Today the International Ski Federation (FIS) banned all Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials from taking part in any remaining FIS competitions. The press release stated, “The FIS Council decided unanimously in line with the IOC recommendation, that with immediate effect, no Russian or Belarusian athlete shall participate in any FIS competition at any level through the end of the 2021-2022 season.”
The belated decision came after a power struggle between the Norwegian Ski Association and FIS, roiling the ski world and casting doubt upon the remainder of the World Cup season.
On Saturday, February 26th the board of the Norwegian Ski Association decided in a special meeting to uninvite Russian and Belarusian athletes from its upcoming World Cup races in Drammen and Holmenkollen. The position of the Ski Association was clear: “We do not want their participation.”
However, the Norwegian Ski Association and the event organizers lacked the authority to bar athletes, and FIS stood by their position of allowing all athletes to compete, telling NRK “The FIS board has been clear in its approach to Russian athletes in all FIS competitions… national federations and local organizers should not exclude athletes on the grounds of gender, race, nationality or sexual orientation.”
On Monday, February 28 the Russian cross country ski team arrived in Oslo despite their lack of welcome and were met by Norwegian reporters at the Gardermoen airport. The athletes declined to speak, but Bolshunov’s coach, Yuri Borodavko did. “Well, it’s a terrible situation,” Borodavko told NRK. “War is always terrible. No one has ever wanted a war, not even us. Thank God there are sensible people with common sense, who do not give in to the panic that is now spreading throughout the world, and it is the leaders of FIS.”
On Monday the Ski Associations for Norway, Sweden, and Finland wrote to FIS to ask for the exclusion of Russian athletes. Later in the day, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) revised their advice and requested the exclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes.
“[The Ski Associations] letter was somewhat surprising to us,” said FIS Secretary General Michel Vion.
FIS, seemingly unable to move in tandem with events, made no response, and Vegard Ulvang pushed the Norwegian Ski Association to carry through with the refusal to host Russian athletes, saying, “It is a decision that FIS should have made. When they do not take it, it is we [Norway], who own the event, who must take it. If FIS disagrees with the decision, they can take the World Cup from us, it is a risk we should take. Then we will also force FIS to take active action.”
With no word from FIS, the Norwegian Ski Association hosted a series of crisis meetings on Monday night and early Tuesday morning, during which the organization decided to override FIS and ban all Russian and Belarussian athletes from competing, regardless of the consequences of the action.
“We had hoped that FIS would come to that decision on behalf of the entire ski sport,” said Norwegian Ski Association President Erik Røste, “But now the Ski Association can not wait any longer.”
FIS Secretary General Vion dismissed the position of the Norwegians saying, “We received some emails, with inquiries that were not reality-oriented. The Norwegian Ski Association does not have the authority to cancel anything or to exclude athletes. They express a wish that there will be no Russian athletes, but it was just a wish.”
The Russian ski team, training in Holmenkollen on Tuesday morning confirmed that they would leave Norway and not participate in the World Cup. “Let our rivals compete,” Borodavko told VG. “Let’s just say they are not our friends and not comrades.”
With the decision effectively already taken, FIS seized the moment at noon Central European time on Tuesday and banned the Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials. “I am very happy that FIS ended up in that position,” said Røste, adding, “It has taken too long, it could have come earlier.”
The FIS decision narrowly averted the likely cancellation of the remaining World Cup races and the flight of sponsors.
Geirr Kihle, the event organizer of the Drammen city sprints this Thursday had urged fans to come to the event in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian colors. He said he hoped the public’s reception to the Russian athletes would be, “to put it a little simply, sour.”
On Tuesday morning, Drammen said they would withdraw from hosting the race if the Russian athletes were not banned.
Pressure on FIS also came from Coop—the title sponsor of the World Cup. “We have given FIS clear guidelines for what we believe,” said Takle Friis, the Director of Communications for Coop to VG. “They must respond immediately. In sympathy and solidarity with Ukraine, we can not accept that the Russian team will go to the World Cup.”
Coop will adopt the Ukrainian colors for their logo on race bibs, and are working to change trailside billboards at Holmenkollen to promote donations to the Red Cross.
