The Cross-Country Olympic Criteria, in the Context of U.S. Winter Sports

Chelsea LittleJune 29, 2017
U.S. nordic skiers Scott Patterson (1), Ben Lustgarten (14), Kris Freeman (9), Brian Gregg (behind Patterson) racing head to head in the 30 k classic mass start at 2017 U.S. nationals at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah. Lustgarten went on to win for his first national title.

Note: This is part of a series on the 2018 Winter Olympic selection criteria for the U.S. cross-country ski team. Read this parallel article for specifics on the criteria itself.


When considering the criteria recently posted by the U.S. Ski Team regarding how cross-country athletes will be selected for the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, it’s useful to know some context about how selections are made in other sports.

As described in a parallel piece, the criteria have three main components: a World Cup qualification process via top-eight results on one of five different days between November and mid-January, or else a top-50 World Cup ranking; discretion; and standings from the U.S. SuperTour and national championships.

Some aspects of these criteria are consistent with common practices in other disciplines under the umbrella of U.S. Ski & Snowboard and across other winter national governing bodies.

Others are not.

For instance: of all of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard disciplines, the cross-country criteria were the last to be approved. The final signature of approval came on May 30, 2017, and the document was not posted online until June; on the other end of the spectrum, the freestyle skiing criteria got its last signature in June 2016.

Secondly, though criteria for many of the ski and snowboard disciplines include discretionary clauses, few are featured as prominently as the discretionary clause is in cross-country skiing. Few individual winter sports use discretion so prominently, with the exception of figure skating (a judged sport).

But at the same time, the lack of a guaranteed nomination route via domestic racing is not unusual, as several other sports will fill their Olympic rosters based only on international competition results.

So considering different aspects of the criteria, which are in line with national best practices? Which likely came from cross-country team staff? Which are in line with, and perhaps generated from, U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s overall philosophy?

Who knows what, when

Most straightforward issue to address is the timing of Olympic criteria approval. Criteria were released later for cross-country skiing than for any other U.S. Ski & Snowboard discipline; in addition, sports independent of U.S. Ski & Snowboard: biathlon, bobsled, skeleton, luge, short- and long-track speedskating, hockey and curling had already published their criteria.

Figure skating criteria could not be found on the U.S. federation’s website, but the official selection procedure had already been described on the NBC Olympic site.

That means that cross-country skiing was the very last set of 2018 U.S. Winter Olympic team criteria to be published, a deviation from past Games. The 2014 Olympic criteria for cross-country skiing were signed in June 2012, more than a year and a half before those Olympics.

“At best we would like the selection procedures to be made available to the athletes a year before the evaluative events that may be used to select [the Olympic team,” said Rachel Isaacs, a sport performance bid liaison for the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) who previously served as the organization’s team leader for sport performance.

With the first World Cup races less than six months away at the time the criteria were posted, that didn’t happen this year.

Isaacs said that the time frame is not a requirement, and that the organization offers flexibility. That means that there are no strict consequences for publishing criteria late.

“We do realize that that can’t always be the case,” she said of the year-in-advance standard. “The informal guideline would be to make sure that the athletes know if a World Cup season is going to be used, certainly prior to the World Cup season starting … But we wouldn’t mandate that the first event of a World Cup season in 2017 — it wouldn’t be a year prior to that. We understand that they are still developing their selection criteria and qualification process.”

In this case, the 2018 Olympic criteria for cross-country skiing are more or less identical to those used for 2017 World Championships, although U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover said that there had been discussions about whether to implement any changes.

Isaacs also didn’t see a problem with the fact that the qualification period for the World Cups themselves was long past by the time the criteria were posted.

“I think athletes know that the World Cup season is always part of, and I do want to emphasize a part of, the selection process,” Isaacs said, indicating that athletes should have known that qualifying for the early-season competitions would be important.

Because of the Olympic criteria’s similarity to 2017 World Championships selection criteria, athletes might have been able to guess how things would shake out.

As to the question of whether athletes might have planned their previous season differently if they knew the criteria further in advance — or built a multi-year training plan differently, or a single-season training plan that accounted for having to peak multiple times – Isaacs was dismissive.

