FeatureNewsRacingWorld CupCross-Country Skiing Mulls a Long Term Future Without Russia (Part 2)

Pasha KahnMay 28, 2022

Click here to read part 1 of this series, which takes a look at international news surrounding the Russian athlete ban through the spring. For how these bans have impacted a broader cross-section of the sporting world and analysis of the complex questions surrounding whether Russian athletes should be able to compete, check out this recent Sports Illustrated article by Michael Rosenberg.

 

Concerns over both fair play and propaganda have been tied to the necessity of the ban on Russian athletes. Yet ultimately the reason given by FIS for the ban was to “ensure the safety and security of all athletes”. This wording removed any political connotations, and was criticized for its weak stance that failed to condemn the war in Ukraine. 

Natalia Nepryaeva slides for the heat win during a sprint stage of the 2021-2022 Tour de Ski in Oberstdorf, GER. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Still, there were real concerns over the safety of the Russian athletes at European races. On March 1st, due to threats, the organizer of the World Junior Championships for jumping moved the Russian contingent out of their hotel in downtown Zakopane, Poland with the aid of 200 police officers. In Norway, Neprayeva reported being threatened in the team’s hotel in Oslo, and the Norwegian Ski Association was flooded with messages insinuating that if the Russian athletes started a race they would not finish.

“[The] FIS followed the IOC decision and based [the ban] on security,” Ulvang said in a call in March with FasterSkier reporter Nat Herz. “This has also become a legal case because Russia has taken this to CAS [The Court of Arbitration for Sport].”

While the FIS cited athlete security for the ban, the Federation took their cue from the IOC which recommended banning Russia due to the violation of the Olympic truce. This historical agreement, presented at the UN prior to the start of the Games, calls for the “cessation of hostilities” surrounding the Games, incorporating the Olympic values of sportsmanship and unity “with a view to protecting, as far as possible, the interests of the athletes and sport in general, and to harness the power of sport to promote peace, dialogue and reconciliation more broadly.” 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022 violated the agreement, co-sponsored by the Russian Olympic Federation, to abide by the truce from February 4th through March 20th, surrounding both the Olympic and Paralympic Games in China.

“We will see,” continued Ulvang, “whether this is within the overall statutes of sport or FIS actually, because our rules are not made for such special things. This is a very, very special circumstance. I have spoken to many lawyers who think this is an interesting question.”

Waving the flag for the Russian Olympic Committee, Sergey Ustiugov brings home a win in the men’s 4 x 10 k Olympic relay. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Russia has pursued aggressive appeals of bans in a variety of sports, though with exception of Luge, largely without success. On May 21st, Vyalbe conceded that after consultations with lawyers, the Russian Ski Federation would not appeal the ban in CAS, saying, “We won’t win.”

An anonymous Russian blogger examined the legal considerations of banning Russia, and found that while the IOC had operated outside of its normal boundaries to call for a blanket ban, it had done so out of the special circumstances. Previously, it was the UN that called for athletic exclusions, such as that of Serbia during the siege of Sarajevo.

In this case, with Russia being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, any resolution could be unilaterally vetoed by the country, so in turn the burden fell to the 

IOC to take an action that was theoretically beyond its scope—though roughly in keeping with previous cases.  

For Russia, there is no easy recourse for dealing with sporting sanctions. Unlike economic ones, they do not inflict mutual pain and any victories achieved in the sport courts could easily be undermined by canceled visas or boycotts. 

Yet a sustained ban on Russian athletes is likely to reshape skiing in a number of ways, beginning with the sport’s media position. Russia now comprises the largest audience for cross country skiing, averaging 1.5 million per World Cup race and accounting for at least a third of the sport’s total audience. 

After Russia was banned this spring, Match!TV—a large Russian public broadcaster— pulled coverage of all international ski races and redirected its energies toward covering domestic competitions where it is likely to remain focused until Russian athletes return to the World Cup. 

Compounding the difficulties of that loss will be the continued transfer of ski racing from public TV in Norway, Sweden, and Finland to streaming service Viaplay, which charges a hefty subscription fee—as much as €40/month in Finland. 

