Four-Time Tour Winner Kowalczyk Withdraws, Protests ‘Unfair Changes’

Seth AdamsDecember 28, 201315
Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) powers to the top of the Alpe Cermis and her fourth Tour de Ski victory. (Photo: Fimme2013)
Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk powers to the top of the Alpe Cermis in Val di Fiemme, Italy, for her fourth Tour de Ski victory last season. (Photo: Fimme2013)

The Tour de Ski’s four-time defending champion Justyna Kowalczyk was conspicuously absent on Saturday from this season’s Tour opener, the women’s 3-kilometer freestyle prologue in Oberhof, Germany.

On her official Facebook page, Kowalczyk, a four-time Olympic medalist from Poland, announced, according to a translation: “URGENT. I’m very sorry, but in this situation I can not occur in Tour de Ski :(”

A Tour favorite, Kowalczyk’s withdrawal completely shakes up expectations for the seven-stage series as well as the overall World Cup standings. She withdrew to protest changes Tour officials made to the race format due to persistently warm and rainy conditions. A relatively flat 1.5 k loop was prepared for the races using snow trucked in from surrounding areas and stored indoors, away from the rain and balmy winds.

Kowalczyk at the Finish
Kowalczyk after winning the final climb and 2011/2012 Tour de Ski.

As a result, officials shortened the course from 2.1 to 1.5 k and changed race formats to freestyle technique. Out of the seven races in the entire Tour, only two are classic. This is a significant disadvantage to Kowalaczyk, who excels in classic races. Notably, Sunday’s 9 k classic pursuit was switched to a 1.5 k freestyle sprint.

“Five freestyle races and mostly sprints, with only two classic races. To fight, you need a level playing field,” her coach Alexander Wierietielny said in an interview with Polish radio. “We all feel bad after this decision, but that the play is not fair. … We do not take part in the spectacle frame up. Everything was organized so as Justyna Kowalczyk had no chance to win the Tour de Ski.”

Kowalczyk’s withdrawal from the Tour likely kills her chances of coming away with an overall World Cup victory, due to the lost opportunity to score World Cup points, and takes her out of the running for over $100,000 U.S. dollars in prize money for the overall winner of the Tour.

With Kowalczyk absent, Norway’s Marit Bjørgen has become the runaway favorite; indeed, she handily won Saturday’s 3 k prologue nearly two seconds ahead of teammate Astrid Jacobsen and seven seconds ahead of Poland’s surprise Sylwia Jaśkowiec, with her first World Cup podium in third.

Both Bjørgen and fellow Norwegian powerhouse Therese Johaug felt that the prestige of the Tour de Ski was greatly diminished with Kowalczyk’s withdrawal, calling any victory an “amputee” triumph with “no taste and no value.”

Kowalczyk’s decision appears to be a part of a larger disagreement with FIS organizers, whom, she says, have too much authority to change race formats without consulting the athletes.

“FIS management practitioners do not treat us with respect,” she said in an interview with the Polish newspaper Gazeta, quoted by NRK.

The 30-year-old Kowalczyk went on to say that race organizers are blameless for the weather, making longer courses difficult to construct, but does not understand the change in format.

“A classic trail may be much narrower than a freestyle course and will require less snow to make,” she said. “I do not understand [the change].”

She went on to speculate on how the last-minute changes in format may have affected her other rivals, such as U.S. Ski Team veteran Kikkan Randall: “I feel sorry for Kikkan Randall who opted to stay out of the Tour because of so much classical. But now it suddenly has two sprints in the free technique that is her great strength. Had she known it before she would have been here, I am quite sure. One cannot make such changes at the last minute.”

Norway’s Martin Sundby came out strongly in support of Kowalczyk and joined her in criticizing FIS.

“This is a parody. This is not what we skiers trained for and are passionate about,” the 29-year-old Sundby told NRK. “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.”

Seth Adams

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  • teamepokeedsbyn

    December 28, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    She does seem to have a point, why not throw down a few shallow tracks and make at least one of the weekend’s event classic (would really likely be a double pole race for men)? still, seems a bit of a “head case” move to not race at all, even if you think you might not win. maybe they need a union that can provide a unified voice/input? But again, seems that has been tried in the past as well and cant get majority on board.