“Any athlete knows what she or he needs to do to best prepare themselves along with their coaching staff or whatnot,” she said, adding that responsibility for preparing did not rest with national team staff who develop selection criteria.

Discretion in the main criteria

The most controversial part of the criteria is likely to be the placement of discretion before a domestic qualifying mechanism.

(Discretion also comes heavily into play at the World Cup level, discussed later in this piece.)

After World Cup results and standings, the next way to qualify for the Olympics is via discretion: “If team positions remain open after the application of criteria 1 above, the USSA Cross Country Head Coach may use discretion (See Section 2 below) to determine team nominations.”

(Note: USSA refers to the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association, which until June 19 was the name of what is now simply U.S. Ski & Snowboard, for which there is no official abbreviation.)

The reason for that, according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard Executive Vice President for Athletics Luke Bodensteiner, would be to prevent a situation where the team roster had already been filled via objective criteria and coaches could not nominate a key athlete who had somehow not met the criteria.

“We’ve got some interesting factors in cross-country, like with the team sprint, where arguably a different kind of athlete is best — and there aren’t that many team sprints to evaluate from,” he said in an interview. “The coaches have the ability to pick that roster in ways that don’t pin them down to results that may not be reflective of true performance.”

The criteria specify that athletes may be selected via discretion if they have indicated the potential for Olympic success via results in the 2016/2017 or 2017/2018 season, have a recent positive trend towards success that would suggest strong performances at the Games, or show potential for medals in future Olympics in such a way that participating in this Olympics would be beneficial for development.

That is consistent throughout U.S. Ski & Snowboard: the language describing what discretion should be based on is identical or nearly identical to wording in criteria documents from alpine skiing, snowboarding, nordic combined, freestyle skiing, and ski jumping.

But for cross-country skiing, discretion is listed as the second criterion just as it was for the 2014 Olympics and 2015 and 2017 World Championships.

That is a departure from other U.S. Ski & Snowboard disciplines.

In alpine skiing, discretion is only listed as the last possible mechanism in a cascade of criteria – it is only to be used if four previous objective criteria, all based on World Cup results, fail to fill the team.

And in snowboarding and freestyle skiing criteria, discretion is not even listed together with the objective mechanisms and is rather only described in a separate section of the criteria. There, too, discretion is to be used only if the objective criteria fail to fill the team roster.

In nordic combined and jumping, discretion is listed as the second criterion – like cross-country skiing (which lists its two World Cup qualifying mechanisms together under one heading) – but the criteria also state, “There is no requirement that section 1.3.2 [discretion] be used for nominating athletes to the team.” That sentence appears nowhere in the cross-country criteria.

Bodensteiner suggested that the different disciplines could not be directly compared, because alpine skiing, for example, has no Continental Cup-based qualifying mechanism.

“Rather than looking at alpine having discretion as their last piece, I think the primary difference between alpine and cross-country is there’s not that third tier of domestic selection in alpine,” Bodensteiner said. “There’s more of a push to say, if we don’t have athletes that gain selection through the World Cup, then we probably don’t fill our quota.”

Outside of skiing, some sports, like figure skating and hockey, use discretion exclusively with no objective criteria. Bobsled uses discretion widely; while there are objective standards for bobsled pilots, the pushers are assembled into teams based on discretion after having met minimum requirements through a long selection process.

There are yet other sports which use objective criteria for most of the team selection, but deal with the possibility of a key athlete failing to meet the objective criteria for some reason by guaranteeing coaches the ability to use some discretion.

In biathlon (as discussed on this site yesterday), one discretionary selection is hard-coded into the process – for the last athlete for the five-man or five-woman roster, meaning that the first four spots are already automatically filled by athletes best meeting the objective criteria.

For bobsled pilots and for skeleton, too, the criteria state that if the U.S. receives more than one quota spot at the Olympics, the last team selection will be made via discretion. (If the U.S. gets only one sled, it will be selected based on objective criteria.)

Such a system of leaving the last spot to discretion would seem to fulfill Bodensteiner’s idea of picking “an athlete” via discretion in case their suitability for a team event was not captured by individual results, for instance.

Yet there is no cap in the cross-country skiing criteria for how many athletes could be selected via discretion. In the recent past, zero, one or two athletes per Championships have been picked using discretion.

