Competitive Edge:
The Great Competitive Unknown

By J.D. Downing

One of the many wonderful things about cross country ski competition is how removed our sport has remained from so many of the world’s problems.

Sure, there has been the plague of doping, culminating (hopefully) with the busts at the 2002 Olympics. But even cross country skiing’s doping problems pale compared to the chronic situation in cycling. The general consensus is that skiing has made significant progress over the past eight years to seriously clean up the sport. Certainly, public confidence has been restored, which is not the case with cycling.

There is no question that cross country skiing has entirely avoided the horrors of the mass media sports; whether it be the daily arrest blotter, steroid scandals, dog fighting, referee scandals -- you get the idea. Skiers ripping around a winter trail are, by comparison, as pure as the proverbial driven snow.

The Dusseldorf sprints puts up to 100,000 spectators within inches of our biggest stars. Television networks get fired up to show the spectacle of skiers on a strip of snow in a major downtown area. A time trial through the woods? Not so much.

Yet over the past couple seasons, a creeping fog of other unknowns has appeared in our world of shining, snowy goodness. The world itself is changing quickly and many of these changes have massive impacts on competitive skiing. Last spring I wrote a column for Cross Country Skier that touched on many of the emerging competitive realities for race organizers. Here I’ll take a look at what the emerging global realities mean for the international and domestic elite circuits.

Internationally, the 2007-08 calendar serves up a roller coaster ride of pros and cons for those few of us in what writer Bill McKibben once called the “cult of performance cross country skiing.” The manmade snow sprint opener in Dusseldorf, Germany, is back this October. Then the sport drifts off to largely remote locations for the next two months.

The second year of the Tour de Ski comes next (more on this later), followed by a late January return of the World Cup to North America (Canmore, Alberta, January 22-26). Stops in Estonia and the Czech Republic should get decent interest in those nations. Then there’s the murderer’s row of popular stops in northern Europe (Sweden, Finland and Norway). Things wrap up with a closing weekend in Italy in mid-March.

So where do the global unknowns come into the picture?

Well, for starters, there is the Dusseldorf World Cup itself.

Now I’m a huge fan of bringing cross country skiing to population centers. Indeed one of the weaknesses to the World Cup calendar is that it continues to have far too many “remote” sites. The skiing and aesthetics are unquestionably better in a beautiful mountain resort like Davos, Switzerland. But the Dusseldorf sprints puts up to 100,000 spectators within inches of our biggest stars. Television networks get fired up to show the spectacle of skiers on a strip of snow in a major downtown area. A time trial through the woods? Not so much.

The urban spectacle that is Dusseldorf (also the Stockholm, Sweden, and Drammen, Norway sprints later in the winter) gives performance cross country skiing a fighting chance for holding on to the tiny slice of worldwide sport market share we still have left. We flat out need more of these types of urban showcases.

Yet there are other unknowns in play.

Dusseldorf also represents a massive logistical commitment requiring not only money (i.e. TV and sponsors), but also natural resources. Few readers are unaware of spiraling global energy costs and we are all becoming more and more aware of something called a carbon footprint and its link to global warming.

What’s more, competitive skiing has perhaps more to lose in dire climate change scenarios than any other sport on the planet. So there has to be a certain amount of rationalization with events like Dusseldorf.

You can fairly argue that holding a major event in an urban center (particularly in Europe with excellent mass transit systems) reduces the total resource cost of spectators traveling out to distant mountains. This reduction in travel can offset much, if not all, the costs of producing and transporting artificial snow.

Another good question is how long we can sustain the travel demands of the international and domestic elite circuits.

Another argument could be made that providing a popular uber-spectacle of an aerobic sport like cross country skiing helps combat rising obesity and inactivity rates in the greater population (yes, it’s happening in Europe, too; just not as fast as in the U.S.). In a healthier world, we would tend to eat better (less carbon intensive agriculture), exercise more (less carbon in health care) and welcome healthier cities and transport systems.

We indeed have little choice but to shine a brighter light on our sport if it is to survive in a crowded international marketplace. But the central question in future years will remain whether the ends justify the means with regard to promotional benefits versus global realities.

What Is Sustainable Racing?

Another good question is how long we can sustain the travel demands of the international and domestic elite circuits.

The World Cup has 19 locations in 10 countries. The U.S. major event calendar will use 11 different venues across the continent. Canada has a similar scenario. Annual major marathons increase the travel demands on elite racers even more.

Just how will we sustain all of this as global energy supplies tighten and venues become harder to sustain amid warmer weather patterns? While we have far less gear and people to drag between venues in the U.S., the support base (zero TV coverage and far weaker sponsorship dollars) is also much smaller than the European circuit.

Worse yet, the cost of travel is more daunting on the domestic side. Case in point -- a single skier hitting all U.S. SuperTour races would rack up over 3,500 miles in net travel by the end of January. That’s just halfway through the ski season!

All of this travel means a larger carbon footprint, greater consumption of energy resources, and the ever-increasing output of dollars and cents. Air transportation is a huge cost, but there’s also lodging, ground transport, trail fees and support personnel. These expenses really add up with months on the road.

It’s not just North American skiers feeling the pinch. Internationally, the strain these costs place on many national programs make for tough decisions to participate at fewer World Cup venues. When teams and athletes skip venues, fields are weakened, drawing down public and sponsor interest...and the problems build from there.

Solutions? Just as with urban racing, it’s a tough call to balance the sport’s need for exposure vs. the resource cost of that very exposure. The Tour de Ski may have a piece of the answer by concentrating near-daily racing over one week in a relatively tight geographic area. And the 2008 edition still doesn’t concentrate the venues enough.

There is also not enough point-to-point racing to capture the feel of the cycling tour that inspired the event. But it is at least a start. Evolving the entire World Cup calendar into four or five concentrated “tours” would indeed be significantly more resource efficient.

On this side of the Atlantic, your’s truly has long been a fan of clustering elite races in a very tight geographic space only three or four times per season, covering a seven-to-nine day period each time. Such clusters would result in about the same number of races we have now, yet the sheer cost to skiers, the industry, and clubs would dramatically drop. We’d likely have to rotate popular venues to make it work, but soon we may not have a choice.

Whether it is 2007-08, the year after, or five years from now, the odds are growing that, at some point, we will have tough choices to make as a sport. Serious planning now, in the face of an uncertain future, is clearly in our best interest.