Let’s dial back to mid-March and the close of the 2021 World Championships with the men’s 50-kilometer mass start classic race. Russia’s Alexander Bolshunov and Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo came into the final corner and finish-straight in close quarters for the win. In the real-time fast-paced moment, Bolshunov and Klæbo tangled, with both skiers barely maintaining balance.
To summarize, Bolshunov used all available real-estate coming around the final turn. Klæbo, as he had been doing throughout the championships, carried speed, and schussing to the outside of Bolshunov. There simply was not enough room for both skiers. Klæbo kept his momentum, barely, while Bolshuvnov, snugged up close to the Norwegian, snapped a pole. Meanwhile, the third-place skier at the time, Norway’s Emil Iversen, sped past Bolshunov and his not compromised single-pole finish speed.
First, it appeared Klæbo had won. The live feed then began covering images of the race jury room and something was clearly afoot. Perhaps thirty minutes later, Klæbo was DQ’d for violating FIS rule ICR0 343.10 – Obstructing another athlete when overtaking.
Iversen, the second-place skier across the line, was declared the winner — he passed Bolshunov in the closing meters, with Bolshunov earning silver. We have included several slo-mo videos to highlight the incident.
In the weeks since many have debated the ruling and the outcome. The Norwegian Ski Federation initially filed an appeal. A day later, Klæbo asked the federation to rescind the appeal. Case closed.
However, the DQ and what transpired as Klæbo began to pass Bolshunov remains open for debate and interpretation. FasterSkier reached out to several Technical Delegates, or TDs, to provide their insight. At the bottom of this piece, we have copied the FIS rules that apply to obstruction.
Our first set of comments are from Alaska’s John Estle. FIS TDs John Matt Pauli, Lin Hinderman and Scott Jerome reviewed the comments and agreed in principle with the conclusions stated in this section:
The first thing to remember: the skier who is overtaking another skier has the responsibility to make a clean pass. The pass is not complete until the overtaking skier’s tails are (comfortably) in front of the tips of the skier who is being overtaken. Keep that definition in mind.
Also, it is generally accepted that the skier in the lead has the right to choose whatever path he/she wants to get to the finish, provided that they don’t make a sudden change in their line, or zig-zag, to block someone.
To go back a month-and-a-half, in the Lahti relay Joni Maki of Finland was leading Bolshunov into the Lahti stadium, which has a long, relatively high speed, sweeping left turn into the finish straight – similar to the arrangement in Oberstdorf. As Maki was nearing the end of the turn and the start of the finish straight, Bolshunov tried to overtake Maki on the right. His ski-tips got up by Maki’s boots, so Maki knew that Bolshunov was trying to pass.
Once Maki saw that Bolshunov had committed to passing him on the right, Maki had an easy tactical choice: just keep going as far to the right as possible so as to leave Bolshunov no space to pass. That’s what he did. That’s when Bolshunov took a swipe at Maki with his pole, because Maki had not given Bolshunov any space to pass. Bolshunov had to let up and let his tips get behind Maki’s tails so he could then go around Maki and make a clean pass. Of course, because he decelerated so much, lost his cool and was close to the finish, he had no chance to pass. Then he decided to cross-check Maki after the finish line.
After that incident, everyone castigated Bolshunov for his behavior (pole swipe, cross-check); no one faulted Maki for taking advantage of Bolshunov’s tactical error (getting his tips beyond Maki’s tails and leaving himself no options). There were no sanctions against Maki for going far to the right.
Maki was trying to beat Bolshunov. Going all the way to the right was the tactic that gave him the best chance to beat Bolshunov, so that’s what he did. The objective is to win within the rules, so he did everything he could do within the rules to achieve that objective.
Now, fast-forward to the finish of the Oberstdorf WSC 50 k, which was almost a perfect replay of what happened in Lahti.
Bolshunov led down the final hill (with considerable daylight between his tails and Klæbo’s tips) and around the big, sweeping left turn into the finish straight. Klæbo initiated an attempt to overtake Bolshunov on the right, with both of them traveling at a very high speed. Had Klæbo been able to completely overtake Bolshunov before they got to the finish straight, all would have been well. However, Klæbo was not able to complete the pass – he was just pulling even with Bolshunov when the trouble started. By definition, Klæbo was still in the process of overtaking Bolshunov.