Sponsorship deals for Russian athletes also began to evaporate. Brav, the parent company of Swix and Toko announced on Monday that effective immediately, it will end all business in Russia and sever ties with Russian athletes.
The conflict between the sporting associations and FIS is yet another note in a habit of day-too-late decision making by the governing body of world skiing. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US ski team along with Norway, Sweden, and Finland all declared that they would not send teams to the scheduled World Cup Finals in Tyumen, Russia. After a day of urging FIS to act, the following day FIS canceled all remaining events in Russia. By then, it was already a moot point—no one was going.
Johannes Klæbo has been perhaps the most outspoken athlete on the issue. On Monday, he told VG “I think it is both cowardly and weak that FIS does not make the decision to deny Russia participation in Norway and in the World Cup. FIS should have done as Ski Classics [did] – and said no to Russia.”
The Visma Ski Classics, a rival circuit to that of FIS World Cup, moved swiftly on Monday to remove Russian skiers from the Vasaloppet and the season long competition.
The FIS decision came too late for some quarters: Ӧstersund announced that there was no longer sufficient time to get a budget and sponsorship ready to host the World Cup Finals.
A day earlier, the municipality of Ӧstersund, which owns the ski trails, declared that they would bar the use of the ski trails for the event if FIS did not ban Russian athletes.
The World Cup will now likely end a week earlier than scheduled in Falun, Sweden on March 13th.
The late decision from FIS stoked grumbles that the federation may be overly beholden to Russian interests. As Drammen race organizer Geirr Kihle put it about sport federations in general, “Those who are called the ‘high lords’ have a hard time deciding. It is very common for Russians to sit on the boards. They are involved in deciding and will probably almost veto if they do not get what they want.”
Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet also questioned the interests of new FIS President Johan Eliasch, the Swedish-British billionaire and former CEO of the ski company HEAD. Dagbladet challenged Eliasch’s record of supporting Russian tennis star, and HEAD athlete Maria Maria Sharapova, after tested positive in 2016 for banned substance Meldonium. Eliasch at the time said “Has WADA something against Russia? I believe they do.”
The assertion that FIS is biased towards Russia was refuted by Secretary General Vion who replied to the NRK question, “Of course not! How can you say that?” He pointed out that Elena Valbe, the head of Russian skiing, is the only Russian to sit on the 19 member council.
Nevertheless, the situation is far from resolved. NRK commentator Jan Petter Saltvedt rejected the phrasing that FIS used to ban the athletes which focused on athlete safety and in his words, lacked “the essential thing, namely the condemnation of Russia’s invasion.”
“The whole reasoning is untrustworthy and deficient,” argued Saltvedt. “Many questions remain about what kind of power struggle this has been and what FIS leaders really think about this.”
The cautious wording from FIS likely has much to do with an expected appeal by the Russians in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
When the International Biathlon Union decided on Saturday to require Russian athletes to compete under a neutral flag, their team promptly withdrew from the World Cup, stating, “We are furious at these illegal actions of the IBU and will defend the rights of our athletes and the rights of the RBU as a member of the International Federation.”
The case is expected to end up in CAS, and there is a likelihood that the same will occur in cross country skiing.
The Russian team will leave Norway on Wednesday, reported Borodavko to NRK. “When you start to mix politics into the picture,” Borodavko said, “there is something we can not accept, so therefore we go back.” With no flights between Europe and Russia, their journey home will likely route them through Turkey.
The manner in which FIS came to the decision will likely deal a blow to its credibility, managing in a single stroke to alienate both its Scandinavian and Russian partners. FIS has struggled to rise to the challenge that this season has presented, with previous misses being the COVID related cancellations of World Cup races in France and Slovenia, an impromptu shortening of the men’s Olympic 50 k, and a belated cancelation of the World Cup Finals in Russia.
“Things take time,” Klæbo said on Friday, adding, “But I certainly think we do not have to wait until the longest every single time.”
Jens Burman of Sweden may have summed it best to Aftenbladet on Tuesday morning before FIS’s announcement. “In principle, everyone has excluded them, but not FIS. You are almost a little ashamed.”
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.