[Editor's note: We at Slowtwitch are pleased to welcome our new editor-at-large for winter sports, John "Fast Big Dog" Schafer. FBD was an elite rower and coach, mountain bike and road bike racer as well as a road and XTerra triathlete. He now splits his time between surf ski/OC1 paddling, cyclocross and Nordic skiing, also both as an athlete and coach. FBD will be writing regular columns for ST on a variety of cross-training and off-season activities and we very excited for him to bring his fresh ideas and diverse background to the ST community. With the growing interest in Nordic skiing on our reader forum, we thought there was sufficient interest to start putting together more content for people who enjoy training outside all year round. While this first article is of an editorial nature, future articles will be more pragmatic for those interested in incorporating Nordic into their training regimens. Nevertheless, this first article does introduce some of the stars of the winter sports world to triathletes who have heretofore been unaware.]
The governing body charged with selecting Olympic venues, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), is no stranger to bad judgment and scandal. Allegations of misplaced priorities, greed, bribery, graft, corruption and other inappropriate conduct have dogged the organization for years. So the recent announcement that Beijing, China, a city that historically receives essentially no snow, was selected to host the 2022 Winter Olympics disappointed many but shocked few. This announcement was still puzzling however, as the experience at Sochi, Russia is still fresh, a venue with many of the same potential problems as Beijing. The Sochi Games is widely considered to be one of the best examples of how the business and political components of the Olympics have become out of control. Cities such as Sochi and Beijing that traditionally receive little to no snow are winning bids to host winter Olympics, while other excellent venues such as Oslo and Stockholm, with well-established track records for holding World Cups and World Championships, are actually withdrawing from the process. While the Olympic spirit is still alive and well and the level of competition has never been higher, how has this process become so misguided that the world's best winter athletes are now being forced to race in conditions that are unpredictable at best, and in some cases unfair and even downright dangerous?
How It Went Down
"Exactly how the games ended up in Sochi and now Beijing is not an easy question to answer," said Beckie Scott, 2002 Olympic Gold Medalist and IOC member/athlete commission member from 2006-2014. "I was not surprised when I read that Beijing was selected for 2022. Sochi is another example of a venue selected that did not make sense at the outset: there were no existing facilities to host the 2014 Winter Games and it did not make sense from an economical, environmental or sustainability perspective."
Selection Process Details
"The selection process itself is designed to be very thorough," explained Scott. "It is multi-step, multi-factorial process. First, an evaluation committee is assembled. They assess the financials, logistics, transportation, environmental impact, along with many other considerations. Next, a large evaluation team is dispatched to all of the bid cities. Based on these in-person site visits, a very long, detailed report is prepared and sent to every IOC member, which is about 100 people, depending. The report is very comprehensive and thorough. All of the bid cities are then invited to give a presentation to a full session of the IOC, which includes all members and staff and then there is a vote, which has to be won by a majority. So the system itself, in theory, appears to be well-designed, the problem is what actually happens."
A flawed process
It is hard to imagine that a decision as important as selecting an Olympic venue would not be conducted without great care and scrutiny, but that is exactly what happens. As for what is specifically going wrong, almost all associated with the process point to money. "Financial backing and support from (the potential host) Government is a very important factor, and so countries like China and Russia will often gain great support and surge ahead on this factor alone," said Scott.
An insider still involved with the IOC selection process asked to remain anonymous and added, "I don't think it is any secret that money is a very important consideration – probably the most important consideration. I know first hand that it is very important to the IOC that there is very high level government support from the bidding country, so when you have large, powerful countries like Russia and China promising financial security and solvency for the games, that goes a very long way and unfortunately tends to outweigh many other very important factors."
Further complicating this issue are the unique requirements of winter sports, which can be overlooked by those not familiar with the issues. "More than half of the IOC members are from countries that don't have much or any winter," noted Scott, "so the baseline of knowledge of some of the key decision makers can be less than perfect. I know it seems quite obvious that to host a successful Winter Olympics you need venues that have snow, but when committee members hear very persuasive, well-funded proposals that address this point with manmade snowmaking and other technical solutions, the subtleties of things like the reliability and durability of the snowpack and the impact on racing can quickly get lost."
