The FIS instituted an overhaul of the points system used to determine the best individual skier in the World. We’re already seeing the consequences.
Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo had won all three races of the World Cup’s opening weekend races in Ruka. Any offseason doubts spurred by reports of his injuries or independent training practices went away. He was still the best skier in the world. Then, the following Friday in Lillehammer, illness forced Klaebo to sit out a 10 k skate race. His teammate Paal Golberg took over the World Cup overall lead with a 6th place finish. Klaebo returned the next day to handily win the sprint race: usually, that would mean he would return to the top of the World Cup standings, and that he would start Sunday’s 20 k classic in the yellow overall leader’s bib (which he would likely continue wearing for weeks to come. Instead, Klaebo declared the season over. “I gave up the opportunity to win the World Cup overall when I did not start yesterday,” he remarked to Langrenn, in a statement that rightfully made headlines. When the next day’s race did come, Klaebo was nowhere to be found. Instead, the yellow leader’s bib went back to Golberg, where it remains.
That Klaebo is the best male skier in the World is an easy conclusion to reach by watching any World Cup race in which he participates. Whether or not the World Cup points system is designed to objectively confirm that observation is a more complicated question, especially so since the International Ski Federation (FIS) instituted changes to its long-standing individual points system this season. Now three weeks into implementation, those systemic changes are resulting in more skiers earning more World Cup points. As a result, coaches and athletes are adjusting race plans, commentators are struggling to shake old habits, and the best skier in the world is apparently giving up on the whole thing. The rules of the game have changed, and it looks to be having an effect.
Top 50 is the New Top 30: The Changes
In remarks following the 10 k classic in Beitostolen—where Jessie Diggins finished 6th and Rosie Brennan finished 8th—US Ski Team Head Coach Matt Whitcomb’s reflections focused on one number: “It’s easy to forget that just 15 years ago it was often that we would have zero people in the top 30 in distance, so this is a natural progression and an important thing to remember.”
For years, “top 30” meant earning World Cup points. That level of finishing result became a signifier for a specific kind of success—gaining a foothold on the World Cup stage—and that expanded to serve as that same signifier at every stage of international skiing progress. In the United States, every collegiate circuit uses a version of the World Cup points system to 30th place for NCAA Championship qualification. Some regions use a version of the “top 30” system to determine selection for US Junior Nationals. The “top 30” system etched itself into the sport’s evolution too. When the sprint became an integral part of skiing in the early 2000s, there was no set number of competitors who would move on from qualifiers to heats . . . until, that is, the FIS decided on the top 30.
“Top 30 is good.” That’s what skiing has told us for a long time. So what happens when that single World Cup point gets pushed out to the skier in 50th place?
Well, it looks something like this:
The NEW FIS World Cup points system:
The OLD FIS World Cup points system:
In the NEW system, the points stretch further down the results, and the steps down are much, much, smaller.
Points stretching further down the results will primarily have consequences for skiers seeking selection to the World Cup, rather than the World Cup Overall competition itself. With the points stretching to 50th place (just short of the size of a usual World Cup field) there is now a more quantifiable way to compare developing skiers and assign discretionary starts for national ski federations. Whereas under the top 30 system, skiers outside of the points were at the whims of the sometimes wonky FIS points system, there is now a better chance to judge a skier’s potential on the World Cup based on their performance on the World Cup.
Smaller steps in points from 1st place (100 points) down is where the World Cup Overall competition really changes. See Table 1. below with the points awarded for 1st-5th place in the NEW system, and Table 2. with the points awarded for 1st-5th place in the OLD system, and the equivalent place-points total under the NEW system.
Table 1. Place-points total for 1st-5th place, NEW system
|NEW System Place||NEW System Points|
Table 2. Place-points total for 1st-5th place, and equivalent place-points total in NEW system
|OLD System Place||OLD System World Cup Points||NEW System place-points equivalent.|
When it comes to points earned, getting 1st place just doesn’t matter as much as it used to. That key change is amplified when considering that FIS has made very slight changes to the system surrounding the individual points matrix awarded for each race.
Bonus Points System Remains the Same
In a bid to introduce more dynamic racing a few years ago, FIS introduced a bonus point system in which checkpoint bonuses became incentives for World Cup points. That system remains unchanged and is found here:
Based on the points classifications found in cycling’s Grand Tours (the “Green Jersey,” for Tour de France fans), the bonus system was intended to introduce a series of points that skiers would tactically approach as intermediate sprints. The dynamics of ski races are very different from the dynamics of a cycling race, however, and in practice, the sight of skiers shuffling for a sprint in the middle of a distance race has been rare.
