Randall about the decision, saying she felt bad for the American since so many skate races would’ve actually catered to her strengths. But Randall decided a while ago to skip the Tour.
Randall wrote that the change in competition program was all-around “unfortunate,” but she was glad they didn’t have to cancel any races.
“It’s tough to hear so many athletes complaining about the changes as if FIS is out to get them.” — Kikkan Randall, FIS athlete representative and U.S. Ski Team member
“Of course it’s a little harder for me to be sitting out now with so many skate races, which are my favorite, but I still feel strongly that it was the right decision for me to be on track for my biggest goals of the season at the Olympics,” she wrote.
“It’s tough to hear so many athletes complaining about the changes as if FIS is out to get them. It was a tough situation with the weather and I think all the stakeholders involved (organizers, tv, fis) made the best decision they could to make sure the tour carried on,” Randall continued. “We are in a sport with so many different disciplines. Sometimes it will be balanced and sometimes it won’t. But we still race A to B don’t we?!”
Bottom line: every athlete has to strategically pick which races they will and won’t do, and factor that into their goals, she explained.
“Personally I hate skipping races,” she wrote. “But skipping the Tour is what I felt I needed to do for my biggest goals. For others, the Tour is their best preparation. … I’m sure the skate/classic balance will equalize in the universe eventually :)”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.