Bolshunov, with the experience of the Lahti finish in his back pocket, made the obvious, logical choice to go as far to the right as possible and leave no space for Klæbo, because that was his best (only?) chance to win the race. Remember that Bolshunov and Klæbo have sprinted against each other a few times in both sprints and mass-start races, and Bolshunov knew well that if he chose a route to the finish that would provide a clean path for Klæbo, there was a very good chance that he would be beaten to the finish line by Klæbo. I hope I am not attempting to get too deeply into Bolshunov’s mind to think that his awareness of their history had an influence on his choice of tactics approaching the finish. He was in the driver’s seat because he had the “right of way” having been in the lead and Klæbo being the one trying to overtake.
It is also useful to keep in mind that all of the skiers in the 50 k spent quite a bit of time skiing (especially double-poling) out of/between the tracks. If Bolshunov thought that it was faster out of the tracks, he had the right to go for the spot between the rightmost tracks and the v-board so that he could double-pole to the finish out of the tracks.
So, Bolshunov went as far right as he could, leaving Klæbo with insufficient space, between the v-boards and the rightmost tracks, to complete a clean pass. It was the most logical tactical choice for Bolshunov (he wanted to win!) and was, according to my experience and my reading of the rules, completely within the rules. I watched the replay from two different angles several times. Bolshunov never changed his line, which would have been a violation. He simply had Klæbo right where he wanted him (thanks to Klæbo’s choice of tactics), and he took him to the edge of the course and closed the gate. Many skiers, runners and bikers have done the same thing in the same situation.
Did Bolshunov skate a little wide with his right ski once or twice? Maybe, but there is no rule in the book that I can think of that would define what Bolshunov did in that situation as a violation. Maybe Klæbo would have skated that wide, too, if he hadn’t been hemmed in by the v-boards on his right. Bolshunov never extended his arm to push Klæbo farther to the right — that would have been a violation.
Klæbo has incredible balance and agility on his skis and can accelerate like nobody’s business. However, in this situation, he was outmaneuvered by Bolshunov because he (Klæbo) made a tactical choice that left him no options. There were two alternative tactics which, had he chosen one of them, would have avoided the problem: 1) keep his tips behind Bolshunov’s tails, wait until Bolshunov commits to a finish track, then choose a clean/empty track, and 2) pass Bolshunov on the final uphill and get a gap. Maybe option #2 was not physically possible for Klæbo at that point. But that doesn’t matter.
Klæbo, because he is so good on his skis and can accelerate so dramatically, has virtually always been able to overtake skiers in tight quarters and sketchy situations, because his skills allow him to do things that other skiers are incapable of. However, in this case, his skills were insufficient for the task at hand.
Klæbo must not have watched the video from Lahti. Had he watched that video, he would have had a pretty good idea of what Bolshunov might choose as a tactic if he (Klæbo) tried to overtake on the right. Maybe he wouldn’t have tried to pass so far out from the finish.
Initially, the Norwegian Ski Federation appealed the decision of the Jury, but later withdrew the appeal when requested, by Klæbo, to do so.
The Jury is 100% responsible for making (subjective) judgment calls based on how they interpret what they see in the video. Upon appeal, a Jury decision can be overturned. However, in practice, it is rare for a subjective/judgment call to be overturned. Normally decisions are reversed only if the Jury did not follow proper procedures not followed.
That’s how it should be. If the higher level can reverse subjective calls, then no TD and no Jury member is ever going to want to make a difficult decision, because their subjective evaluation could always be reversed by a “higher level” (of people who WEREN’T THERE), and they would end up with egg on their face, even though they did everything correctly.
In my experience working on Juries at major events, the TD and Jury work very hard at following correct procedures, so that a Jury decision (whether I agree with it or not) will be upheld if it is appealed.
In this case, with a very experienced and knowledgeable Jury (Norwegian TD!), I have no doubt that the correct process was followed.
One other issue that I believe affects people’s perception of what the Jury decision should have been, is that I believe many people were taking into consideration in this case Bolshunov’s behavior in the final meters of and after the finish line in the Lahti race. I found Bolshunov’s conduct in Lahti reprehensible. I in no way condone that. However, in the 50Km in Oberstdorf, the Jury had to evaluate the situation between two skiers, not one “good guy” and one “bad guy.” They had to evaluate the situation without any regard for what they may have thought of Bolshunov’s conduct in Lahti. In the eyes of the Jury, it just was two guys approaching the finish line.