Why? Unlike cycling, ski racers exhibit less obvious discrepancies between who is a great sprinter and who is a great distance competitor. In mass start ski races, it’s rare to see a breakaway that is not comprised of skiers who would also excel at distance racing. The bonus points, in reality, have almost always gone to top contenders for the race itself.
The NEW points system seems to retroactively fit the existing bonus points system into this skiing reality. The consequences: in the OLD system, the 15 points for being 1st place through an intermediate checkpoint could almost never displace the points total for finishing 1st versus 2nd, or 2nd versus 3rd. In the NEW system though, with five points separating each of the first five places, winning the intermediate sprints could theoretically displace the 1st place finisher for the most points won on the day for a skier in 3rd or 4th place.
Example: In a 20 k mass start, the skier who will eventually finish 3rd place controls the front of the race for the first 10 k, earning 30 bonus points for winning two bonus point checkpoints (15 points each). The skier who will eventually finish 1st place is further down the pack through the early part of the race, but still in the top 10 through the checkpoints. They are 10th through each bonus point checkpoint, earning 2 total bonus points, before making a push to win the race. The 1st place skier’s total points for the race: 100 (1st place) + 2 (bonus points) = 102 total points. The 3rd place skier’s: 90 (3rd place) + 30 (bonus points) = 120 points total.
That may be unlikely, but it is at least now in the realm of possibility. Again, a whole lot more points for a whole lot more skiers.
Other Tweaks: Relays and Tour de Ski Bonus
There are two other notable tweaks in the new FIS system that pertain to specific events:
The first is that team events no longer are scored for individual points. That has already proven consequential in the way that the only team event so far this season has been raced. For instance, Matt Whitcomb identified the fact that no points were up for grabs as having directly influenced his decision that Jessie Diggins sat out the 4 x 5 km Team Relay in Beitostolen. Similarly, neither current World Cup overall leaders—Paal Golberg (NOR) for the men, nor Tiril Udnes Weng (NOR) for the women—raced the relay.
The second change is less drastic, but will be significant when the World Cup turns to the Tour de Ski (TDS) in a few weeks. FIS reduced the points bonus for winning the overall classification at the TDS from 400 points to 300 points, and adjusted the points bonuses for lower placings accordingly. The reduced emphasis in points—and subsequent reductions in prize money per placing—could result in the Tour de Ski becoming a less significant part of the World Cup calendar than it has been in recent years.
What It All Means
So, is Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo justified in his World Cup fatalism? The answer just might be that the FIS wants him to be. By pushing more points onto competitors who so often come 2nd, 3rd, or 4th place to the young Norwegian, they have created a new dynamic in this year’s bid for the Overall Crystal Globe. Consider the top two skiers in the current classification:
Top Two Places of Men’s Overall World Cup Points after Three weeks of racing, OLD system vs. NEW system:
- Paal Golberg (NOR) – NEW system 756 points, OLD system 575 points, Net Change: +181 points.
- Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo – NEW system 430 points, OLD system 430 points, Net Change: 0 points.
Klaebo’s points have not changed because the benchmark for the FIS points system has not changed. He has won every race he has entered, and 1st place is still worth 100 points (with 15 points for winning sprint qualifiers). Golberg, though, has benefitted from starting more races, and getting more points for being top 10, not top 1. It is a simple comparison, but it is also the only one that really, really matters for evaluating the change that the FIS wanted to make to the World Cup adopting the NEW system. The eventual winner of the Crystal Globe will now be determined by an incentive to do well in the races you start, and to start more races. Those are just the rules of the game; once the rules are understood, then it’s possible to understand what the new rules are incentivizing. FIS has followed that all the way through with its NEW point system, assuring that the season-long champion will be the skier who is most consistent and who competes most often.
As for us—the fans—is this the system by which we want our skiers rewarded? Should the best skier also have to be the most consistent? Should the strongest skier in a mass start go off the front early, or show their strategic aptitude by controlling a pack? Should skiers specialize in sprinting or distance? Should they continue to have to do well in both? And, of course, is the “top 50” the new “top 30?”
New points systems instituted by FIS has ski fans, ski coaches, and skiers talking; that new system also has the game being played differently on the World Cup tour this season.
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.