Perhaps most troubling of all is the age-old problem of laziness. "Further compounding the problem," an individual who personally attended the voting meetings claimed, "is that fact that so few IOC members seem to thoroughly read the site evaluation reports, which is very disappointing, as the entire point of the report is to educate the members on the potential for success at each venue. This is obviously a huge problem. I don’t know how you can make an informed decision if you aren’t reading the site evaluation reports. This is just my personal opinion, but that has been my observation."
When reached for comment, the IOC Media Relations issued the following statement: "The election of a host city by the IOC follows a strong, efficient and transparent procedure. Olympic Agenda 2020, the strategic roadmap adopted by the IOC last December for the future of the Olympic movement, brought even more transparency to this process. For instance, in the framework of the election of the 2022 host city this summer, the report issued by the IOC Evaluation Commission, whose mission it is to assess the proposals of the bids, included an explicit assessment of opportunities and risks for the first time. This change not only helped IOC Members make their choice, but it also provided clear guidance to the candidate cities on ways to strengthen their bids. The full evaluation report was publicly released two months ahead of the vote and was welcomed by both candidate cities."
Coach and Athlete Reaction
Athletes do not get to the top level of any sport without being able to overcome obstacles and adapt. This is no exception. "I thought the Beijing selection was odd," said four-time Olympian and World Champion Kikkan Randall. "After the experience in Sochi, a lot of us were really hoping that a place with reliable snow, like Oslo, would win. Needless to say we were quite disappointed when Oslo dropped their bid. I understand that there are lots of financial and political factors at play here, but Oslo has hosted dozens of World Cups and World Championships and it is an incredible venue. Having them actually withdraw their bid was not only a major disappointment but it also says a lot about the current state of affairs."
Randall continued, "Now, having said that, I'm trying to be optimistic. Perhaps this will be the catalyst that helps build a winter sports culture in a country that doesn't have much of one currently, so maybe that's a good thing. I'd be lying though if I said I wasn't disappointed. The Olympics is a race we hold in such high esteem that you can only hope that the conditions will be fair and reasonable."
Three-time Olympic Biathlete Tim Burke agreed, "I was shocked that the IOC chose Beijing, but not surprised, because I know that the IOC makes dumb decisions. Sochi is a perfect example: you got off the plane in Sochi and saw palm trees. That pretty much says it all. The ecological impact was enormous and the conditions were terrible. Hosting the Winter Olympics in a place with no natural snow is crazy. I don't know any other way to put it. I'm sure they will do their best in Beijing but the decision just makes no sense."
Taylor Fletcher, US Nordic Combiner and member of the Vancouver and Sochi Olympic teams concurred, "I thought it was a very strange decision. First and foremost, the priority should be hosting a good event - fair conditions, safe conditions, and good snow. We prepare for four years for the Olympics and it is certainly a real drag knowing in advance that the conditions will most likely be poor. In Sochi the conditions were relatively the same for everyone. So was it fair? Yes. Was it a quality event? No, it wasn’t. It is therefore very disappointing to see the IOC select another venue likely to have similar problems with poor snow and warm temperatures. I think that as athletes, we all wish that we had more input in the selection process and there was more transparency - we deserve that."
Cross country skier Andy Newell, who has represented the United States in the last three Olympics, continued this theme, "You certainly want to expose as many people as possible to our sports, so I kind of see where the IOC is going with these selections, but the last few decisions on Olympic venues have been based more on politics and money than the Olympic spirit. Will these venues be able to sustain themselves after the Games are over? My guess is no and that’s a shame. The Olympic spirit should be how many people can we get involved in sport at all levels: fans at the races during the Olympics, creating/fostering youth development programs and local sports clubs after the Olympics, and setting up local mechanisms to introduce people in the host country to our winter sports for years to come. None of this can or will happen when the venues are built on an unsustainable scale and in places that don’t even have snow, that’s pretty obvious. Unfortunately the IOC seems to have devolved into, ‘How much money can we make? How many mascot dolls can we sell?’ We've got to get out of this cycle where making more money is the only goal. Honestly, the IOC needs to take a serious step back to realize and reaffirm their mission because they have lost their way."