I’m sure that this situation and decision will be used in TD/Officials training well into the future. I have spent a lot of time thinking about it, and trying to be objective and applying rules as precisely as possible. It was a very unfortunate way to conclude a World Championships. But I think it was the right way.
Is there any way to avoid a repeat of the Oberstdorf 50Km? I don’t think so. Each venue has its own quirks and limitations which can create less-than-perfect approaches to the finish. In places where the approach to the finish involves high speeds and long, big radius turns (e.g. Oberstdorf, Lahti, etc.) there is only one best line for skiers, and that is as close to the inside edge of the turn as possible.
If a skier skis any significant distance off that inside line, he/she is skiing a lot of extra distance, which no skier wants to do – especially at the end of a 50Km race. So, what happens is everyone wants to occupy the same space. Isaac Newton has made clear that doing so is not possible within the laws of physics. When everyone wants the same space, there will be conflicts.
However, my guess is that Oberstdorf spent many millions of dollars developing their venue. I have been told that the venue is hemmed in in places by private farmland, which places limits on how the finish can be arranged. Similarly, in Lahti, given the soccer pitch where the race finishes and the location of the grandstand, practical considerations mean that their finish setup is unlikely to change.
In any venue where the start and finish are at the low point of the course – a very common situation, it is almost impossible to avoid having a downhill near the finish, which means higher speeds. And if more land with terrain below the start and finish is not available, there is no way around that issue. Which doesn’t mean people shouldn’t build ski trails and racecourses where the start and finish are at the low point.
The venues I am most familiar with (including my home venue, Birch Hill) all have limitations that create work-around situations. Every compromise arising from a limitation is the potential cause for a problem in a race. What it really comes down to is this: given that the host venue has done everything in its power to create a course that makes safe and fair competition possible, the competitors have to choose tactics that will work without creating problems that the Jury has to “solve.” In this case, the choice of tactics did not match up well with the arrangement of the race finish.
Our next comments are from Ollie Burruss, a TD who has organized and led Senior National Championships from his home base at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center:
What I saw (and admittedly I’ve only seen it in the context of the replays and reviews, so I knew there was an incident prior to seeing it) was a high stakes game of chicken between two racers. Klæbo, as the overtaking skier, had the responsibility to not impede Bolshunov’s line until he had completely overtaken (tails in front of tips). That’s my interpretation of 343.10.2, at least. So when Bolshunov and Klæbo collided, Klæbo, as the overtaking skier, bore the responsibility to avoid that contact and not obstruct Bolshunov’s progress. At the same time, Bolshunov is moving sideways to the outside of the corner. This could be looked at as changing off the best line in order to block a competitor, which would be a violation of 343.9, the rule that bans obstruction, blocking, and deliberately impeding another competitor’s progress. The issue there is that it is impossible to determine the motive and Bolshunov’s line didn’t vary drastically. Plus, Devon and Alex discussed at length the idea that it is actually faster to take a wider line because it allows a racer to carry more velocity into the finish lanes. So really Bolshunov was taking what appeared to be his best line. Did he know Klæbo was going to go wide? Probably. Does that matter? No. Again, the onus is on the overtaking skier. That’s why Klæbo didn’t get sanctioned in Seefeld in his incident with Ustiugov, it’s why Joni Maki didn’t get sanctioned in the Lahti relay, and it’s why Bolshunov wasn’t sanctioned here. If you’re being passed, it’s not up to you to avoid contact.
I would say that Bolshunov did not violate 343.9 because he didn’t noticeably take a worse line to block Klæbo. The 343.9 rule seems to me to be for competitors blocking in a sprint or mass start, where they know someone is trying to overtake and they are just doing whatever they can to stay in front. That’s not what Bolshunov did. He took his line, Klæbo took his line, and Klæbo ran out of real estate to make a clean pass. So Klæbo violated 343.10.2.
I do not see any issues with the V-board alignment. The course was wide there and they were taking that modern approach line on the outside that allowed them the most speed into the lanes as Devon and Alex mentioned. Klæbo had done it 3 times already. I bet there is video of Bolshunov taking the same line in a sprint heat too. I haven’t gone back to look. But the course is not the issue here. I will say that having watched it again, Devon’s questions about the corridors do not seem to apply. Pretty sure the incident happened well before the finish zone.
