Editor’s note: The below article has been designated an opinion piece by Ski Racing Media. We have not independently investigated these findings, but we do have a great deal of respect for Dr. Federiga Bindi and the work she does at Alta Badia Ski Academy.
This year, in Alpine skiing at the Olympic Winter Games, there will be a maximum of 153 competitors per gender, which means many World Cup athletes will watch the Games from home. As explained in this article by Ski Racing Media, there are three criteria to qualify for the Games. As a result, the U.S. got six spots for the men and nine for the women. Since not all countries participate in Alpine skiing, or some may decide not to send their full quota, the exceeding spots are being reallocated through this ranking system, which as Edie Thys Morgan points out, leaves prominent competitors out of the mix.
But there is more to this story. As many as nine men achieved Olympic qualification thanks to questionable races. Nine spots that could have allowed athletes like Steven Nyman or Jared Goldberg (15th at the Bormio downhill) to go to China. But they are not the only ones.
Here’s how it happened:
Imagine you hold a passport from an exotic country. One day, you wake up and decide you want to use it to become an Olympian. This is more common than one may think. Mostly, these are adults who have the money and a few months to spare. Some of these people have little to no domestic competition experience. The only thing between them and the Olympics is lowering their FIS points to 160 either in slalom or GS. The mark of 160 FIS points is easily attainable by an average first-year FIS athlete. However, if one does not have a real ski racing background, that can be more challenging, especially in a short timeframe.
The complex way FIS points are determined is thought to guarantee fairness across the globe. Of course, variables like hill morphology, snow, and athlete pool can influence the results and may at times create “easier” races to score. That is generally considered within the realm of fairness. However, in the last three months, three sets of races changed that.
It began in November, in the middle of the desert. Four days of Entry League FIS (ENL) slalom races were organized in Dubai, gathering 23 competitors, ranging from 34 FIS points to 999. Why exactly people with 34 or 50 FIS points would travel all the way to Dubai for an ENL race is unclear. In any event, it may have been the dry desert air, but all four top-ranked competitors clearly underperformed. For the bottom competitors, that meant substantial FIS-point gains: Five out of the seven skiers with more than 160 FIS points made the threshold in slalom. None of these skiers were able to repeat the Dubai performance in subsequent races, but once low points are achieved, they stay for a while.
In late December, in Kolasin, Montenegro, the Timor Leste and the Jamaican Ski Federations organized four National Championship (NC) GS races. With FIS rules restricting foreigners to 25 in NC races, only 31 racers competed. Mysteriously, here too, the top-four athletes significantly underperformed. Again, that allowed seven out of the 14 worst-ranked skiers to go below 160 in GS. None were able to repeat the results elsewhere or have not raced since. Sadly for the organizers, a few racers who had scored up to 300 FIS points remained outside the threshold.
A third and last set of races was therefore hastily organized in January in Malbun, Liechtenstein, with a clear goal: Olympic qualification for the remaining racers. As the Liechtenstein Ski Association (LSV) wrote on its website: “The Jamaican Ski Federation organizes 2 GS NC / NJC races … the Capo Verde Ski Federation organizes 2 GS NC / NJC races. Both nations need 160 points to participate in the Olympics. LSV supports these two ‘Exotic Nation’ ski associations to give them a chance to take part in the Olympics.” (Translation from German from the www.lsv.li website.)
Despite the central location in the Alps, and with four GS races in two days, the races only saw 10 competitors. Five racers had 52 FIS points on average (including one 34-point racer who has 231 World Cup starts). The other five racers averaged 191 FIS points. On a slight variation of the theme, this time, at each of the races, four out of the five top-scoring athletes underperformed. The result was, however, even better than Dubai and Kolasin for the high-point competitors, who all reached the goal of lowering below 160 FIS points in GS.
Et voilà. In the span of three months, thanks to three sets of races, over a dozen skiers lowered their points exponentially in some cases, achieving scores that they are unlikely to ever repeat while conquering nine spots for Beijing.
Nine grown men holding passports from exotic countries qualified either in slalom or GS thanks to a number of questionable races. All it took was money to organize the races, a couple of months to race in them, and a bunch of highly scored racers who magically underperformed at every single race, a frequency defying all statistical odds. Morally and ethically questionable and hardly the spirit of the Olympic Winter Games.
If all this was done within the realm of FIS rules, clearly the FIS rules need to be changed. If this goes unpunished, more people will feel entitled to do the same. While anyone should have the right to try to compete in the Olympic Games, is it still hard work and dedication that matters? Or taking a shortcut?
What is outrageous in all this is that for each of the nine Olympic spots that were conquered by bending the rules and using the shortcut, there is a real athlete who will not be going to China. Athletes who have worked so hard all their life, not just a couple of months, who have raced hundreds of times, not just handful of times, people who got hurt and came back and who sacrificed so much to be there. And now their rightful spot is taken by people who got up one day and thought it would be fancy to become “an Olympian.” Let’s not forget the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius – Communiter (Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together).
Dr. Federiga Bindi is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Rome Tor Vergata and a Fellow at the Institute for Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. A former ski racer, Dr Bindi is also founding director of the Alta Badia Ski Academy and serves as PI to grant-based international project promoting education and skills development in Alpine skiing (ESKI).
Racer pictured above is for illustrative purposes only. Courtesy Ski Dubai.