"These selections (Sochi and Beijing) are another example of the IOC deviating from their own 2020 agenda toward more sustainable sport," said former Nordic Combined World Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist Billy Demong. "Sochi was a good Olympics from an event standpoint but that's not the point - the Olympics should be awarded to venues who have made investments in infrastructure and proven their desire and aptitude by hosting world class events before being awarded a games. This is important for lots of reasons: not only do new locations come with lots of costs, delays and unforeseen problems, but they oftentimes just sit, literally unused, forever after the Olympic curtains drop. Will Sochi host many competitions? Not if it is condemned for erosion danger. Will Beijing host winter events afterwards? I'm sure you see my point. I'm not just talking about hosting a World Cup or a World Championship either, I'm talking about all the way down to local club races. All of the former Olympic venues in the US, and most in Europe, currently have very strong development programs that not only help leverage these investments over 20, 30, 40 years, but they also help bring new people into sports and keep the community involved, which is incredibly important."
Other Ski Team veterans, such as Caitlin Gregg and Kris Freeman were even more blunt, "My first reaction was thank God it's probably outside the window of my career" said Gregg, "because I think it's going to be a total bummer. The snow can't be good. It won't have the vibe that the winter Olympics should. I'm very happy that I got my Olympic starts when I did, as I wouldn't want to go race in Beijing."
Four time Olympian and U23 World Champion Kris Freeman seconded this, "I'm really glad that I'm going to retire in 2018, as going to Beijing doesn't make any sense to me. Winter Olympics need snow. You look at these decisions and it is clear that the IOC doesn't seem to have the best interest of the athletes in mind. I'm not ready to declare Beijing a disaster - I hope it's not, I just think there plenty of other places where it's a better fit."
US Cross Country head coach Chris Grover offered an understandably more nuanced view, "Beijing is definitely a bit of an unusual choice, but then again, so was South Korea. None of these are very traditional places in terms of XC skiing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, it's just a place where we don't usually go. The same was true for Sochi too."
"I don't have the luxury of having an opinion on where the Games is being hosted though," Grover continued. "we have a job to do. We have to find a way to be successful. We have to find a way to win medals. Where the Olympics end up is where they end up, and the conditions will be the same for everyone, so as a team and as a country we will be ready."
US Nordic Combined head coach Dave Jarrett had a similar pragmatic outlook: "I think we were all thinking the same thing – this decision makes no sense. We are professionals though and we’ve proven we can do well in Asia, as we had a podium in Japan just last year, so on one hand, I think our team responds better than most to long travel, as we are more used to it than the Europeans. But having said that, does the decision to hold the games in Beijing make sense? Absolutely not."
"Probably the thing that is most concerning," Jarrett continued, "is that there were ultimately only two cities bidding. This should immediately be a red flag and raises the question if the Olympics are pricing themselves out of business. Previous Olympic Winter Games (OWG) sites were outdoing each other on spending and building venues from scratch, which makes it very difficult for countries to host the Olympics. Many of the best cities are actually removing themselves from consideration, which is obviously a major problem. It will be a huge slap in the face to the Olympics if we get to a point where there are no bidders. Instead of looking at eliminating traditional OWG sports and events in a cost cutting measure, the IOC should look for ways to recycle previous sites and organizers. We have seen the legacy venues from 92, 94, 98, 02, and 10 that should prove it is possible. To make matters worse, even in countries winning the bids there are lots of problems - if the venue is in a location that's not convenient for that country, it's a lot of work for only two weeks of use. If a host country can't even reuse their own venue, we really need to ask ourselves what we are doing here."
Elite nordic ski coach and technician Zach Caldwell, who has worked as part of the US Ski Team staff at many major championship events summarized the decision perfectly, "I do my best to stay out of ski team politics and my life is much better for it, but my guess is that this decision is more along the lines of international politics than it is about sport politics. As far as I can tell, this what the IOC wants to see. When a perfect venue like Oslo ends up withdrawing its bid, you have to call it what it is: the current list of demands from the IOC is nothing short of absurd. Their entire process clearly has nothing to do with sport."