  • caldxski

    December 28, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    This is an interesting situation, with no immediate, good solution.

    Having organized or directed hundreds (maybe approaching a thousand?) xc competitions, I always come down on the side of the organizers. In really big races, it takes more workers (volunteers) to run the race than the number of competitors. Looking at Oberhof, I can not imagine who and how they l paid to truck in all that snow. So I assume the organizers had a say in the latest decision. But I think we have reached a critical point.

    Then there’s the prize money, whose source I don’t understand anyway. But we’re talking about big money here (at least by US standards), and so it gets more complicated.

    Who can blame Kowalcyk for pulling out? She’s probably the best female classical skier in the world and the officials have decided on a preponderance of skate races. And so the sponsors enter the picture–is it more exciting to watch a series of sprints or some individual start classic races? Well, there you go.

    Is any group of athletes (or coaches) doing anything to protect the integrity of the sport, which I will assume for the present is an equal balance between classic and free? Probably not.

    The only good thing to come out of this mess is the hope that in the future, more interests (not just those of the sponsors and the “organizers”–read sponsors) will be represented in the decision-making.

    John Caldwell

  • bellasuma

    December 28, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    As a longtime fan of Kowalczyk, I agree with her decision to drop out of the Tour De Ski (TDS). The TDS schedule does seem to favor skaters this year. That’s unfortunate. Yes, the weather may have played into the equation from a race organizers vantage point in Germany, but I do question the disadvantage imposed on those racers whose strength is classical. Why can’t race sites at the other upcoming scheduled TDS sites compensate for any preceding technique changes? Is the TDS ski technique schedule that unshakable? Why can’t the TDS committee show the needed flexibility in relation to changeable and unforeseen weather conditions to adapt future scheduled race formats leading to technique parity? I am not privy to such information but it seems the TDS organizing committee should at the very least develop the needed flexibility and capacity (along with organizer/ athlete/coach/mass media input) to adapt future scheduled technique formats accordingly in relation to unforeseen and variable snow conditions in the name of equal ski racing “justice for all”. Or is classical ski racing simply being discriminated against? I am also a realist and recognize Mrs. Mother Nature and her son-in-law Mr. Global Warming have the final say in any and all ski racing related matters. I am well versed in that fact. As a former New Hampshire Nordic ski area director and organizer of many top level races here in the U.S., when faced with adverse/minimal snow conditions, I would happily and without reservation switch a course technique from skate to classic if the weather conditions mandated it (or vice-versa if viable). So were the race volunteers I had on hand (which at times were not many if at all!!). In terms of managing volunteer people power, it was far easier to shovel (or truck snow if the race budget permitted it) onto a trail with minimal snow conditions to make a narrow classic track than it was to make a skate track which is much wider. As the coach of the New England Patriots football team often says, “it is what it is”. So the TDS show marches (or rather skates) onward. But this fan will miss Kowalczyk in this years version of the TDS. She is very good for the sport as she represents a country not known for cross country skiing. As a consolation, it was nice to see her teammate step it up and make the podium today. One thing I do know, Kowalczyk will be very well rested for Sochi!!

  • davidf2d

    December 28, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    Look at the Swix wax report for snow conditions. It was basically slush. How in the world do you set classic tracks in those conditions? Maybe another race could be classic or not. To start claiming it’s all part of a conspiracy is just so dumb. Maybe Justyna and her coach should spend more time figuring out why she stinks at skate and less on the whining.

  • bellasuma

    December 28, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    Davidf2d. Thank you for adding your notion of conspiracy. I only questioned the notion of discrimination against classical skiing. But I like your thinking better. Nice job. Objectively speaking, 70% of the TDS race schedule is now dedicated to skate races. Seems a bit top heavy David. What do you think? As for your comment regarding “slushy” course conditions. Ever heard of salt David? If one adds it to a race course (hold the pepper as it make racers sneeze too much:)) then you negate slush. Ever wonder how World Cup Alpine race courses remain so firm? Ever wonder how they keep the xc trails firm at Mt. Bachelor during the springtime? Go ahead, add a little salt to your cherry flavored 7-11 slush puppy and see what happens (if your do not live in the US then disregard the last 2 sentences).

