As the FIS Cross-Country World Cup opened in Kuusamo, Finland, last weekend, Swedish media picked up on a strange image: Norwegian chief waxer Knut Nystad skiing around in a bib that said not “NOR”, but “GBR”.
The news touched off a firestorm in Sweden, possibly caused by jealousy that the Norwegians had found a new rule around the FIS quotas on team staff.
The teams with the most ranked skiers have a cap off 22 staff members who can receive accreditation. In previous seasons, teams wanting to get more bibs to allow technicians on course could simply pay a small fee of 20 Euros per bib and end up with a maximum of 35 staff members.
This year, that extra possibility was removed. So Sweden, Norway, and Russia are capped at a total of 22 staff members – no more. Finland is next with 18, then Germany, France, and Italy with 16, and the United States and Canada with 14.
The rules were on one hand part of a FIS effort to level the playing field so that dominant ski countries don’t become even more dominant in a sort of positive feedback loop with resource wealth.
But it was also an effort to reduce the number of skiers on the race course before a competition. Too many trips around the track can cause snow conditions to break down, especially with more and more races being held in warm weather.
Norway had seemed to find a way around the cap by partnering with the British Ski Team.
“In the eyes of many, this is certainly cheating,” said Swedish television host André Pops.
“We have [made clear at] the team leader meeting that it is allowed to cooperate in ski preparation,” he told Norwegian broadcaster NRK, according to a translation. “We see it as positive that small nations are assisted by the major nations. This is competence that strengthens our sport.”
And if you ask the Brits, they don’t feel like they are being taken advantage of at all. With top skiers yet a miniscule budget, head coach Roy Young feels he has made a good deal.
“Our aim is to work with the Norwegian wax team – that is, our wax team will join them for testing & sharing information on test results,” he wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “The objective for us is to spend more time testing the athlete skis rather than testing wax. So we will still have our wax team and we will wax our own skis, we will have testing of skis. We hope to better prepare our athletes for the races, develop our technician team & perform better in the race while not increasing our costs.”
Other small teams don’t seem so bothered by this arrangement, conceding that it’s a smart move.
“It is very hard as you know for a small nation to fund the staff and waxing infrastructure that a big nation can,” wrote U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover. “A small country always struggles to complete the myriad of waxing duties on a daily basis that are necessary to make fast skis… I know teams like Australia and Great Britain have teamed up before as well. Yes, this does effectively give Norway more service bibs but it also gives them a lot more skis to wax! Probably not a big advantage for them in the end, but a very helpful arrangement for Great Britain.”
“I think it’s good for smaller countries to get knowledge and support from the larger more experienced ones,” Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth agreed. “But does Norway really need more of an advantage… We’ve talked in the past about potentially working with the US as a North American force, but when it comes down to it, it just isn’t realistic.”
In this case, the pairing is far from random. Two top British athletes, Andrew Musgrave and Andrew Young, are based in Norway. Musgrave is part of Team Leaseplan Go, a Norwegian ski marathon team, and both athletes already know many of the Norwegian athletes and staff. Musgrave even won a Norwegian national championship title, and often appears in the Norwegian media, where he speaks fluent Norwegian.
“My role is clear in that, I’m hired to enable the British Athletes to perform to the best of their abilities & I currently believe that a collaboration with Norway is a good way of potentially enabling the athletes to do this,” Young wrote. “As you suggest, the 2 Andrews live and train in Norway and are well known for the professionalism that they bring to sessions, which gives us a natural connection with the Norwegian team.”
The hopes of a whole country are pinned on Musgrave, Young, and their teammates, and yet in the past they have never had the type of resources which their competitors can rely on.
“When we reviewed how Sochi went for us we were very clear that the athletes did not get the amount of support they needed,” Coach Young wrote. “We identified roles we would like to see in our team and are trying to fill them. Help with wax testing allows us to cross some of the gap with little additional costs (and remember we are team struggling to find enough money to have 3 support staff at a Ruka World Cup even though we have an athlete that many people believe is capable of a top 10).”
Indeed, in Kuusamo Musgrave skied to 13th in the 10 k skate, then skied the 11th-fastest time in the 15 k classic pursuit to finish 16th in the overall mini-tour. He’s now ranked in the top 20 in the overall World Cup.
Although the Brits qualify for a staff quota of eight according to the FIS rubric, they can never fill all of those spots because of their small budget.
Young explained that the partnership was an ongoing discussion and would be re-evaluated, but that three bibs were given to Norway to help with wax testing in Kuusamo, and probably two would be shared at the next World Cup the team attends in Davos, Switzerland.
“Part of my discussion with Norway has been to make sure that there is transparency on what we are doing and that we would not transgress any rule (we Brits are very rule bound people),” Coach Young wrote. “I have written to FIS about what we are doing. Obviously, our collaboration on wax will only occur when we are racing at a world cup. Both Norway and Great Britain view this as a trial with a review on the benefits both teams feel they get from this, risks to the teams and where it can be developed.”
When asked about the arrangement by Scandinavian media, the Norwegians also stressed that FIS had been made aware of the situation and did not view it as a breach of the rules.
And in the end of the day, the goal of keeping the snow on the race courses nice and firm hasn’t been sacrificed.
“The course stays in good shape since the number of total service bibs hasn’t increased,” Grover concluded.
And Sweden? Maybe they can survive with “just” 22 team staff.
Or else they can find their own small nation to adopt.
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.