On Friday, U.S. Biathlon Association President and CEO Max Cobb was voted in as the Vice President for Sport of the International Biathlon Union (IBU), the first American to be elected to the Executive Board since the governing body came into being in 1993.
Cobb, a 1987 graduate of Dartmouth College, also studied Olympic Sport Leadership at the Kellogg School of Management. He has worked with U.S. Biathlon since 1991, as well as serving as Chief of Competition at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. Since 2010 he has been the head of the IBU’s Technical Committee, including serving as the technical delegate at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
As head of the Technical Committee, he pushed through comprehensive reforms on qualifying for World Cup, IBU Cup, and championship events.
“I think people definitely respected me for the work that I’ve been doing over the last twenty years and knew about my work at the Technical Committee,” Cobb said in an interview from the IBU Congress, which was held in Chisinau, Moldova. “Basically being a part of this international family ever since hosting the Olympics in Salt Lake in 2002, I think there were a lot of people saying that is was just the right and natural thing that I should be elected with the experience that I have.”
Throughout the campaign process, which started in June, Cobb has been discussing his ideas and positions with people from all around the biathlon world. Each country which is a full member of the IBU has one vote in the election.
“I really enjoy talking with people about sport and through this campaign,” he said. “I had a chance to talk to a lot of different representatives from different countries, and I really enjoyed hearing about their challenges and seeing what we can do to try to make things better. That’s not just small developing countries, it’s also advanced countries like Germany and Norway where they have so many strong athletes it’s hard for them to decide which seeding group to put them in.”
Cobb has also been a vocal proponent of anti-doping efforts and has criticized the handling of the recent Russian doping scandal by the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency. He said that he wasn’t yet sure whether his advocacy helped or hurt him in the election, which he won over Baiba Broka of Latvia and Dagmara Gemasimuk of Poland, or how it would affect his work going forward.
Here’s what Cobb had to say about his election and the goals he has for his two-year term. The interview has been edited and condensed.
FasterSkier: Were you nervous before the Congress, or were you pretty confident you would be elected?
Max Cobb: I was definitely a little nervous as I made my speech. Both [the other candidates] were women actually, and there’s only 2 women on the Executive Board at the moment, the Secretary General and the Vice President of Special Issues, so there’s a lot of interest in having more women serving on the board so this was a priority just to have more gender equity.
[Gemasimuk] is the president of the Polish federation. She had been the Secretary General and an athlete herself, and I have a ton of respect for her. She got her PhD studying biathlon athlete development. She’s great and I hope she has a big future in biathlon if she wants to keep working. But in the end she had 15 votes and I had 29. It wasn’t that close but I had no idea whether I would be elected or not.
FS: There has never been an American on the Executive Board. Was that an issue?
MC: Now there are two North Americans on the executive board with Dr. Jim Carrabre [a Canadian who serves as Vice President for Medical Issues, and lives in Minnesota], so that was, nobody said to me that was a concern but maybe in the back of some people’s minds it was.
FS: Why would that be concerning?
MC: Biathlon is so highly developed in Europe and not highly developed on any other continent, so I think having people who are non-European on the board– it’s a little bit controversial for some people, but I think in the end there are a lot of non-European nations who think it’s OK. And a lot of non-European nations who know me and know how I work and how independent I am. Fair and independent, I think, is something that people definitely appreciate even within the European group.
FS: Will you continue being a liaison within the Technical Committee and what else is on the docket?
MC: Yeah, I think that’s what’s really exciting for me. I can continue working with all my friends on the Technical Committee and represent their perspective and decisions with the Executive Board. As biathlon develops even further, the marriage of the technical aspects of the sport with further development, whether it’s competition format or quota systems or it’s scheduling around broadcast times, all of those details become more and more important as we further refine the sport.
That rough development has already happened, and further development that we make is going to be relatively detailed-oriented to progress. I think I’m in a really good position with my experience.
FS: One of the benefits of having a small federation is working closely with your athletes, even as CEO. Does that help you think about some of these issues?
MC: Yeah, absolutely. I think the wonderful thing about the position I have with U.S. Biathlon is that I’m so close to our team and our developing athletes. I have time and opportunity to be with them and speak to them and hear their thoughts and ideas and take that into account as I’m thinking about sport development in the United States and now really thinking about sport development on the global scale as well. It’s a big help to have that close connection with the athletes and the trainers.
FS: The points system and qualifying changes — will that continue to be tweaked going forward?
MC: This World Championships was the first time we had it in place and really this was the first full season of having it operating. We’re really pleased with the way everything worked out. At the end of the quad in 2018 we’ll see whether we think it needs some tweaking but I think it’s really fine-tuning rather than wholesale change at this point. I’m really, really proud that the IOC accepted our proposal exactly as we presented it and that included more accreditations for biathletes in order to have a balance of men and women. So now we have 115 men and 115 women so we achieved gender equity.
Through this Congress now I don’t think there will be much of a change. We have on the proposal to increase the points required to remain in the IBU Cup to 250, and I think that will go through. That opens more opportunity to remain on the IBU Cup, but besides that I don’t think we’ll see any changes at this Congress.
FS: Did you think that implementation gave people confidence that you could get things done?
MC: I think so, because at the last Congress I had to present the whole system. We had lots of meetings even before the season with the teams that were most affected. I think they realized that what I said was what ended up happening, being on the ground.
Of course for some of them they recognized the need for their athletes to improve in order to be able to the next level. But I think they understand that the system is fair and it’s open and anytime they have a strong athlete, that athlete can progress to the next level and compete all the way to the Olympic Games. I think I was able to present that at the last Congress, and now after the first season of that being fully implemented, people were seeing that it worked they way we’d hoped. I think that gave them a lot of trust and confidence in me to be able to gain the support.
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.