Ingvild Oestberg has proven yet another time that she is one of the best this year and Johannes Klaebo has shown to all the fans & skeptics alike that he is much more than a sprint prodigy.
Sergei “the Russian Bear” Ustiugov is back & roaring – literally and in fights for the podium while Therese Johaug and Charlotte Kalla were sorely missed.
Oh, and the Alpe Cermis climb is still a fantastic race – arguably, the most TV & fans friendly of them all in the FIS calendar!
Yet another resounding success for all involved?
Not so fast.
Let’s start with small gripes e.g. what the point of having skiers to negotiate first 6 kilometers of the 9 km Alpe Cermis race that are actually downhill – before the test of endurance really starts? It was presumably designed to offer space to accommodate adoring crowds that were meant to line up along the tracks – but looks like those crowds kind of failed to materialize.
And now let’s talk about the stuff that matters – crowds, sponsors and media attention.
Competition format. By definition, formats have one goal – attract audience attention. With one important factor: keeping costs to reasonable minimum.
Organizers nowadays seem to prefer relatively easy-to-stage races such ski-stadium sprints and 10/15k ones. Gone from TdS are proprietary formats such as 3.5k Prologue, city sprints and, most importantly, a unique 35k point-to-point race that defined the series in its infancy. It appears that ski connoisseurs loved them ( and still miss them vocally) but the general public just failed to appreciate the finer points of it. Alas.
Here, just to remind you how it looked
But race formats, important as they are, are secondary. Look at the pedestals and Top 10s of TdS from 10 years ago: Winners are from Finland and Switzerland, respectively, Top 10s in both genders have “only” 5 Norwegians and 2 Russians in total.
Whereas this year’s results show that there are only 3 non-Norwegians/Russians in female Top 10 and 1 ( one!) in men’s.
With that dominance of Norwegians and Russians have never been more articulated, one wonders – why would good citizens of Alpine countries come out in any significant numbers to watch foreign stars of relatively unpopular sport?
On the other hand, one really has to be a big fan of Norwegian or Russian skiing to travel all the way to, say, Trentino that does not have any airports nearby, to cheer on one’s favorites. Well, some did – we counted , perhaps, ten national flags each along the tracks. Hardly a stampede.
Don’t get us wrong: all the organizers of TdS stages do a great job – just ask them how much it costs in money and effort to lay that 9km track along Val di Fiemme. But they are only human. And there are only that many fans of international skiing around in the mountains. And empty stadiums are bad for TV “picture” too – that’s the fact.
There won’t be cheering crowds in the Alps unless local heroes start winning. The reality is quite the opposite. Cologna, Pellegrino plus De Fabiano in men’s division and, to lesser extent, Stadlober and van der Graaff in women’s – those are the only names capable of battling Norway- Russia duopoly – if not overall then at least in in individual races.
… We can’t but compare TdS with Blink Festival in Norway held in August. There are many similarities: several days of competitions, almost all world’s best skiers participating and then there is Lysebotn climb, the only real rival to that Alpe Cermis “ monster climb”.
Blink has more diverse “race card” – from sprints to 60k classics. TdS has far more substantial money for the winners ( let’s not be shy – we are talking pro-athletes here)
But where Blink wins hands downs is the cheering crowds and that general atmosphere of festival. In no small part thanks to crafty incorporation of national television – NRK is not just a broadcaster there, it is a true show-runner, even the timing of races is chosen to fit its priorities. But also because the organizing team works on creating a suspense and keeping the event in the news the year over.
So, you know what? Blink wins overall. Wins – and shows a glimpse of potential direction of development of the sport we are talking about here.
– Ah, say you, – it’s Norway where everyone is born with skis already attached to their feet and where skiers are top media stars already!
True, there is an issue there. One can’t have all the competitions staged in the Nordic countries where is the audience and the sponsors’ interest. There are potential audiences to be found further East, but doping-suspicion-related punishments Russia is now enduring are bordering on insane: athletes are allowed to compete but fans are denied a chance to watch an international competition at home? And sponsors, therefore, are not willing to invest into the world’s biggest ski market by volume?
…If nothing drastic is done, cross country skiing as sport would become one big sprint race: relatively cheap to stage and still highly competitive internationally, at least on women’s side. Perhaps, there is nothing wrong with that – not many of us run 100m recreationally but we all know who Usain Bolt is.
We say: it might not be all that bad.
Take a look at Dresden FIS World Cup stage, due to have its second edition this upcoming weekend.
Ease of transportation? check. Dresden itself might not exactly be a hub of skiing like Oslo – but there are skiing resorts ( and, therefore, skiers) aplenty within a couple of hours’ drive. And airports too.
Thus, thousands-strong crowds roaring? check!
Stars treated like stars e.g. lodged in fancy hotel steps away from the venue and mobbed by hundreds of fans queuing up for an autograph? check, check, check!
The reason it looks like a big event is in the fact that it employs recipe similar to Blink: cross country skiing competition at that level has to be run like a show. A professionally put together snow for thousands that would come to watch in person – and ( potentially) millions watching it on TV.
Piece of advise: please bring Klaebo’s buddy & chart topping musician Kygo to do his sets in-between races next time. Then you really nailed it, Dresden!