FeatureNewsRacingWorld CupCross-Country Skiing Mulls a Long Term Future Without Russia (Part 3)

Pasha KahnJune 3, 2022

Click here to read part 1 and part 2 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.

Historically, athlete bans meant to pressure a government have not been short. South Africa was banned by the IOC over its racial apartheid policies for 27 years from 1964 until 1991. In 1992 the U.N. sanctioned Serbia and Montenegro over the shelling of Sarajevo and urged their athletes to be banned from international competition. The IOC took up the ban, but reversed course and allowed Serbian athletes to compete under a neutral flag at the 1992 Olympics. 

Stepanova has pointed out this example on her Instagram page as a precedent that should be followed, though it should be pointed out that Serbia was absent at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. All told, the Serbian state was largely exiled from international sport from 1992 – 1995. 

Veronika Stepanova flexes with her Olympic relay gold medal during the 2022 Games in Zhangjiakou, CHN. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Stepanova’s request to compete under a neutral flag rings a little hollow: the Russian ski team is already a little over two years into its four year WADA ban for state sponsored doping that requires it to compete under a neutral flag at championships. 

A similar neutrality option was offered as a solution to the Russian national soccer team which was due to face Poland in a playoff match for qualification at the FIFA World Cup. Poland rejected the idea saying, “We are not interested in playing this game of appearances.” The Polish refusal to play Russia under any terms helped to force the IOC’s swift decision to recommend banning Russia from all sports. 

“If doping wounds were quite successfully treated by time, then here the situation is different,” wrote an anonymous Russian blogger. “In fact, government policy has come into direct and insurmountable conflict with the ability to participate in the global sports movement. And now it seems that all this will last for years, if not decades.”

***

Even if Russia were to return to the World Cup next season, it’s unclear that they would be able to operate at the same level as in the past, which has helped to fuel what US Ski Team Coach Matt Whitcomb refers to as a  “waxing arms race” on the World Cup circuit.

According to Team Manager Elena Vyalbe, funding the Russian ski machine has been a challenge. She reported that the team’s budget in 2020 amounted to around 50 million rubles, roughly $600,000 at the time. According to Markus Cramer, who coached for Russia until this spring, the cost of supporting an athlete over the course of a year is more than $150,000—a figure that calls into question Vyalbe’s statement about the team’s budget.

However, the Russian funding structure is murky, with much additional regional support to athletes provided by local extraction industries. Vyalbe complained in 2020 that sponsorships were scarce, saying, “No matter how well [Bolshunov] performed last year, we did not have a single new sponsor. God forbid that the current ones do not go away.” 

In an April 5th interview with Championat, Vyalbe clarified the sources of the team’s funding: “We get most of the funds from the Ministry of Sports, the [Russian Olympic Committee] gives money for some things,” and that sponsorship amounted to “not even tears, but some kind of snot. We have a small budget.”

The team’s primary sponsorship has come from Lukoil Oil Company since 1997. Whether or not Lukoil will be able to continue to fund Russian skiing remains to be seen. The company reported its highest annual profit in seven years at the same time that its shares plummeted on the London Stock Exchange after the invasion, losing 91% of their value before trading was halted March 3rd. 

Though the ruble has recovered from its post invasion plummet, inflation in Russia is likely to reach at least 16% this year. That, coupled with uncertainty over the team’s competition status and the dismal prospects for the Russian economy, which is predicted by the IMF to contract 8.5% this year, has the potential to squeeze the team’s budget.

Individual athletes also find themselves in a difficult position. Brav, the parent company of Swix and Toko, was quick to cancel sponsorship agreements with Russian  athletes, as did Kinetixx gloves. Expressen reported that Swedish ski company SkiGO was maintaining their partnership with Bolshunov, though SkiGO boss Christer Majbäck denied this, saying, “We don’t have any cooperation at all, it’s absolutely impossible. You don’t even have to ask me or SkiGO what we think about the war.”

Alexander Bolshunov observes trailside during the 2021-2022 Tour de Ski in Oberstdorf, Germany. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Rossignol was standing by Bolshunov until an Instagram photo proved to be too much: not long after Russia was banned, Bolshunov visited a museum and posed for a photo in an old-timey Soviet race suit, captioning the photo “USSR 1980” —which happened to be the year that Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, though it may also have been a  reference to the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics. In any case, Rossignol demanded Bolshunov remove the photo, which he did, but by the following day Rossignol said it was no longer supporting Russian athletes and removed them from its website. 

Bolshunov could keep his skis, Rossignol said, but no new skis would be sent to Russia. 

Similarly Fischer removed Russian athletes from its site. Fischer Communications Director Franz Fottinger wrote in an email, “All our contracts with athletes are based on their participation in World Cup races. If racers are excluded from the World Cup, there is no more basis to fulfill the contract.” 

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The Russian athletes have not exactly lost their ski partnerships, rather they are suspended until their return to the international circuit. Nevertheless, this has provoked a strong reaction in Russia, with calls to revamp ski production in the country.

The only significant ski production facility in Russia is the STC factory in Balabovo, around 100 km southwest of Moscow. It employs 350 workers making mostly recreational and kids skis. Whether the factory can be retooled to the demands of making race stock skis is questionable.

Alexander Pechersky, the head of service for the Russian ski team said that “No matter how optimistic I am, I understand that the process is not fast and it can take at least 4 to 6 years to produce skis of an acceptable competitive level.”

