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.
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.”