  • T.Eastman

    December 28, 2013 at 9:04 pm

    Bella, we aren’t there to accurately assess the situation so how do you know what actual resources are available at the venue?

    Yea, as a volunteer there is nothing I would rather do than to move mountains of slush to make a longer, narrower classic track and then move the same slush back again…

  • davidf2d

    December 28, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    Well Bella, let me suggest Bella that you read her coach’s comments Bella. He was the one who brought up the notion of a conspiracy. Hmm. Everyone there said it was slow and slushy Bella. So did you not tell the organizers how to fix all of that? Or did they know better than you what the situation was?

  • teamepokeedsbyn

    December 28, 2013 at 11:15 pm

    Are not these races being held almost next door to the worlds premier, 800 meter ski tunnel, with wider trails than are In place at the outdoor venue, and fully capable of classic skiing several tracks wide? Given only a few hundred spectators seen on the video replay, and several urban sprint courses have been as short of a loop, dare I say….why not just hold a classic sprint indoors? Not ideal, but Just sayin….

  • T.Eastman

    December 28, 2013 at 11:24 pm

    teamepokeedsbyn rocks! Hamster the kids until only the fittest come out of the tunnel alive. Of course the race committee could then select the simulated altitude needed to make for good TV by changing the air circulation parameters!

    The TDS could become the Ski up Everest…

    … without leaving the dank Mordor-like confines of the Tunnel.

  • lsiebert

    December 29, 2013 at 12:07 am

    Justyna, would you like some cheese with that whine?

  • Strider2

    December 29, 2013 at 1:50 am

    Anyone who has been following the World Cup this year knows that Kowalczyk wouldn’t have stood a chance in this years TDS even if it was 50:50 techniques. Bad technique combined with a chronic knee injury have made it impossible for her to content for podiums in the skate events this year. The fact that the organizers changed one of the races from classic to skate at the last second because of bad snow conditions provides Kowalczyk with a convenient excuse to make a bunch of drama and boycott the tour. Even if they hadn’t changed the race schedule I still think Kowalczyk would have withdrawn. Yes, she’s a great classic skier. However she wouldn’t be able to win the TDS on the classic races alone. There’s still several skate races that she has to complete!

  • shreddir

    December 29, 2013 at 7:03 am

    The problem is the organizers keep scheduling the Tour in these crappy lowland German venues. The fog and sketchy snow seem to be a common thing at Oberhof. I think the sponsors believe the biathlon crowd is going to show up. All these old chubby Germans care about is shooting and maybe skate skiing They could give a rat about classic technique. Go to Ramsau or Reit Im Winkel places that have real XC cred instead. Who sez the Tour has to be all about Central Europe every season? Do some Scandinavian races where we know we have reliable snow. The Tour de France changes their routes every year so it’s not like that’s way out of line. Is it all about what fat German media advertisers want?

  • Strider2

    December 29, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    re: Shreddir
    Pretty much. Because, spoiler alert, Central Europe is where all the money/viewership is *apparently*. I read somewhere recently that Poland represents 40% of cross-country ski race viewership, so Germany must be somewhere in the same ballpark. I guess there’s just not as much money to be had in Scandinavia via big advertisers, because they just can’t match in terms of sheer population. Even if all of Norway watched a race that would be *only* 4-5 million people, etc. Then again, they should be able to move the venues to places like Ramsau and Davos, seeing how FIS is catering more and more to TV viewership (so it doesn’t really matter as much where it takes place.)? And frankly, in terms of sheer spectator attendance the central European venues haven’t really lived up to the hype. You’ll get the most attendance in places like Oslo and Lillehammer, not to mention the rest of Scandinavia.

  • Lars

    December 30, 2013 at 10:08 am

    I think an argument could be made not to have the tour in an olympic year. Whit no Kowalczyk Randall Kalla or a number of Russians. I think the competition this year is weaker making the tour less interesting and less prestigious.

  • ron1r

    January 6, 2014 at 8:49 am

    Re: Strider2
    I do not agree with you. In the last season Kowalczyk had the same problems with legs, her skate technique was bad and Classic/Free proportions in TDS were identical to these in the original program of 2013/2014 TDS (3:4). In spite of this, she won.
    Tour de Ski is not the same as single World Cup event.

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