The International Ski Federation’s (FIS) annual Congress held at the end of May this year was an unusually dramatic affair. Fights over media rights – whether to look at serializing the sport of Nordic skiing into something like Formula 1’s Drive to Survive – sent skiing’s international governing body into a metaphorically different part of the Netflix catalog, less Dive to Survive and more House of Cards, West Wing, or Newsroom. If only Aaron Sorkin could write in Swiss German or French.
But like even the best political thrillers, the FIS Congress had its filler episode. And in this one, they dispensed with all the power plays and posturing to agree resoundingly on one thing; on May 26st in Milan, 94% of FIS member confederations voted to transfer international governance of para nordic skiing from the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) into the fold of FIS. That, in promise, will allow nordic programs across the globe to integrate para athletes more seamlessly into their national programs, and give para nordic access to FIS resources – events, venues, and yes, even the controversial but undeniably valuable media rights, that nordic skiing can sell to fund sport development.
It was as close to a watershed moment as there comes in the world of international sport governance. One moment, para nordic was viewed as a separate sport with separate governments, the next it was wholly integrated into the larger nordic skiing world.
That governmental change is one that came about as the result of two tides in the world of Paralympic sports.
One is overall growth; since the first winter Paralympic Games were held in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden in 1976, the winter Paralympic movement has grown in participation and competitiveness at the Paralympic games, as well as developed a robust number of para programs in skiing at all levels of development. At Örnsköldsvik 1976, there were 198 athletes from 16 nations at the Para Winter Games. At the Beijing 2022 Games, there were 564 athletes from 46 nations. That’s a stark trajectory of Paralympic sport and its promise to allow every person, with any physical ability, pursue sport at its highest level.
The parallel tide to this has been growth in complexity and size of the organization that up until now has governed all sports involved in the para sport, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). With that, especially over the past decade, has come complex but necessary debates about resource disparities between para and non-para disciplines, and over whether the IPC should have a bigger governmental presence over the sports it oversees than the comparatively less centralized and more hands-off International Olympic Committee (IOC) that oversees the broader Olympic movement. Last December, those debates culminated in a call for the IPC to adopt a revised constitution. A key provision called for the decentralization of sport governance for 10 sports – including alpine skiing, biathlon, and nordic skiing – to their respective international federations. With alpine skiing, biathlon, and nordic skiing included in this provision, there was a clear imperative directed to both FIS and the International Biathlon Union (IBU) to take up both the issue of adopting the IPC’s proposal to transfer governance, and to further build the two federation’s partnerships so that they included governance of para nordic and para biathlon.
The timeline for moving out the 10 sports from the IPC to their respective federations targeted a deadline to achieve the goal by the close of the next Paralympic/Olympic cycle – by the 2026 Milan-Cortina games. By acting in 2022, FIS and IBU took action to achieve that goal some four years earlier than was set, indicating that the move was one that was in the works since, or possibly prior to, the IPC’s decision in May.
U.S. Paralympics nordic skiing director Eileen Carey said in an email to Fasterskier that the move to transfer para nordic to FIS did, “happen faster than I anticipated.” However, Carey points out that this only reaffirms the growth and opportunity that FIS sees in para nordic, “I have been involved with para sports since 2010 and there’s been a shift from being perceived as a burden to manage or not worth the effort to people recognizing the value and importance of para sports. When [ski programs] have incorporated para-athletes into their programming, they have seen an increase in participation, fan base, donors, and sponsors. Para sports are compelling, and more people and organizations are recognizing that as visibility increases.”
On the benefits of FIS taking over the governance of para nordic, Carey says she is, “hopeful about the potential implications of this transition as it relates to the professionalism in our events, athlete promotion and support.” Incorporating para nordic into the FIS World Cup, Continental Cup, and domestic schedules will start to make the final integrative step for para nordic, as Carey puts it, that “we are one sport.”
FIS looks to North America, and finds a path cut by Para
There’s also a unique set of implications that FIS taking on para nordic might have for the growth of nordic skiing in North America. Historically, para nordic and para biathlon have had a much larger presence on the North American continent than the FIS’ non-para counterpart. While the FIS Nordic Ski World Championships have only ever been held twice in North America –in Rumford, Maine in 1950 and Thunder Bay, Ontario in 1995 – the IPC Para Nordic Ski World Championships have more regularly visited the continent, including to Jackson, Wyoming in 1990, Fort Kent, Maine in 2005, Cable, Wisconsin in 2015, Prince George, British Columbia in 2019. This year’s Para World Cup finals will be at Soldier Hollow, Utah in March as well. Beyond that, North American venues have had a regular presence on the IPC Para World Cup in a way that they simply have not on the FIS World Cup schedule.
An integrated para and non-para World Cup has already taken place in partnership between FIS and IPC in Dresden, Germnay in January 2020, which will serve as a model as FIS goes forward into what Carey says, “[will be] a season with a lot of learnings.” As FIS does look to integrate para nordic into that FIS World Cup schedule, it’s almost a certainty that they will be leveraging the experience of organizers who have developed and hosted IPC events in the past.
Which leads to an interesting proposition for us in North America. The draft schedule for the 2023-2024 FIS World Cup released this spring includes a joint Minneapolis/Cable World Cup to coincide with the American Birkiebeiner’s 50th anniversary (to read more on the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation’s plans, read our interview with Executive Director Ben Popp). As previously noted, Cable has already hosted IPC World Cups and IPC Para Nordic Ski World Championships in the past decade, meaning that FIS will look to a proven organizing group to make their return to the North American continent a success. That model of partnering with organizers with para nordic event experience could be a beacon as FIS looks to return to the North American continent in 2023 and be key in making North America the site of more World Cups in the future.
Growth for Para Nordic in the United States and beyond
U.S. Para Nordic paving the way for the sport would fit with historical developments as well. Carey points out that “In the U.S., we are ahead of the curve in integrating para athletes into clubs and teams and events…Our U.S. Ski & Snowboard and biathlon clubs are the development incubators for para nordic just as they are for the U.S. Ski Team. From the Bill Koch Festival to our National Championships, [these] are the same races sit skiers, one-armed skiers, and visually impaired skiers are doing to develop the sport.” That integration and investment has led to a program that regularly wins Paralympic medals and World Championships. Athletes like Oksana Masters, Dan Cnossen, Kendall Gretsch, and Jake Adicoff have made the U.S. a dominant and world-leading para program, charting a path for U.S. skiing success on a broader scale and reorienting nordic skiing’s examples to what is going on in the U.S. Carey says that the most important hope is that the FIS umbrella will help further “highlight, support, and develop” these athletes, and upcoming athletes like them, as they continue to inspire and send the message that the sport of skiing is for everyone, regardless of their physical abilities.
While the intricacies of sport governance can be boring – Carey also noted that the FIS system simply makes things like event insurance and athlete licensing less of a barrier to entry for para skiers – they also underscore important cultural shifts in the world of nordic skiing. One that sees more skiers, from more backgrounds, introduced to a sport where the quiet freedom that moving through a big, big world is one of the more sublime feelings available on Earth. To travel to another part of that metaphorical Netflix category, the political thriller will hopefully in time lead to the carefree beauty of viewing one of those BBC nature documentaries, probably Frozen Planet, for more of us everywhere.
Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.