On the specific selections of Beijing and Sochi, the IOC Media Relations offered the following statement, "Regarding Sochi 2014, there are many lasting legacies that resulted from the hosting of these Olympic Winter Games. There are now world-class sports venues available to elite and grassroots athletes. Before the Games, many Russian athletes had to train outside their own country because Russia no longer had the facilities after the dissolution of the USSR. Russia’s ability to host international winter sports championships has been restored. As part of a seven-year contract, Sochi successfully hosted its first Formula One race last year in the grounds of the Olympic Park. A number of world championships and other elite sporting events have also been held in Sochi since the Games, including the FIL World Cup, the FIBT World Cup, the WCF Curling World Cup, and ITF Fed Cup. It also hosted the 2015 SportAccord meeting this spring."
The IOC continued, "Regarding the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, its strengths include the creation of a winter sports market for 300 million people in Northern China, with the ultimate goal of improving overall fitness and health, and the use of several venues that hosted events during the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, including the iconic bird’s nest stadium. Beijing’s plans for the 2022 Games are in line with Olympic Agenda 2020, which calls for a stronger focus on sustainability, legacy, and transparency. Moreover, Beijing’s proposed budget for investment in Olympic villages, sports venues and other infrastructure totals 1.5 billion USD – significantly less than for Olympic Games in the past, which is another example of how they are embracing Olympic Agenda 2020."
Responding to concerns about poor snow conditions in Beijing, the IOC simply claimed, "Beijing 2022 has also put in place a strong plan to ensure the quality and quantity of the snow throughout the Games in 2022 and beyond. The plan is based on the combination of water supply, temperature and existing snow making facilities. Every edition of the Olympic Winter Games relies on snowmaking to some degree."
Athlete mindset on racing in Beijing
The ability to concentrate on the task at hand is a skill all top athletes learn early in their careers. The best in the world have a level of focus that allows them to perform at a very high level regardless of the conditions, but one would hope that the pinnacle of international competition wouldn’t have its focus on kitschy mascots and overly elaborate opening ceremonies, but rather on providing the athletes the absolute best environment for fair competition. Hosting Winter Olympics in areas where there is no natural snow is obviously the complete anthesis of this, so how does this paradox resonate with some of the top US Nordic athletes?
Randall offered a very interesting perspective: "I never tied my Olympic dream to any particular venue or conditions. The allure of competing in the Olympics is so incredibly unique and powerful that no matter where it is, it will always be incredibly special. I don't think any particular venue can tarnish this. The conditions will probably be tough, but that could actually work in our favor. We prepare very well for this as a team and I think the US as a team is very tough mentally, so younger skiers should be more fired up than ever. The best have an amazing ability to persevere and succeed regardless of what is thrown at them."
Scott, who won an Olympic gold medal in 2002, agreed: "As an athlete, you have to take the perspective that you can only control what you can control. What's out of your hands, you simply can't worry about it. That's what the great athletes do."
The law of unintended consequences
An interesting but unintended outcome of the Beijing selection is that the unpredictable conditions may give American athletes an advantage. "Bad conditions can be a great equalizer," claimed Zach Caldwell, whose company specializes in ski tuning, service and race preparation. "Difficult and unpredictable conditions are where the smaller teams like the US have a better chance to be competitive, as we are looking at the bigger picture and can cast a wider net. Don't get me wrong, having been part of the staff in Sochi I know first hand that it is very stressful on everyone (athletes, coaches, techs) and it is very difficult to find a good solution (for waxing). So at first blush we might think that we'd all like to select skis for conditions for which we are all more familiar, but as good as we are at this, the big ski nations are probably a bit better. Bad conditions completely negate that slight advantage though, and I believe that the US as a whole responds better to the chaos of highly variable or unpredictable snow and as a result this actually creates a competitive advantage for us. Under what circumstances is Norway going to miss? They aren't going to miss when things are normal. They are more likely to miss when things are unpredictable. And I think our results speak to this. Historically we have done quite well in poor, unpredictable conditions. I believe this is due to lots of factors, such as preparing well for bad conditions, keeping a good attitude, etc., but all other things being equal, I like our chances in Beijing over Oslo."
US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover agreed to some degree: "Beijing, Korea and Sochi are places that are non-traditional ski locations. This means that there really isn't a home course advantage for anyone, in particular Norway and Sweden, so this can actually be an advantage for the US. In addition, there is the issue of ski service (selecting the correct ski wax for races). One of the biggest challenges in bad conditions is prepping good race skis and even some of the biggest teams really struggled with this in Sochi. The mix of natural and manmade snow was very unique. The conditions were ones that no one had ever seen before, so it was very uncharted territory for everyone. When this happens, this can actually be an advantage for us. It certainly doesn’t seem like it at the time, as it is quite stressful, but we try to remind ourselves that we manage it as well or better than anyone."
