by Jack Sasseville
U.S. Women Shine – I have to start with how impressed I am with the performances of the U.S. women's team on the World Cup. Even without Kikkan Randall this year, these women have consistently been at the top of the World Cup results lists, including a couple of wins by Jessie Diggins and Sophie Caldwell. Perhaps the most notable result has been their performance in the relay. In Nove Mesto in the Czech Republic, they were second to the all-powerful Norwegian women. This shows that their results are not just by one or two skiers. They have a mix of younger and older skiers, sprinters and distance skiers. What a season for them so far!
The Battleship is Beginning to Turn – It looks like the Canadian ski team is starting to move in the right direction. It has been evident to most people that it is time to bring on some new, younger skiers. The women's team has been nonexistent at the World Cup level for years, and the skiers on the men's team (with the exception of Alex Harvey) have been doing just enough to keep their places on the team, but they are not nearly as good as they were five years ago.
So far, the younger women attending the World Cups have not done that well, with the exception of the sprint in Planica, Slovenia. But they have to start somewhere, and there is no substitute for European World Cup experience. These women and their coaches need to keep looking at what the Americans are doing and remembering what Canadian women have done in the past to keep their motivation. There is no reason why the Canadian women cannot get to the top of the pack too.
For the men, the first sign of change is that Ivan Babikov was sent home after the Tour de Ski, and Knute Johnsgaard and Graeme Killick stayed to race on the World Cup. Babikov has been sliding down the rankings for the past couple of years now, and even his 11th-place finish on the climb to Alpe de Cermis is not enough anymore.
This is good for everyone on the men's team. For the veteran skiers, it sends a message, and for the younger skiers, it gives them hope. It may be coincidence that this has happened with the hiring of a new CEO, but it is the right thing to do. There are going to be some tough, unpopular decisions to be made this spring after the Ski Tour of Canada 2016. Cross Country Canada has to balance having as strong a team as possible for the 2018 Olympics while at the same time building for the future.
U.S. Men – The same decisions that need to be made in Canada also need to be made in the U.S. for the men. There have been some decent results, but nothing outstanding. Is the next wave ready to step up?
Norwegian Dominance – Even without Marit Bjoergen racing and Petter Northug winning, the Norwegian team continues to dominate the world of cross-country skiing. With the Swedish men all sick, hurt or retired, there is no other nation that can even come close to them. If you are a Norwegian, this is fantastic and proves what you knew all along – Norge ar Beste!
However, if you are from anywhere else, I don't think that this is a good thing for the sport. Most countries, including Canada, are awarded their corporate and government funding from podium results, and that has been very hard to do lately. So a Catch 22 now exists, with Norway getting stronger and receiving more funding and support and everyone else getting weaker and receiving less funding and support.
Prize Money on World Cup – Does anyone out there still think that cross-country skiing is an “amateur” sport? If you do, check out these numbers. Therese Johaug has dominated the women's World Cup and has won 222,500 Euros as of Jan. 27. Second is Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg from Norway with 129,250 Euros. Diggins is the top North American skier with 31,500 Euros.
For the men, Martin Johnsrud Sundby leads with 225,500 Euros, followed by Finn Hagen Krogh at 84,000 Euros. Simi Hamilton is 15th overall with 10,000 Euros and Alex Harvey is 22nd at 6,500 Euros.
While it is not tennis or golf, those are still some pretty good winnings, especially at the top. These top skiers also have endorsements and sponsorships and they do not have to pay for their expenses when they travel.
Climate Change and Race Venues – It continues to get harder and harder to afford to hold a race, and it looks like it will get worse in the future. On the World Cup, especially in Central Europe, if there is not snow-making, it is impossible to have a race. While at this level there is enough income coming in to afford the cost of snow-making, this is not the case at the local level. My fear is that there will be fewer and fewer races at the club level around the world, leading to fewer and fewer skiers and lessened interest in the sport. Yikes!