Back in April, most of us caught the news that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) granted a provisional recognition to the International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF). This comes after about a decade of hard work from the ISMF and all national skimo federations who together are trying to get ski mountaineering racing back into the Olympics.
What does the provisional recognition mean?
If you were getting excited about watching skimo racing on TV during the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea then you can relax because that is unlikely to happen.
In my understanding, this is just the very first step for a sport to have a chance to be included in the Olympics in the future. First, the IOC recognizes there is a large enough organized sport; second, it observes and tries to figure out how is this sport salable for broadcasting; and finally, it maybe includes the sport in the Games.
However, even if the inclusion is looming, the IOC still has to consider whether to just add another sport or kick one out in order to include a new one. It’s business, no other way around it. Environmentally friendly sport or not, the ROI will have to make sense. (Unless some other federation/sport would subsidize it.)
What’s next? Broadcasting rights.
Since the ISMF has the IOC recognition now, we are onto the second step – observing and figuring out how to make skimo TV friendly. What I mean by that is the sport needs to accomplish couple of things to be right for (live) broadcasting:
- attract enough audience,
- based on which numbers broadcasting company can sell advertising,
- which in turn brings enough money to pay for production and distribution costs,
- and have some profit left over.
By now, you might be thinking why I am so focused on TV broadcasting as the only way of monetizing Olympic Games since we know there are other ways for sports to make money. And you are right, there are. But according to IOC revenue sources and distribution page selling broadcasting rights brings the IOC 47% of its revenue. Then 45% is from sponsorships, only 5% is from tickets, and 3% is from licensing.
If we take skimo and say “let’s a find a away to replace some broadcasting money with something else” we will quickly run into a problem. Who would the sponsors be? From what I know, from approaching outdoor companies with offers to advertise on Skintrack, they all have very little money, or so I am being told. That means, there would have to be some big players that are (also) involved in the outdoor industry to pay the difference. Could it be Salomon? Maybe. Black Diamond? Perhaps. Will it be enough? Maybe Adidas since they make some outdoor clothing.
But really, how much money are we talking about for broadcasting rights?
Just a few days ago, the IOC awarded NBC Universal the broadcasting rights (across all platforms) in the USA for the Olympic Games from 2021 to 2032 for $7.65 billion USD. There was also a $100 million signing bonus. And we are talking about the USA rights only.
What does this mean for skimo?
If we agree that a major decision factor, for skimo racing to make it into Olympics, will be whether it can attract large enough audience (advertising money) that will pay for the production costs then there are about two or three scenarios of how this will impact our sport:
1. Skimo stay as is – very unlikely:
- Broadcasters figure out a super cost efficient way to film skimo races in all kinds of weather and terrain to off-set the not so big viewers demand.
- Or the audience rapidly grows in the next couple of years to pay for the production and distribution.
2. Skimo changes drastically - most likely:
Unless the audience grows rapidly, broadcasters will need to lower their costs substantially and make it watchable for the masses. This can be pretty much done in only one way – by changing the sport until it fits the financial equation.
It is difficult to predict how big or small the changes would need to be but I wouldn’t be surprised if this meant lapping the same course (full length individual race) a couple of times and avoiding possible problematic terrain (alpine, etc.) in the process.
And why not have that as the first option on the table? Because after all, even the Olympic 50 km cross-country races are done on an amazingly short loops now:
The use of short loops allows spectators in the stadium to see the contestants every 10-12 minutes. – quoting directly from Sochi Games website explaining the 50 km race
That means that during the Sochi 50 km skate (freestyle) race the athletes did 9 or 10 laps since the winner’s time was just under 1 h 47 min.
3. Skimo changes at least a bit – very likely:
Maybe the change will not need to be as dramatic as I painted above but it still will likely be considerable.
Are Olympics good for skimo? Why we want it there?
So with all this discussed, pretty much the only two questions that really matter are:
- Will Olympics be good for skimo?
- Why do we really want skimo to be an Olympic sport?
These are the most important questions we need to ask because they force us to look inside and evaluate our sport from its roots, to its current state, to its future. Answers will of course depend on individual values, priorities and motives.
As for myself, I am quite undecided about skimo as an Olympic sport but here are some of my thoughts:
If Olympic skimo should degrade to laps sport in unnatural terrain would it still be ski mountaineering racing as we know it? Aren’t we perhaps already half-way there but threading the line still on the good side?
For example, if we look at the sprint, I believe the discipline was invented to comply with the broadcasting “rules” I outlined above, thus, to please the IOC. Do I like the sprint? Kind of. Is it ski mountaineering racing? Definitely not.
Another one would be the vertical race. It has been shortened over the last few years and even a simple technical element such as boot-packing has been ruled out. Only skinning and no transitions are how verticals are done now. So, at its current form, how is it different from a cross-country ski race? Yes, it’s steeper but why not just use xc gear with skins glued on?
On the other hand, Olympics would bring lots of money which would make it appealing to more people - growing our sport significantly. Therefore, maybe we should be happy that more people would be participating in something we believe is the best sport in the world.
Ultimately, the only thing we can do is to watch carefully and demand change if we don’t like where skimo is going. Whichever direction we prefer.
What are your thoughts on skimo becoming an Olympic sport? I am very interested to read them.