What if SkiMo becomes an Olympic sport?

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.

skimo_olympic_equation

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:

  1. Will Olympics be good for skimo?
  2. 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.

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Comments

  1. So, you need a course that’s filmable and reasonably spectator friendly and can be done wherever the Olympics are held. I’d think you need to include a bootpack, skinning and skiing.

    Wouldn’t the easiest be to use all the pre-existing logistics – cameras, crews, safety, snow making etc.of the already existing downhill course with skintracks at the margin of the course and bootpacks for the steepest sections. So the Olympics equivalent of skimo at a ski area.

    Would the course be a reasonable lemgth? Reasonable complexity?

  2. Eric Carter says:

    I think one of the beautiful parts of skimo is that the venue is hopefully on terrain that is more technical than can be offered on piste/a downhill course. That is not to say that it could not still be within a ski area boundary.

    It is interesting to look at the evolution of nordic skiing for better mass consumption. I doubt racers demanded the changes in format. Usually athletes are most resistant to change. It would be sad to see skimo go the same route. I can say from experience that competing in a 50k nordic race on a 5km loop is not as enjoyable as a 25km or 50km loop.

  3. I had no idea that 50k xc races often comprise so many laps — sounds even worse than the 5k/5-lap races I would do back at Weston Ski Track on the golf course snowmaking loop when I lived in Boston!
    (Based on that, I never have more than three identical laps/circuits in any of the races I organize — too hard to keep track of anything other than first, middle, and last.)
    As for the Olympics, I read a breakdown this winter of recently admitted winter sports for judged vs non-judged: let’s just say that the trend doesn’t bode well for skimo.

  4. @HRW – Thanks for your comment. The course you described would probably be the one that would work for IOC but in my view would be the one we should try to avoid.

    @Eric – Yes, beautiful course can be laid out even with a boundary if the ski area has the terrain. I hope we proved that when you and I designed and successfully run the Dogtooth Dash. It’s about terrain.

    @Jonathan – You are working with what you got in your area and doing a fantastic job. And races like that should happen in order to lower the entry criteria for novices and wider public. However, a skimo course for the best athletes in the world should be much more technically demanding.

  5. Stano, yes, although I do have up to three identical laps/circuits for skimo races here, ideally a skimo course shouldn’t have any repetition, and I would certainly hope that is the case for any Olympic skimo course — but the bigger problem will probably be getting any sport admitted into the Winter Olympics that doesn’t involve judging on form.

  6. Jonathan, then maybe there is nothing to worry about since skimo is not a judging sport. But we could definitely judge kick-turns, transitions, or crazy ski styles :)

  7. Eric Carter says:

    Jonathan – are you predicting a ski-ballet comeback?

  8. Given all the other abominations that have been added to the Winter Olympics recently, a ski ballet comeback would fit in nicely . . . now who’s going to come up with a judging system for skimo style points?

  9. There are lots of sports included in both the winter and the summer games that are presented in forms other than the way they are usually practiced. XC racing, as folks have noted, but also things like kayaking, mountain biking, sailing, and even hockey. Everybody needs to lighten up – the Games only come around once every four years – a sport has to look after itself in the interim. The primary reason international sport federations fight for inclusion in the Olympics is to leverage recognition outside the sport, among the general public – in many, many countries (not Canada, unfortunately) a sport that is recognized by the IOC is funded as a matter of social practice, the same way that education or health care is funded. Even in this country, Sport Canada, and big public advertisers will respond much, much more sympathetically if a sport has Olympic profile.

  10. I don’t think I am gloomy, I just wanted to present some questions and scenarios based on other sports. I get all that you are saying and don’t disagree Dave. But I wasn’t comparing how a sport is usually practiced vs how it is raced (like you seem to imply). I was comparing how it is raced to vs how it could potentially be raced. Besides, I think skimo is quite unique from all those that you mentioned. Climbing and ice climbing is in a similar boat like skimo but even those two have been historically mostly raced on a single wall/pitch whereas skimo never went in loops. Perhaps you can comment on why vertical has been changed to what it is now? Isn’t it just xc skiing but with skimo gear?

  11. Vertical(-only) races would seem to make sense only if they’re tied in somehow to a regular race and competitors are required to use the same equipment. (Or is that how it always works? Otherwise it would just be an uphill-only nordic race at a slow pace encumbered by heavier gear.)
    Anyway, all of this is probably moot since if skimo ever gains Olympic status than it will be taken over at the international level by FIS (and within the U.S. by the USSA).

  12. ISMF discussions with the FIS parted amicably with no agreement earlier this year. So that avenue is leading nowhere in any particular hurry. As for the Vertical, Sprint, Relay, etc. formats in Ski Mountaineering Competition, those were developed and installed in the rules at the request of national federations seeking television-friendly events that they could add to traditional race weekends (and that their teams could show well in) . Blame the Italians. It is only incidental that the IOC and any Winter Games inclusion would have the same requirements possibly. The need for these would still exist without the Olympics.