"In terms of Beijing specifically," Grover went on, "that's a little ways off, so right now we are mostly focused on Korea, but certainly the preparations have already begun for China as well. As we get closer to any Olympics, we're very proactive about getting into a venue and learning as much as we can about the specifics. We do a lot of very important recon, so we are as well prepared as possible. I went to Sochi for two years prior to the Games. That helped a lot and I think we learned a lot in Sochi that we can carry over to both Korea and China. I sincerely hope that the Chinese embrace the Olympic spirt and allow ALL teams (not just their own) equal access to the venue to learn the conditions. That wasn't the case in Sochi. The Russian team had essentially unlimited access to the facility and I can't speak for other nations, but the US was only given very limited access. That made the preparation even more difficult."
With a lot being said about what is wrong with the current process, there was also a tremendous amount of constructive criticism and positive suggestions for improvements from those on the inside. "Reusing Olympics sites or cities with existing venue resources is definitely the way to go," said Demong. "Having places like Salt Lake City or Oslo and others who have already built most of the needed infrastructure to host an Olympics makes all the sense in the world. At least in 2018, PyeongChang has already invested in decades of infrastructure-building event hosting. In the run up for 2022 the IOC should be taking seriously the fact that the better equipped host sites are pulling out. It means that the formula for hosting a games is not making sense for the leadership and residents of these cities. The end goal to hosting a Games should be building resources in venues and financial solvency for sporting legacy's in the communities that are chosen to host."
Burke agreed, "It is so expensive to build all of these facilities and it is an absolute shame to see so many of them completely go to waste. Why keep reinventing the wheel? I think there are enough places that are good that you wouldn't have to rotate between just 3 or 4 venues, you can have several in the mix. It’s not just a question of sustainability, it’s a question of common sense. Are people skiing now in Sochi? No. So why make a huge investment in that region? Why not pick sites that can not only reuse existing facilities, but can also use these facilities in non-Olympic years to help grow all of the winter sports. Lake Placid and Salt Lake are two excellent examples of former venues in where local clubs continue to bring young athletes into the sport and help move new athletes into the pipeline. I can’t see that happening in Sochi or Beijing and that’s a shame."
Gregg also followed this line of reasoning: "Reusing venues makes all the sense in the world. There are lots of places that hold World Cups that do a great job every year and I think the overall Olympic experience would be exponentially better for everyone if one of these cities was selected. Since the Olympic cycle is 4 years, you don't really need that many venues, as there aren't that many people who are around for more than 4 or so cycles. Some places have definitely done it right, as most of the facilities in places like Salt Lake City continue to be used, so I don't know how the IOC has lost sight of that."
Potential for change
The problems with the outcome of the current process is obvious, but what about a potential path to a solution? Unfortunately that is less clear. "When Oslo withdrew their bid," stated Burke, "that should have been a huge alarm bell that the system has run amok. Every athlete I know would love to have the Olympics in Oslo, but the fact that this great city, a city that has successfully hosted hundreds of World Cups and World Championships, doesn't even want to be considered, should be an eye opener for everyone." Jarrett agreed, "I’m afraid it is going to take a huge problem before the IOC wakes up. I hope we don't have to come to a situation where there are actually NO bidders before the IOC is open to change."
"I know everyone who truly cares about this Olympics sees a need for a change, but this change is going to have to come from inside of the IOC, which is not going to be easy," Scott continued. "It was hard being a part of the selection process, for sure, as the Olympics is something for which so many of us are so passionate. You want to do the best job possible, to make all of the best possible decisions and yet there are so many times when you feel like you're up against an incredible, immovable force, which was tough."
"Moving forward, I don't think I know what could turn the tides. I wish I did," concluded Scott. "When I was young and first on the board, I was a bit intimidated by the high level officials. I got past it though and went on to do my best, which was very rewarding. People in the IOC need to be true to themselves and their values and remember why they are there. I hope that all current and new members do this and are there for the right reasons. If we have more of this type of thinking, I believe a lot of these problems will be solved. It always pays to do the right thing."