Friday, June 27, 2008

Yeah, That's Dope, G!

As June edges into July, we're probably nearing the peak of doping season. All over the world, cyclists are finishing up their EPO regimes in preparation for the Tour de France, which starts in about a week. And of course, Olympians of every nation are deep into their doping schedules, doctoring themselves with EPO, HGH, testosterone, or turtle soup.

At the other end of the syringe, so to speak, sporting organizations are trying to do more to combat doping in all its nefarious forms. Unfortunately, new research - from Denmark, which knows a bit about doping - has found that the tests for EPO - the drug of choice for endurance athletes - are highly unreliable. In other words, dope away; if you can't escape detection, you can probably discredit the test.

While EPO use is probably endemic, good old fashioned testosterone is still tripping up some athletes, too. In late May, the FIS inflicted its usual two-year ban on Maxim Odnodvortsev, who was found with a skewed ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone - just like our man Floyd Landis. Odnodvortsev was tested on Valentine's Day 2007, exactly two weeks after he won a 30km freestyle race in Jilin, China. That win came in an FIS race - one of the B-circuit events which are largely the province of up-and-comers or just plain slower national-team skiers. Odnodvortsev is clearly in the second category, a journeyman who was probably seeking the breakthrough results that would seal a spot on the KAZ team. Though he's been skiing on the World Cup since 2001, he has mostly skied on Kazakh relay teams; his best personal result on the World Cup was a twelfth-place finish at Holmenkollen in 2006. Odnodvortsev's ban extends to April 2010. Great job on missing the 2010 Olympics, Max!

On an equally - if not more - dismal level, Finnish skiing is still being contaminated with fallout from the scanda that erupted at the 2001 World Championships in Lahti, Finland. Earlier this spring, Kari-Pekka Kyrö, the former head coach of the Finnish national ski team, leveled public accusations that the Finnish national team had sponsored a long-term doping project for its elite athletes. Infamously, six Finnish skiers (including the current overall W.C. champ Virpi Kuitunen) were found to have been doping a discovery made after Kyrö himself left a bag of doping equipment at a gas station during the Lahti games.

The Finnish Ski Association (FSA) countered Kyrö's allegation by saying that the only "dope" its racers were offered was baking powder, a ridiculous claim that perhaps contributed to the decision by the Finnish equivalent of the FBI to re-investigate the doping accusations. Shortly thereafter, another member of the FSA coaching staff admitted that the organization purchased doping agents for use by national-team skiers at the 2001 championships.

Though the cases are seven years old now, there is a great deal at stake. Not only is Finnish skiing finally on a firm upswing, with Virpi Kuitunen the current World Cup overall champion and a number of good female and male racers placing well, but Jari Piirainen, whom Kyrö identified as "the commander of the doping company" when he was the head of cross-country skiing at the FSA from 1989 to 1997, is currently the managing director of the entire FSA. Piirainen has a lot to lose if Kyrö's claims are borne out.

Kyrö, on the other hand, has probably lost everything he can lose: not only was he fired from the FSA for his role in the 2001 scandal, but he was the only coach sanctioned by the FIS for the Lahti escapades. Just this spring, Kyrö was implicated in a new doping case, when Kaisa Varis, whom he has coached, was banned for a second time. (Her first ban came through the 2001 scandal.)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Art of the Ski Throw

Nordic skiing is arguably the sport where the finish-line-lunge makes the biggest potential difference. Every sport seems to have a potential finishing move, from the bike throw, to the sprinting lean, to that silly thing alpine skiers do with their pole to break the laser 0.005 seconds earlier. Each of these moves have an effect, and can sometimes be the difference between winning and losing, but none of them can compete with the nordic ski throw in terms of ground made up. A good (tall) skier throwing can gain nearly 3 feet of reach over where he would have been without the throw.

If you have never practiced a ski throw, but think you'll "just be able to do it" when you're barreling toward the line, heart in your throat, dead even with a competitor -- you're almost definitely wrong. The most likely outcome in that case is this:
It's close, but the skier at the bottom has won this heat with a gorgeous ski throw despite being behind by a foot or more at the line (2007 Junior Olympics).

The fundamentals of the ski throw are simple, yet easily missed in the heat of the moment. Let's review them.

The overarching goal of the motion you are making is to get one toe as far ahead of your center of mass as possible. Obviously, then, one leg must be extended as straight and as low as possible. Beyond that, your shoulders need to be falling backward. Leaning forward moves your center of mass closer to your toe, so even though you might feel like you want to reach for the line with your head, don't do it! Lay back as much as possible.

Here we see Ola Vigen Hattestad and Boerre Naess employing the backwards lean to full effect in a semifinal at the 2008 Drammen World Cup.
Beyond the torso going backward, what should you do with your other leg? This seems to be where the two techniques of the perfect ski throw diverge. In an ideal world, your back leg reaches straight out behind you, moving your center of mass as far back as possible. The problem is, you're only human. Your hips have limits, and you can't simultaneously lean back with your torso and completely stretch the leg out. Somewhere you must compromise -- full lean or leg outstretched?

