Sync Cup Loveland Colorado: Photo Alex Skladanowski
In 2019, US Skiing established a new subcommittee, the Health of Sport task force. The task force was tasked to look at improvements in the system to lower costs and encourage participation by reducing the dropout rate. Here we are four years later. Although progress has been made, we need to do much more. Let’s look at the issues.
The “arms race” in ski racing is still alive and well. Point chasing for the FIS age groups is still common. Athletes are spending enormous amounts of money attending races out of their regions and out of the country, hoping for the “home run” opportunity.
As Steve Porino so eloquently pointed out in his article, the point system rewards not only home runs but also the longest of the home runs. We incentivize athletes to continually go for broke, hoping for the two races a year that will make their season. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would consider a season with, say, 50 starts, 48 DNFs and two world-beating results that rank them, point-wise, very high, as successful. Yet that is how the system rewards athletes. The fix is simple. Make selections strictly based on head-to-head national or NorAm results.
Of course, the US is not an island in ski racing. We must consider that other countries prioritize point achievement, as points matter for seeding at races, such as Junior World Championships, NorAms, Europa Cups, and ultimately World Cup start eligibility. This issue is only evidenced at very advanced levels of the sport and should affect only the best of our athletes. In the cases of our very best athletes, there are solutions for point opportunities. One that is obvious is doing everything we can to hold races with minimum point opportunities. Getting select US and Canadian athletes with low points to NorAms is critical. Perhaps providing funding to attract those athletes is possible. Notably, colleges do use head-to-head results to evaluate their team selections.
The community has tried. The random seeding initiative for U16s has taken hold in one division, Rocky, and has been experimented with in other regions. By all reports, it has accomplished what was intended. It provides opportunities for lesser accomplished athletes to sometimes enjoy preferential starts. Also, it might encourage some to stay with the sport longer. It also is an excellent development opportunity for the best to frequently experience starting from the back, precisely what they will face as U18s.
However, the issue is that just having one division adopt the initiative creates an unfair point dispersion.
If you look at Rocky’s relative points vs. the other divisions and regions, especially Central, it is clear that Rocky athletes have artificially higher points. However, even that would be an easy fix; change U16 Nationals to random seeding. As long as we maintain modified point seeding, it will put Rocky athletes at a disadvantage if they are the only division to fully implement it.
Even so, it is fascinating to note that even with this disadvantage, Rocky dominated the U16 regions cup, single-handedly scoring more points than the rest of the country combined. Perhaps the enhanced development achieved from the initiative has resulted in Rocky gaining more than the disadvantaged point opportunities. Of course, there is a vast difference between correlation and causation. No serious observer would say with a straight face that this policy adoption caused Rocky’s performance. What is happening in Rocky is a discussion we should be having. I will write about that in an upcoming Fall Line. In the meantime, we invite others to engage in this discussion.
Path forward for Health of Sport
We are making progress. Newly established rules eliminating Southern Hemisphere racing for first-year FIS is a positive step. These are costly trips not available to all athletes. Limiting starts for the first year FIS athletes has been implemented but is at risk of being eliminated or diluted at this year’s congress. Excessive racing is, by its very nature, detrimental to development. If head-to-head racing for advancement and nominations were implemented, much of the drive for more starts would diminish. Point chasing only helps the marginal athletes anyway—the best rocket through the system in fewer starts without requiring any miracle results. Kirk Dwyer’s article on course setting and venue choices is an obvious initiative that would help.
- Proper hill choice and preparation for NorAms are vital. Train more and race less is a proven development methodology.
- Eliminate points for U16s. Absent that, at least use variable starts for inter-divisional races and national U16 events.
- Maintain prohibitions against Southern Hemisphere races, at least for first-year FIS athletes.
- Maintain current start limitations for first-year FIS athletes.
- Use head-to-head racing for all selections.
We have made progress in improving the health of ski racing. Let’s keep the momentum going for the future of our sport.
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