Bodensteiner seemed wary of using discretion in general, saying that “I know from experience that using discretion — particularly in the Olympics — is painful and it’s really not worth the challenges that it can create… unless this is something that really supports a medal objective.”

But he stood behind the prominent inclusion of discretion in the cross-country criteria, even though it seemed anomalous among the other disciplines he oversees.

“We put it in after the World Cup selection just to have that ability to make that assessment there, pick an athlete through discretion if we need to and then use the third criteria to fill up the team if we elect to fill up the team,” Bodensteiner said.

And when pressed on whether that meant that only a small number of athletes would gain Olympic starts via discretion, Bodensteiner demurred.

“We always want to leave the door open because you can never really anticipate everything that happens,” he said.

International vs. domestic results

Another aspect of the criteria sure to raise discussion is that it would be possible to fill the Olympic roster without ever dipping into the field of athletes who compete primarily within North America.

The first two criteria for Olympic qualification come from the World Cup. First priority will be given to athletes who notch top-eight results in the period between Nov. 23, 2017 and Jan. 15, 2018 in classic sprints (in Ruka, Finland; Lillehammer, Norway; and the Tour de Ski stage in Oberstdorf, Germany), the 10/15 k freestyle individual start in Davos, Switzerland, or the 15/30 k skiathlon in Lillehammer.

Second priority goes to athletes ranked in the top 50 of the distance or sprint World Cup standings at the end of this selection period.

Add a discretionary selection or two, and particularly on the women’s side, it’s easy to imagine a team that completely bypasses athletes racing on the SuperTour and at U.S. nationals.

There were just two domestic skiers nominated to the women’s World Championships teams in each of 2015 and 2017 (Caitlin Gregg both years, and Rosie Brennan in 2015 and Chelsea Holmes in 2017; between the three of them are one World Championships medal and two top-20 finishes).

And the whole women’s team to the 2014 Olympics was picked based on World Cup results.

International-based qualification priorities may rankle athletes who have not been offered World Cup starts and whose only opportunity to qualify for the Olympics is through domestic results. But in the wider world of U.S. sports, it isn’t all that unusual.

As noted above, U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Olympic selection criteria for alpine skiing completely bypass any domestic competitions, relying instead solely on international results.

Ski jumping and nordic combined offer Olympic spots to the winners of Olympic trials (and only the winners, not also runners-up). But that is their first criteria, and all the rest are based on international results at the World Cup or Continental Cup level. Thus, if a World Cup athlete wins trials, the team will end up filled only with athletes competing internationally (barring the use of the discretionary clause). Domestic athletes have no direct opportunity to fill spots at the bottom of the roster.

Outside of skiing, luge also bases all of its selections on the results of international-level competitions. Bobsled makes all of its objective selections based on international results, with the last spot being filled by discretion.

Providing a domestic qualification route is not mandated or even suggested by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

“There is definitely a range [of selection strategies] from the national governing bodies,” said Isaacs. “The sports are the experts. They tell us how they think they will pick the best team and we work with them to ensure a fair process.”

Who gets to the World Cup?

The key to making good team selections based on international results, it seems, is to get all of the best athletes to those international competitions. With World Cup results being the only way for cross-country skiers to absolutely guarantee a trip to the 2018 Olympics, who gets to even go to the World Cup may become critically important.

And while U.S. Ski and Snowboard wishes to generally avoid using discretion to pick an Olympic team, that masks a potentially essential role discretion might play: in determining who races on the World Cup and can shoot for those top-eight finishes or top-50 rankings.

At the time that the Olympic selection criteria were published, the criteria for how to qualify for the 2017/2018 World Cup and Tour de Ski were already posted.

For Period 1, the only athletes guaranteed starts are those with a top-50 overall World Cup ranking from the previous season (Jessie Diggins, Sadie Bjornsen, Liz Stephen, Sophie Caldwell, Kikkan Randall, Ida Sargent, and Simi Hamilton), a top-30 Sprint Cup or Distance Cup ranking (Andy Newell), and the 2016/2017 SuperTour champions (Scott Patterson and Chelsea Holmes).