Here we see Harry Poole (top) narrowly defeating an unknown skier at the 2007 Junior Olympics, with both electing to stretch their back legs at the expense of falling backwards.

This is the safer of the two techniques, because you can hold this position while you glide. Throwing too early with this particular form is not a problem, because even if you reach full extension 5 feet before the line you will slide across with no decrease in speed.

Sometimes, however, you're an unknown Polish guy throwing against one of the tallest Scandinavians, in Scandinavia, when he's in contention for the sprint World Cup title. In that case, you have to pull out all the stops. Bend your back leg under your hips and throw your torso and arms back as far as possible.
Maciej Kreczmer over Trond Iversen, Stockholm World Cup Sprint 2007

This one is so close you might think Iversen (right) is advancing, but Kreczmer's boot is actually further over the line, it's just a bit airborne.

The risk with this technique is that you have to time it perfectly, as maximum extension comes only a few tenths of a second before striking the ground. Throw too early, and you'll hit the ground before the line, wasting all your efforts.

Nevertheless, when it really matters, it's the only way to go.

All of the pictures we've looked at so far were of classic sprinting -- throwing while skating appreciably harder, as the motion doesn't extend easily to a stretch and the boots have a less free ankle. Sometimes the results are an awesome tie for gold:
Thomas Alsgaard ties Frode Estil for gold in the 10k Pursuit, 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics

And sometimes they are slightly more comedic:
Josh Peterson (Wyoming) over John Erickson (Cornell) despite a lactate-induced loss of coordination, 2006 USCSA National Champs Relay

I believe the best way to throw while skating is to take your final stride straight towards the line and lean/stretch as far as your boots allow. I would like to experiment with placing the back ski in line with the front (just like a classic ski throw), but you never see this on the world cup, which suggests that the excessive movement and lack of a final push make it suboptimal.

Here we see two biathletes lunging, one of whom tries this technique:
Ole Einar Bjoerndalen vs Raphael Poiree, Angle 1

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen vs Raphael Poiree, Angle 2

From the poor form (Bjoerndalen leaning waaaay forward, Poiree not getting much extension), I think we can conclude that even elite athletes cannot ski throw well without practicing -- and apparently biathletes don't practice it!

Two guys that do practice are Vassili Rotchev and Andy Newell:
Vassili Rotchev def. Andy Newell, Oberstdorf World Cup 2007

This is from the famous sprint final where Newell thought he had 3rd place (and his first podium) wrapped up, and made the mistake of looking back to check, eventually losing by the tiny margin shown above.

To summarize, ski throwing looks awesome and is awesome. If you haven't practiced it, you should, and then you'll be as awesome as Odd-Bjoern:

Odd-Bjoern Hjelmset over Jon Kristian Dahl, Drammen World Cup 2008

Here's a collection of some other good ski-throwing pictures. If you have any I've not listed here, send them in! You can leave a comment or send an email to We'll definitely do another "best of ski throwing" post in the future.

Alex Harvey def. Zach Violett, 2006 (?) Spring Series Team Sprint, Fort Kent, ME

Canadian kids can ski throw too!

Tore Ruud Hofstad throwing for unknown reasons, about a mile behind Per Elofsson, 2003 World Champs Double Pursuit

Unknown Scandinavian skiers.

Unknown Scandinavian Cup Finish

Martin Koukal (CZE) over Christian Zorzi (ITA) and a disinterested Marcus Hellner (SWE), 2007 Davos World Cup Relay

Monday, June 16, 2008

Worlds 2013

In late May, at the International Ski Congress (held this year in that well-known ski village, Cape Town, South Africa), the FIS chose sites for the 2012 and 2013 World Championships. Val di Fiemme, Italy, was selected as the host for the 2013 Nordic World Ski Championships. By winning the right to host Worlds for the third time, the South Tyrol valley beat out some of the usual nordic candidate sites - Falun, Sweden, and Lahti, Finland - as well as Oberstdorf, Germany, and Zakopane, Poland.

Val di Fiemme - or rather, the hamlet of Lago de Tesero, where the ski stadium is located - has hosted the nordic worlds twice before: in 1991 and in 2003. The 1991 event was only the third time that the Nordic World Ski Championships were held outside northern Europe - in 1927, the championships were held in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, and in 1950, they were held in the United States at Lake Placid, New York, and Rumford, Maine.

The 1991 championships were notable for being the first since 1939 in which a single German team competed, East and West Germany having reunited in 1989, and for being the last champs in which the Soviet Union fielded a team, the USSR breaking up later in 1991. No German cross-country skiers medaled, but Soviet skiers did quite well: Yelena Välbe won four medals (golds in the 10km free, 15km classical, and 4x5km relay and silver in the 30km free), Vladimir Smirnov won a bronze in the 15km free and a silver in the 30km classical, and two other female skiers medaled in the 10km and 30 km free. Not a bad way to go out.

