Today marks Max Cobb’s 25th year of work with the U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA) – an impressive tenure for anyone at any organization.
In that time, Cobb already has a lot of job descriptions. He is now the President and CEO of USBA, works closely with its fundraising foundation, acts as a Technical Delegate at multiple World Cups every year (including, last season, at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia), and headed the International Biathlon Union’s (IBU) Technical Committee for the last cycle.
Thanks to that last job, Cobb might be able to add the role “politician” to his list of titles.
Over the last year, Cobb and the rest of the Technical Committee developed a new comprehensive system of qualification for IBU events, encompassing qualifying points, Nations Cup scoring, quotas for major events, and a Wild Card system to supplement those quotas. In nearly every aspect of racing, scoring and qualification will change from the previous system.
Cobb and his team had to make the sell first to the IBU’s Executive Board, who sponsored the proposal at the IBU Congress held in Austria this weekend, and then at the Congress itself. And they delivered: every major proposal was passed, with votes of at least 45 of the 50 total national federations, Cobb told FasterSkier.
“With all the changes, we now have a really cohesive system that both is fair and supports teams moving up through the rankings if they are having good performances, but also really honors the performance of athletes from any nation regardless of where they are within the Nations Cup ranking,” Cobb said.
The changes added significant complexity to the IBU process. Previously, in order to qualify for the World Cup, athletes had to score one race on the second-tier IBU Cup circuit where they finished within a certain percentage of the winner’s time.
The new points system is similar to that employed by the International Ski Federation, in that there is both a race penalty based on the points of the top competitors, and an individual penalty based on the racer’s percent back from the winner. The two penalties are summed to determine an individual’s points for a given race.
The same system will be used throughout all levels of IBU competition, which has never been done before. This will allow competitors to develop a total points profile regardless of where they race, that reflects not just their own performance but the strength of the competition.
Cobb sees this as a particular boon to smaller, and less cash-flush, teams.
“It really leaves it up to a federation to decide, okay, are we going to deploy our team to the IBU Cup, where the level of our athletes is, really that will be the best development opportunities for them, or will we be able to have two teams, one on the IBU Cup and one on the World Cup?” he explained. “Under the previous system they really had to go to both. This allows them to choose.”
These nations might have previously had to stretch their budget to take advantage of particular weekends where there were more opportunity to score World Cup points – weekends with multiple individual competitions, for instance, rather than a sprint-pursuit-mass start weekend where two events were qualification-based.
The number of “wild card” entries at World Cups will increase from three to four per gender, and ten of these will also be available at World Championships under the new rules. In addition, the entries will be based on the athletes’ points, not their country’s Nations Cup score.
“We can allocate wild cards based on athletes’ performances,” Cobb said. “That didn’t really exist in the old system.”
And it might affect the way that countries try to qualify those athletes for major events.
“What we saw with the previous system was that it was really not a cohesive system and it really forced national federations to do some strategy things that didn’t make sense,” Cobb said. “In some cases it really put them in a place where they couldn’t look out for the best development process for their athletes. They had to chase points at various levels. That just didn’t make sense.”
In some ways, the system was a tough sell simply because it’s so much more complicated than the previous rules. Cobb said that he and the Technical Committee took a measured approach to explaining their proposal to the sport’s many stakeholders.
It started with a presentation he gave to the Executive Board in Sochi, and then continued from there. The Technical Committee began to explain the proposal to coaches on the World Cup and the IBU Cup at the end of the season, and then Assistant Race Director of the World Cup, Borut Nunar, ran models of how the points would look based on the previous season of results and presented again to the Executive Board in Oslo.
The final step was selling delegates at the Congress.
“We followed that up with more meetings at the Congress so that delegates to the Congress, who are frequently not coaches, could have an understanding too,” Cobb said. “And that was really productive. It gave people an informal setting in which to ask questions and kick things around and bring up their concerns, and go into detail about how it works.”
The new points system will go into effect this coming season, in order for athletes to develop a points profile, but qualification based on the new points will not go into effect until the 2015-2016 season.
Some changes will be more immediate, however, for instance the Nations Cup scoring on the World Cup and IBU Cup circuits.
In the new system proposed by Cobb and the Technical Committee, the points awarded for first through 80th place will remain the same, but fewer points will be awarded after 80th place. This, he said, will reward nations with one strong competitor more than the previous system had, and they will be more likely to gain a quota spot for that competitor.
Nations Cup points will be used to determine quotas in the 2015-2016 season, including a change that sees an in the number of athletes able to start in World Cups from the mid-level teams, as well as the addition of the Wild Cards.
World Championship qualification in particular will be affected by the new Nations Cup points: instead of four athletes per country gaining entry, lower-ranked teams will be able to enter only two or three athletes, again with the additional Wild Card spots going to up to two athletes per federation who do not have a quota.
The reason for the reduction in World Championship field size was not only to make the event more competitive and selective, but also to minimize past problems with course preparation and fairness. At several past Championships, snow conditions have changed significantly over the course of the race as over 150 racers start, 30 seconds at a time. Cobb himself has TD’ed several such events and dealt with the ensuing nightmares.
“That was really done to be able to have a World Championships that fits better for television, which is our major supporter in the sport, but also one where the size of the field is manageable,” Cobb explained. “Potentially with 50 members, there could have been 200 starters at a World Championships, and that is just unmanageable to be able to keep some element of fairness in the competition.”
Although the field size will be reduced, Cobb said he is confident that the athletes who deserve to be at World Championships will be entered.
“For the World Championships we have up to 10 wild cards available,” he said. “When we did our models, what we saw is that that really captured all the athletes who we felt were at an appropriate level to be entered there.”
All in all, Cobb said, all the complicated mathematical calculations will have a big reward – and he’s relieved that the biathlon world recognized it.
“I think that everybody saw that yes, it is more complex, but the complexity is being added in order to make it more accurate and a little more fair,” he explained. “And that the system really honors and respects the performance of the athletes. I think that’s why we saw overwhelming support. People voted in favor of a more fair, open, and sporting system. That was great to see – I was really gratified.”
The newly elected Technical Committee meets for the first time in October. Cobb was again voted onto it, and it remains to be seen whether the rest of the committee will re-select him as their Chair for another few years.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.