Traditionally, public broadcasts in the Nordic countries accounted for half of skiing’s total audience. In 2020/21 that share fell to a third, in part because of Covid restrictions that kept their teams at home. Norway especially tuned out, with a 55% reduction in viewers, and numbers in Sweden, Finland, and Germany also declined. 

Offsetting this loss has been Russia, whose star skiers have propelled coverage of the World Cup from subscription channels to public TV in their country, boosting domestic viewership in 2020/21 by 600%.

The men’s 4 x 10 k Olympic relay podium: the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) came out on top ahead of Norway in second and France in third. (Photo: NordicFocus)

While last season’s viewership numbers have not yet been published by FIS, during Period 1 of the World Cup last season, VG found that the races shown on Viaplay averaged far fewer viewers than would be typical for an NRK broadcast. 

Should broadcasting continue to sustain a loss of 40% of its audience in the Nordic countries while also losing the majority of Russian viewers, the sport may find itself in crisis, as sponsors balk at paying for low return advertising. Still, it may be too soon to write Viaplay off completely—the service recorded more than a million Swedish viewers tuning in to the World Cup weekend in Lillehammer. 

As a whole, FIS cross country skiing has struggled to hold its audience, and losses in some regions have been more than offset by the recent tide of Russian viewers.

While Russian viewership is huge, most sponsors of the FIS World Cup are not particularly oriented toward Russia. Coop—the title sponsor of the Cross Country World Cup—is a Norwegian grocery chain. Coop early on sided with the Norwegian Ski Association in calling for the exclusion of Russian skiers. Many other sponsors have no business in Russia, and some, like Audi, have halted operations there. 

Despite the €29 million that Russian viewership is estimated to be worth to sponsors, the audience may hold little allure, perhaps because of the average Russian’s low purchasing power. In 2021 the average Russian made around 40,000 rubles annually, or about $6,400. Now, with many western businesses pulling out of Russia, there is even less value placed on reaching Russian fans. 

The women’s overall podium of the 2021-2022 Tour de Ski: Natalia Nepryaeva (RUS) was the overall champion ahead of Ebba Andersson (SWE) in second and Heidi Weng (NOR) in third. (Photo: NordicFocus)

For sponsors, the Russian exclusion may ultimately be beneficial. Germany, and Central Europe in general, are a core market for skiing—a market which has been drying up in an era of poor performances by the region’s skiers. 

With the German women winning gold at the Olympics and the retirement of the dominant force in distance racing, Norway’s Therese Johaug, the opportunities for success of sidelined countries could become plentiful on the women’s side with the additional absence of Russia.

On the men’s side of skiing, though Norway remains poised to dominate, a potential lack of a Russian team would create significant podium opportunities for up-and-coming American, Canadian, French, German, and Czech athletes. In recent seasons the rivalry between Norway and Russia has consumed almost three quarters of the World Cup podiums. The long term absence of Russia could allow the podium of men’s skiing to once again take on a broader flavor. 

Chris Grover, U.S. Ski & Snowboard Cross Country Program Director, clarified that a continued ban on Russian athletes wouldn’t change the quota system, writing, “We’ll have the same number of athletes starting each race. Obviously, Russia has a lot of the top performers, so there will be more opportunities for many other nations to secure podiums, gather World Cup prize money and points, and improve Red Group standing.”

Julia Kern leads the way in the first leg of the 4 x 5 k mixed relay in Falun, SWE in Mar. 2022. (Photo: NordicFocus)

All told, the changes that skiing will endure if Russia remains banned through next season may not be as dire as Russian sporting officials have suggested. 

“The tired rhetoric that world sport will not be able to fully develop without Russia does not seem to inspire the speakers themselves anymore,” wrote the anonymous blogger. “It is no coincidence that you can already hear talk about alternative tournaments, leagues, and other ways of self-reliant development.” 

The alternative for Russian skiing is to try to create its own circuit among friendly nations. To date, Russian skiing has only managed to solidify a sporting partnership with Belarus, via a cooperative agreement signed in May.

Stay tuned for Part 3, which considers historic athlete bans, and barriers the Russian program face to keep their program operating in the interim.

Pasha Kahn

Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.

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