The host country, by contrast, managed five medals by some of its great racers: Maurilio de Zolt took bronze in the 50km free, Manuela Di Centa took bronzes in the 5km classical and 30km free, Stefania Belmondo won bronze in the 15km classical, and the women's relay team earned a silver, 1:14 down to the winning Soviets. Predictably, the Norwegians and Swedes were very well represented on the podium. On the women's side, Trude Dybendahl took three medals (gold in the 5km classical by 7/10ths of a second over Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi of Finland, silver in the 15km classical, and bronze in the relay) and Marie-Helene Westin won a silver in the 10km freestyle.

It was on the men's side that one nation truly dominated: Sweden. Torgny Mogren collected an amazing haul - a bronze in the 10km classical, a silver in the relay, and a gold in the 50km free - and yet was outdone by his teammate Gunde Svan. Near the height of his powers, Svan took silvers in the relay, 15km freestyle, and the 50km freestyle and a gold in the 30km classical. Amidst all these medalists in Swedish white, a young Norwegian racer named Bjoern Daehlie asserted himself by skiing to a gold in the 15km freestyle and handling the anchor leg of the winning relay team. These were Daehlie's first medals at Worlds or the Olympics; he added 27 more medals before retiring after the 1999 Ramsau Worlds.

Twelve years later, Val di Fiemme's 2003 Worlds were notable for the fact that not a single Italian skier medaled in any of the twelve cross-country events. Fourteen medals were won by Norwegian skiers, including gold in the men's relay and silver in the women's. That women's relay was marred by doping: the Finnish team which finished second to a surprising German quartet was disqualified when Kaisa Varis tested postive for EPO. (Varis's violation only darkened the blot on Finnish skiing, which had been humiliated just two years earlier when numerous Finnish skiers tested positive at their home-snow Worlds in Lahti.) Individually, Bente Skari took golds in the two classical races, and her teammate Marit Bjoergen won the sprint event.

Bente Skari and Kristin Smigun on their way to a 1-2 finish in the 15k mass start classical

But the women's racing was reallly dominated by two racers. Winning gold in the 30km free and bronzes in the pursuit and 15km classical mass start, Russian Olga Savialova amassed a splendid collection of hardware, yet couldn't outdone the Estonian Kristina Smigun, who medaled in all but one of the five individual events: a bronze in the 30km free, silvers in the 15km classical mass start and 10km classical, and, after outsprinting Evi Sachenbacher and Savialova, a gold in the 5km+5km pursuit, being run for the first time as a "continuous" race.
Smigun winning the 5k+5k pursuit

The men's side of the '03 champs was largely a battle between Sweden and Norway. In fact, only three individual medals went to anyone else: Axel Teichmann of Germany and Jaak Mae of Estonia took gold and silver in the 15km classical, and Martin Koukal won a suprising gold in the 50km free. Every other podium spot went to a Norwegian or a Swede. The two biggest names in the races each came away with only one individual medal each, albeit both gold. Sweden's great hope, Per Eloffson, won the 10km+10km double pursuit in a seven-man sprint; Tore Ruud Hofstad (Norway) and Jörgen Brink (Sweden) took the other podium spots; the top seven racers finished were covered by just 1.5 seconds, and the medalists by just 4/10ths of a second.
Elofsson wins the 10k+10k Double Pursuit

In an almost equally tight race, Norwegian Thomas Alsgaard, fighting illness, came in first in the 30km classical race, a mass start which was closeover all 30,000 meters. Alsgaard finished a scant 6/10ths of a second up on Anders Aukland and just 1.1s up on Frode Estil, making for a Norwegian clean sweep. Estil also took bronze in the 15km. None of the Norwegian distance men performed to their ability in the 50km freestyle, ceding the silver and bronze spots to Anders Södergren and Jörgen Brink of Sweden.
Alsgaard leading the Norwegian sweep in the 30k

It was in the men's relay that the 2003 World Championships had its defining moment. Right in the thick of the race over the two classical legs, Sweden finally pulled away during the first skating leg, with Per Elofsson putting eleven seconds into the field over his 10,000 meters. Elofsson gave his anchorman, Jörgen Brink, an eleven second gap over Russia and nearly 25 staggering seconds over Norway and Germany. The race was all but over, and seemed so until the last 2500 meters. Then it changed abruptly and unbelievably: on one of the last few hills, Brink bonked - in a 10km, the shortest distance male skiers race! - and let Alsgaard of Norway and Axel Teichmann of Germany surge past. A top-notch finisher, Alsgaard toyed with Teichmann right into the final straight, then edged out front for the 0.2-second win. Video of the crucial moments:

We can only hope for such good racing in 2013.