Pechersky continued, “Miracles do not happen, but I want to try … I still look at this idea with optimism, it is very interesting to deal with it. If things move forward, then the Russian sports market can get a model that, for relatively little money, will cover the needs of at least youth sports.”

The Russian Olympic Committee takes gold in the men’s 4 x 10 k relay in Zhangjiakou. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Despite the public separation between sponsors and Russian athletes, some critical items are still quietly being made available to the team, according to Viktor Golovin, the deputy head of ski service for the Russian national team. “I will not name the companies, Golovin said, “but the Russian team at the start of the summer season is provided with new rollers in full, despite all the restrictions.

The conflict in Ukraine also threatens to continue to squeeze the international supply of skis. Europe’s largest ski factory is located in Mukachevo, Ukraine and has traditionally produced some 800,000 pairs of cross country skis annually, primarily for Fischer. After a fire destroyed the facility in October of 2020, the factory remained offline for all of 2021 and was rebuilt into a state of the art ski production center. Just as final certification for the factory arrived in early February, the war broke out. 

The factory’s director, Andriy Ryabich, wrote on his Facebook page on February 26th that “The work of the Fisher-Mukachevo enterprise has been suspended and the majority of the people went to the army in different directions and will defend our city, region and all [of] Ukraine.” 

With much of the ski factories workforce at war during the critical spring months of ski production, ski shortages could once again factor in next season.

***

For their part, the Russian Ski Federation has ordered the team to prepare with the expectation that they will compete on the World Cup, though their draft schedule indicates the team is planning to stay in Russia through next spring. 

Curiously, in the face of unprecedented challenges the national team has expanded–to a historically large 46 skier strong team, divided into five training groups. 

The team was dealt a blow with the departure of Markus Cramer this spring. He will join the Italian national team, though he will continue to coach Ustiugov from afar. 

Former Russian ski coach Markus Cramer joins the Italian National Team for the 2022-23 season. (Photo: Nat Herz / ADN)

Cramer’s tenure was instrumental in revamping the team’s training methods. Of the five training groups, three are closely tied to his methodologies. Two groups are led by Cramer protégés Egor Sorin and Petr Sedov, and a third by Sorin’s former assistant—Andrey Nutrikhin.

The group led by Yuri Borodavko—who subscribes to a more Soviet era training philosophy and who was once suspended for doping activities—will add big names such as Yulia Stupak and Ivan Yakimushkin to an already impressive roster that includes Bolshunov and Neprayeva. Unmoved by the political climate, Borodavko’s group will begin the training year on May 15th with a controversial camp in Russian occupied Crimea.

Yulia Stupak (RUS) races a freestyle sprint qualifier in Lahti, FIN in February 2022. (Photo: NordicFocus)

A Russian return to the World Cup is complicated by the unusually acidic edge the team has brought to the circuit, with acrimony spilling over into social media trolling and confrontations on the ski course.

Russian sport media has reacted strongly to the FIS ban by portraying the decision as a Norwegian power move and athletes such as Johannes Høsflot Klæbo who have supported the ban have been subjected to vitriol from Russian officials. Even before the invasion, Russian media has, in the post Sochi era, covered skiing in an increasingly strident and conspiratorial manner, dominated by a narrative of sporting victimhood and Russophobia

Should Russia remain banned next season, or even longer, their absence may help FIS enact one of the most challenging maneuvers they have undertaken—the transition to fluoro-free racing, which FIS has now committed to enforcing next season. 

Chris Grover downplayed the idea that Russia’s absence will make the transition easier, writing, “It doesn’t matter so much which nations are present at a given World Cup weekend. We need a testing system that all of the athletes, coaches, technicians and fans can trust.” 

Fears of an imperfect test for fluoros have been punctuated with not so subtle hints of suspicion aimed at the Russian team. Golovin addressed these concerns, saying, “The Finns told us directly that the Russians are closed, no one knows what they do with skis. I suggested that they come to our wax truck and have a look…Come and see, and there is no need to make unfounded accusations.” 

Nevertheless, Russia’s absence may lessen unstated distrust on the circuit, and perhaps improve cooperation and tolerance as the ban is enforced.

To that end, it may be a mistake for FIS to end the ban before next season regardless of whether or not the war in Ukraine ends in the interim. All of the justifications for the ban are likely to continue into next season: security threats to Russian athletes, the Kremlin’s use of skiers for pro-war propaganda, and the inability of Ukrainian skiers engaged in the country’s defense to prepare for next season. Finally, there has been no attempt at reconciliation by Russian skiing toward the wider ski world, with intransigent blaming of Norway for the present situation. In short, Russian skiing has rejected the rest of the ski world and has found itself in the cold. 

Alexander Bolshunov takes Olympic gold in the men’s mass start 30 k, shortened from 50 k due to temperatures and extreme wind. (Photo: NordicFocus)

As Ulvang pointed out, skiing cannot be separated from society. 

It’s very important that we split [distinctions] between the sanction against a nation and the sanction against the Putin regime,” Ulvang told FasterSkier reporter Nat Herz in March. “I hope I’m still friends with the athletes and that we’re able to split between a reaction against the regime. It’s nothing personal. In the big picture we are all repping our nations and our regimes. We need legitimacy from society to exist. We need public money [for] our training facilities and to make tracks and courses and we need support.” 

Pasha Kahn

Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.

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