Race officials put cross-country skiers on notice early this year that those who tried to double-pole classic races on skis without kickwax would be held to strict technique standards: in the first weekend of racing in Norway, defending World Cup Champion Martin Johnsrud Sundby (along with two others) was disqualified for skating in a 10 k classic race.
The message got even more clear this weekend when 15 men’s teams and one women’s team were given time penalties in the National Championships relay in Tromø for classic technique violations.
The race jury placed a video camera on a section they had identified in their course inspection as a place that would be tricky to navigate on unwaxed skis.
“It’s actually quite a steep uphill, a herringbone hill,” explained John Aalberg, the Technical Delegate for the weekend, in a phone call on Monday. “If you classic ski, probably 99% of all skiers would herringbone up it… It looks like a corner, but it’s a corner on a hill that’s very steep. It’s a tricky situation because there’s no tracks. You don’t set tracks on a herringbone hill, they’d just be washed out after warm-up anyway if you did. It’s kind of a new situation.”
The video showed that some of the racers double-poled carefully and painstakingly up the steep pitch, while others threw in one push off their outside leg to straighten their trajectory. Others pushed off their outside ski several times in a row, and a few even tossed in a stride of V1.
“We felt that this is not classical technique,” Aalberg said. “You gain so much advantage skating up there… We reviewed very carefully back and forth. We allowed those that did a stride or two getting into the hill and maybe at the top of the hill. We didn’t judge that as a violation. But those that were skating several strides up, those were the 15 teams that we reacted to.”
While a standard FIS jury consists of three members, Aalberg explained that for the championships there were four: him, two Assistant Technical Delegates, and the Chief of Competition (a position titled Rennleder in Norwegian), Sylvi Ofstad.
There were also two technique controllers. All six members agreed on the action, which gave a three-minute time penalty for technique infractions. The podium remained unchanged by the penalties – Lyn, a club from a northern district of Oslo whose roster included Hans Christer Holund, came out on top – but fourth-place Henning moved down to sixth place.
“So we discussed: either we let it go, or we treat everybody the same,” Aalberg said. “We thought, if we do nothing and let it go, then everything we have done this year is wasted. The racers, especially the World Cup racers, are telling us to be strict and consistent. So it was a tough decision, but we wanted to prove a point or put it on the agenda: if everybody starts to double pole, and if you loosen up the rules at the same time, that’s the end of classic skiing.”
The sanctions shook up the results sheet considerably (15 teams represented almost a third of the 50 teams who finished without lapping). Racers and coaches were angry.
“It was interesting,” Aalberg said. “We showed it to a couple of them and they agreed it was skating. And then they started pointing out, well how about this guy? How come you didn’t take that guy? It’s like when you’re driving too fast, and then you complain that someone else was also driving fast and didn’t get caught.”
Some coaches are still angry. Øistein Lunde of FIS told Norwegian ski website Langrenn.com on Monday that four teams had filed appeals and that an appeals committee had 72 hours to look at the evidence and come to a conclusion.
“In the jury room, we were greeted with a very arrogant attitude,” Svein Riseth told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “They had no clear evidence… If they have balls they will send the video to the clubs who were affected so we can see it.”
Riseth may have simply not had time to converse with the jury, as he was catching a flight; Aalberg mentioned that they had shown the video to some racers.
And, the race organizers posted the video online so that not only could the affected clubs view it, but so could everyone else.
The topic was discussed by FIS Technical Delegates before this season, as well as by technical staff in Norway. Both groups meant to make a concerted effort to be more strict in enforcing technique rules this season.
The FIS Cross Country Sub-Committee for Rules, which Aalberg is part of, posted an exhaustive set of diagrams of appropriate and illegal technique for classic races back in November. That has been freely available on the FIS website with other competition rules documents for ten weeks now.
The increased focus was also mentioned in a FIS media article of the “most important rule changes” for the upcoming season.
“I’ve spoken to some of the national team coaches and the coaches that I know, and they are all in support of being strict,” Aalberg said. “They are all saying that this is good and it needs to be done in order to clean up a bit. Coaches or team leaders that are not usually on the high level races don’t understand the rules and they think that this is allowed. So there’s a discrepancy somewhere.”
He doesn’t believe that the skiers caught on tape were breaking the rules on purpose. Instead, it’s simply that more and more athletes are pushing to double-pole classic races. This challenges them in new ways.
“It’s not intentional at all,” Aalberg said of the infractions this weekend. “Think of yourself. If you double pole up the hill and you peter out, your foot automatically goes out. It’s not intentional at all. But it doesn’t matter if it’s intentional or not, you still get a big advantage.”
He noted that some of the top skiers know the technique rules well, and are also strong enough to follow them. That’s why they podium was unaffected by technique violations.
“The good skiers, the stronger ones, they are strong enough to do proper technique,” Aalberg explained. “It’s the next ones, who are trying to hang on, but they aren’t strong enough. So that’s when you see them do the wrong technique. Then you have the slowest ones, who are waxing, and they are doing proper technique. But it’s in the middle group where we saw most of the issues.”
Even though the violations are unintentional, he is hopeful that strict enforcement can improve technique.
“It has been a lot better this year on the World Cup level,” Aalberg said. “I was the TD in Kuusamo and have been watching the World Cups live. I think it’s much better classic skiing on the World Cup level. We don’t really see much anymore. We’ve had a few cases but nothing like we saw last year and the year before, now that we are stricter and more consistent.”