To remedy this type of situation from arising in the future, it would be easy; go back to the individual start 50 k. Otherwise, I am not sure we can. This one was a bummer, for sure, to see such a great race end with controversy and a jury decision. It’s not even like penalty kicks or free throws because there is no opportunity for the competitors to “earn” the win after the referee gets involved. That said I don’t think it’s appropriate to look at this and bemoan the state of ski racing. What we saw was two competitors, the two preeminent male faces of the sport right now, play a game of chicken, the result of which was more than a race incident. If Bolshunov had not broken a pole, had they just tangled or bumped and then had a great sprint decided by a lunge, few would have been complaining. Sure, the losing nation would have been pissed. Especially if Bolshunov had been beaten – the Russians would have lost it. But the rest of us would have been talking about a hard-fought race that nearly went off the rails but wound up going down to the wire. Instead, we saw the darkest timeline.
This is the logical end result of FIS’s move towards “more exciting/TV friendly racing.” Shorter courses and more mass starts are going to lead to tighter finishes. Ski exchanges mean that skiers can maintain high speeds until the end of a 50k. All of these are purposeful, desired outcomes. So to turn around and bemoan this sort of thing after setting the table for this for years is not only disingenuous, it’s insulting to our collective intelligence. No one – not FIS, not the media, not racers, not coaches – can act like these incidents aren’t going to be a regular part of the sport moving forward. This is inevitable. If FIS truly cares, they should put more interval starts and pursuits back into the program. They should lengthen loops. They should get rid of ski exchanges.
But they won’t do that because most of the time the fans love the contact and the near misses and all that. They made a calculation that TV fans want to see contact and tight racing and high speeds. Are they right? I don’t know. I think it is a tragedy to see such changes trickle down from the elite level because it’s not what I love about the sport. But maybe it is what younger kids love, the ones who grew up on sprints and Northug and Klæbo and all that. Remains to be seen.
The final set of comments are from Allan Serrano, also an experienced TD based in the Midwest:
In my perception, Bolshunov was very strategic with the choice of the line that he skied from the top of the Egli to the finish zone. He stayed tight to the inside of the corners and went for the far right finish corridor. Klæbo committed himself to pass on the right. Passing on the left would have forced him to dump some speed. Klæbo ran out of time and space to pass before the corridors began. Instead of yielding he continued into the same corridor with Bolshunov and this caused the broken pole.
I would have interpreted the rules on obstruction the same as the jury. Bolshunov was in the lead and it was Klæbo’s responsibility to pass without obstruction. There is quite a bit of precedent for a situation like this. Not just in the finish zone, but on curves out on a course. Ustiugov essentially did the same thing to Klæbo in Seefeld in 2019 and there are many more cases.
I know there has been some discussion that the v-boards should have been set wider, however, this defines the course. The space between the v-board and the fence is not usable as that is for timing equipment and cushion of safety to the fence. Assume that that space could be used, it would simply be another corridor, and Bolshunov (or any other savvy competitor would have gone for that corridor).
There is nothing that could be done in the Ried Stadium in Oberstdorf to improve the approach to the finish.
In looking towards the future, we know the problem occurs with stadiums that have high-speed turns coming into the finish zone (Lahti and Davos are good examples). Even the relatively low-speed 90-degree turn in Ruka has had issues. We always look to have an approach to the finish zone that does not favor any particular finish corridor. Sometimes it is possible to adjust the radius of the final curve so that it spits the competitors out in the center of the finish corridors.
In an ideal world, there would be a long, straight, uphill approach to all finishes.
One possible rule modification could be around the rule that mandates that competitors must choose a corridor. Corridors are defined by markers (whiskers or boughs). The rule does not require that the competitor ski in the classic track, only in the corridor. But even if it was the case that Bolshunov had to go to the classic track, then Klæbo would have had to go in a track in one of the corridors to the left.
343.9 In all competitions obstruction is not allowed. This behavior is defined as deliberately impeding, blocking, charging or pushing any competitor with any part of the body or ski equipment.
343.10.1 During an Interval Start competition competitors who are being overtaken must give way on the first demand.
This applies in classical technique courses even when there are two tracks and in free technique courses when the skier being overtaken may have to restrict his/her skating action.
343.10.2 For all other competitions, when overtaking occurs, competitors must not cause any obstruction.
The responsibility for a correct passing without obstruction is on the overtaking skier. The overtaking skier must have his/her skis in front of the skis of the overtaken skier before skiing his/her best line.
343.11 In sections with marked corridors, the competitors should choose a corridor. Competitors are allowed to leave the chosen corridor as long as ICR 343.9 is upheld.