And the only athletes guaranteed Tour de Ski starts by the U.S. Ski Team are those who are sitting in the top 30 of the World Cup overall or distance rankings at the conclusion of Period 1. The top 20 athletes in the Sprint Cup are also now guaranteed spots by FIS, outside of each country’s specific quota.

That means that in order for any other athlete to qualify via the World Cup mechanism, they would need to be offered World Cup starts via discretion. The World Cup criteria state that “Discretionary selections, if any, may be based on a variety of factors, including competitions conducted outside of the selection period.”

Bodensteiner stated that he supported the cross-country coaching staff in their ability to make discretionary picks at the World Cup level.

“We’re using discretion maybe more on a strategic basis,” he said. “With Tour de Ski, there is sensitivity about team size and just our ability to really service the best athletes in that kind of environment. You also have specific considerations in terms of which actual disciplines and techniques are being competed in those different blocks of World Cup… But I also know [Head Coach Chris Grover] is using some of his ability to select athletes into the World Cup to think forward in terms of preparing an athlete over successive years for international success.”

A top-eight World Cup finish is, obviously, not easy to obtain.

Nor is a top-50 ranking, although last season Caitlin Patterson, racing Period 1 as the SuperTour winner, came close, ranking 54th on the distance list at Christmas. That wasn’t far from unprecedented: in 2011 Holly Brooks, the previous year’s SuperTour champion, was 20th on the distance list at Christmas. That 2011/2012 season, Diggins won the SuperTour. She went home for Christmas in 2012 ranked 40th on the World Cup distance list.

(For men, such successes by SuperTour leaders sent to the first period of World Cup racing have been rare.)

Providing specific athletes with a chance to notch an Olympic-qualifying body of work on the World Cup may or may not go into that decision-making process regarding who gets starts.

But the question of who heads to the World Cup will likely to come into play, especially on the men’s side.

While the World Cup criteria state that “USSA policy mandates that team selection criteria shall be principally objective (or performance-based) and that available start rights and team spots will not necessarily be filled,” only three men have objectively qualified to start World Cups in Period 1.

Grover has already stated that he tentatively plans to send three more men to the World Cup for Period 1 – U.S. Ski Team (USST) members Erik Bjornsen and Paddy Caldwell, along with Noah Hoffman, who was not renominated to the USST this season.

Those selections are not based on any documented selection criteria. This was also true of the (very successful) World Cup starts by Scott and Caitlin Patterson in PyeongChang, South Korea, last season.

If one of the planned six men does not end up on the World Cup this fall – due to illness, injury, or some other factors – the USST might invite someone else. But even that is not straightforward.

“World Cup Period 1 is a little problematic for athletes,” Grover said in an interview earlier this month. “If making the Olympics, for example, is a primary goal, which it is for most of the top senior athletes, it’s a little problematic for an athlete to decide whether they want to attempt to do that domestically, or on the World Cup. Obviously it’s easier to do that domestically. Not that it’s easy, but that it’s easier, for sure, to qualify at home versus to qualify on the World Cup. So if, for example, one of those six men weren’t able to make it, we might look at inviting another athlete, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we get turned down on that particular offer.”

In terms of who such an offer might go out to, there are no written, clear-cut standards for what an athlete must do to receive one. It’s discretion, or nothing.

“It’s pretty challenging to figure out, after a dryland training season, who is the next best athlete,” Grover said. “Everybody has just been training on their own domestically, in their clubs. And according to everybody, the training is going very well – but it’s quite hard at that point to reach down and say, OK, this is going to be the next best person to bring up.”

In Conclusion

Both U.S. Ski & Snowboard and the USOC document that fairness and openness are important in the selection process.

“One of the keys that we have is that there’s always basically an objective pathway to the Olympics,” Bodensteiner said.

“If it wasn’t fair – if it was picking somebody’s best friend or cousin – we would tell them that these would not be approved and they need to go back and redo the draft,” Isaacs said of the potential situation of a national federation writing criteria which didn’t meet USOC standards.

But fairness and an open path to the Olympics are in the eye of the beholder.

“Sometimes that might be really limited,” Bodensteiner said of the ability to qualify outright for an event. “In cross-country, sometimes it’s pretty limited. But there’s still the objective opening for an athlete to have that pathway.”

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Chelsea Little

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.

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