Up Close & Personal With Yelena Vyalbe: Part I

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…as previously explained, we here at the DailySkier are not huge fans of loooong interviews and thus nearly always making a conscious decision to split them into 2-3 parts, depending on the original length of conversation. Today, in Part 1 Yelena Vyalbe, head of the Russian XCSki Federation and manager of Team Russia ( yes, she sits on two chairs, so to speak) talks about disqualifications of the Russian skiers , relationship with sponsors and touches upon the recent Olympics ( more on that in Part 2) …

Says Vyalbe:
…I have had very mixed feelings throughout the Olympics. Was happy for our youngsters were performing so well yet I felt bad for the guys who were not allowed to the Games – especially for ( Sergey) Ustiugov and ( Gleb) Retivykh about who’s non-invitation no explanation was provided whatsoever. It’s hard…Medals are good. But one can’t stop thinking “What if Seryoga ( diminutive for Sergey = Ustiugov ) was running here today? With him around, we would be very close to winning the ”
the “big relay”, the 4 X 10 one – and, very likely? the sprint relay too. Most of our competitors actually say the same

The Olympics have come and gone, the CAS have restored the Sochi medals to your skiers and, effectively, allowed them participate in all FIS competitions. Is this story with suspensions and non-participation that lasted almost a year an half finally over?

I really, really hope so. My biggest wish is to close that chapter and to be able to concentrate on the sport itslef. It was just too much of legalizing and going from court to court. If I were to read a CAS verdict 2 years ago, I wouldnt understand half of the details probably, but now I feel like an expert in all that – and I don’t like it a single bit. This is not my job – my job is to develop skiing in Russia.
I am a fighter – I fought in sport and I never give up fighting in life either. But I do not like this kind of fighting at all. . There are no rules. Worse – rules are being changed all the time. Latest is that WADA wants to exclude Rssia from hosting international competitions. What would that achieve?

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So, who’s to blame?
Well, it’s part political story, part a traditional Russian nonchalance . We, Russians often don’t think about consequences. I just had a Team Russia skier suspended for receiving 3 warnings linked to non-compliance with ADAMS rules – she did not report her whereabouts as required. The punishment for that is minimum suspension of 2 years – honestly, I will ask for 4 so others could learn a lesson!

The whole situation around international doping issue is confusing and to extent bizarre. The OIC, WADA, FIS – they are not talking to each other – and if they do there’s no mutual understanding. What I think should happen is that they, top sporting bosses, really need to have a proper sit-down and to come up with a solution that would work for everybody, turn that page and to move forward. All sane people are aware of the fact that exclusion or continious blaming of Russia would hurt not just Russia – but the whole international sport itself.

How did the whole situation affect your practically? Are sponsors standing by?
Our main sponsors, Lukoil that was sponsoring us for 20 years, Swix and Rusal are standing by us, but Adidas sent us a letter in February that says ” Since the Russian OC is disqualifed from the Games, we would have to terminate our cooperation”. Everybody in cross country skiing knows that Adidas is leaving our sport after this season anyway – but they chose the language I just quoted. It is a big problem for us. For many years Adidas was an excellent partner – apart from fully equipping hundreds of national and junior team skiers and technical personel, they were paying good perfomance bonuses to our skiers. It would be almost impossible to find a replacement for Adidas on the same conditions.
Now we are in talks in other big xc ski equipment manufacturers. But it’s hard to find a sponsor willing to supply 200+ sets per year that include dozens of items, everything from slippers to towels.
Individual cases were more complicated. (Alexander) Legkov, for instance, had returned his skis to Fischer but after the CAS cleared his name, Fischer gave them back.

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To what extent are you dependent on commercial sponsorships?
What we are really dependent on is the state support and that from the Russian Olympic committee. Commercial sponsors are important – but their money are but a drop in a bucket – and we need to have to have that bucket filled if we want to compete & win. Commercial sponsorship gives us a maximum of 10% of the funds we need.
Cross country skiing is a highly technical sport – and quit expensive. With state funding comes predictability. If I were to be dependent on many commercial sponsors for main expenses – I’d feel as sitting on a powder keg. Sponsors could always have a change of heart and leave. The state is the best sponsor!
The state takes care of the most important part: paying athletes for being athletes. How could one win in the modern world when he or she is working hard all day and then goes & trains late in the evening? There are many strong, but not top-notch athletes who live and train like that in the US, in Canada…Vic Wild ( an American-born snowboarder who went to compete for Russia and won double gold in Sochi-2014) was telling me “ you guys simply don’t get it how well-off you are – just train, compete and don’t think of anything else!”

Yelena Vyalbe cheers on her current biggest star, 21 year old Alexander Bolshunov in Lahti
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