  13. Eric Carter says:

    Dave makes a good point. Sticking with the XC ski example, the ‘tv-optimization’ of olympic competition (and its eventual trickle down to national and local level races) has not meant the demise of more traditional type races. The Birkebeiner and Engadin have been in existence for a long time. Loppets are common citizen races. I doubt skimo’s inclusion in the olympics would spell the end of races like Pierra Menta.

    Olympic competition in whatever format, even if just sprint races were included, would almost certainly lead to growth of the sport overall?

    Stano – to clarify your mention of vertical races, are you referring to their existence at all or to the fact that they seem to actually be rather flat despite the name (I’m thinking again of the video of the world cup this year where one athlete was shown actually striding)?

  14. Eric:
    What I mean is that vertical used be around 800-1000m, had some technical skinning and a boot-pack. These days it’s much shorter and by rules it’s only skinning, no boot-pack.
    And I too believe that traditional races won’t disappear because of a skimo sprint in Olympics. I guess the question is where do you/we draw the line of what is still skimo and what is not? Perhaps, I am not as flexible on this as others.

    Dave, Eric:
    All the “pro Olympics” arguments I am hearing are about money as the main (perhaps even sole) reason for trying for inclusion. I don’t have a problem with that if we don’t compromise the sport too much. Just like I don’t want to compete in curling, I wouldn’t want to compete in something that is called the same but in fact is not the same.

  15. Sorry, but I don’t agree Dave. Have you been to the Canmore Nordic Centre lately? The courses and trails have all been adjusted to the new Olympic format. The only way to have a “traditional” ski is to go to the old trails that aren’t nearly as well groomed and maintained as the new world cup trails. Almost all the snowmaking and grooming go to the world cup trails. If you want to ski close to trees and for several Km’s you have to go to the older trails which if the Nordic center was being built today, wouldn’t even be in the plan. Definitely the new formats have permanently affected the sport at all levels too. Even the kids coming up have to race on the world cup Olympic format trails. If we don’t think the sport will change we’re fooling ourselves. New Nordic centers only put in 7-10km of trails that cross all over each other. they’re super wide and have few trees around (e.g. Italy Torino xc venue). Plus with Olympic inclusion comes $, which of course is appealing from what you’ve said, but is that desireable as well? Having been a part of many Olympics both as a coach and a chaplain I’ve seen how the money corrupts and changes the sport. One of our Canadian Olympic gold medalists tried 3 different sports until he could finally find one that allowed him to compete in an Olympics. Forget about the love of the particular sport, it was just be an Olympian. Reiner and I had this discussion on the way back from UT this year. I don’t speak for him, but for me I’m leary about skimo being an Olympic sport.

  16. Hi,
    You are talking about an evolution of the sport to be more “broadcastable” but ignore the evolution of technologies applied to tv.
    Drones with cameras operated by experimented cam-guys could (and will) change the way we can see that kind of sports and make it much more appealing to the espectator.

    Viewing how works people like Seb Montaz when filming with Kilian Jornet, it’s not difficult to imagine a way more spectacular to follow races than the actual. Not Only Skimo but also alpine races, XC races, etc.

    Apologies for my bad english.

    Pablo From Spain

  17. Pablo, finally a great comment arguing for how skimo could be in Olympics without getting altered too much! You make a great point of which I didn’t think of – the camera technology evolution.

    But what they would have to still probably improve on is the signal transmission. Because what we are seeing from Seb Montaz is old footage, not live streaming. I am going to try to ask Seb to comment on this as he would have a better insight. Or anyone feel free to get him over here because I don’t know him personally either.

    And Pablo, your English is great, no need to apologize!

  18. Steve, thank you for sharing your experience which is from a sport that got altered a lot by the Olympics and you have lots of history with.

    I am 50/50 on skimo at Olympics and that’s why I tried to write this article (which hopefully is balanced) to see what people think. One problem could be that not many current (fast) athletes are willing to share their opinion publicly as to avoiding being “framed”. But will see.

  19. Stano, Thanks for saying my english is great! lol

    I think skimo racers may ski and improve the sport and tv producers may improve to make everything (even skimo) more apealinng, They are about entertainment, we about sport.

    I think streaming tech is just about time. We can see now go pros with limited streaming, so in a near future it’s very plausible to see streammig Drones for civil use. (Pentagon sure have some…)

    When I watch TV now, I can see every kind of things converted in entertainment, from Cupcakes to alligator chase, from survival to extrem machinery, from pawns to wedding dresses…everything! why they can’t do it with Skimo??

    Maybe it’s just a question of time
    Before they lay their hands on skimo
    And make it entertainment just like the rest

  20. If it turns out that the Winter Olympics doesn’t want us, then at least we can take some comfort that not many people seem to want the Winter Olympics anymore:
    http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2014/07/07/_2022_winter_olympics_host_city_finalists_are_announced.html
    … although check out the skimo course layout possibilities here:
    http://www.kazakhstan.orexca.com/chimbulak_resort_kazakhstan.shtml

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