Winter is coming: federations look to PyeongChang 2018

With under 12 months to go until the Winter Olympics gets under way in PyeongChang, it is a crucial season for the major winter federations. International Ski Federation secretary general Sarah Lewis and the newly elected International Skating Union president Jan Dijkema discuss their respective governing bodies’ plans for this all-important year.

Winter is coming: federations look to PyeongChang 2018

A Winter Olympics will inevitably unforgettable moments, produced by athletes ranging from the sublime, like figure skater Katarina Witt, to the near ridiculous, such as the heroes of Calgary 88 – the Jamaican bobsleigh team and ski-jumper Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards. 

The eccentric Edwards aside, it is the athletes who leave with a gold medal hanging from their necks who throw up the most enduring images at the quadrennial Games. Think of the dashing, devil-may-care Jean Claude Killy, the great Alberto Tomba hurtling down the slopes at a death-defying speeds, British skaters Jane Torville and Christopher Dean dancing to Ravel’s Boléro or the beaming smiles of modern skiing poster girls Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin.

Needless to say, a gold medal is rarely the result of luck. It is, in fact, the culmination of many years of hard work, dedication and planning. The same can, of course, be said of the host resorts, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the seven winter federations. 

While all roads – or slopes – do inescapably lead now to PyeongChang, the winter governing bodies continue to organise their various World Cups and championships in the interim. The International Ski Federation (FIS) and the International Skating Union (ISU) are arguably the two most prominent federations on snow and ice, and make up a high proportion of the events at the Olympics and in the years between.  

The FIS, like all Olympic governing bodies, works on a four-year cycle and has already in 2017 completed successful reprisals of its Alpine and Nordic World Ski Championships in Switzerland’s St Moritz and Lahti, Finland, respectively. Furthermore, it has completed its all-important final Olympic test events, in six disciplines. All of this, in the words of secretary general Sarah Lewis, has made the year “a particularly intensive one”.   

 “This season is very important for the athletes and teams to gain valuable experience at the test events and naturally go for gold at the World Championships,” says Lewis. “Both the FIS Alpine and Nordic World Ski Championships have been massively successful in the 2017 editions. 

“The initial television numbers are very positive and the attendance figures are equally encouraging. The ‘Super Sunday’ in St Moritz, with both men’s and ladies’ downhill races, broke nearly all previous television viewing numbers, while the ‘Super Saturday’ in Lahti was already sold out weeks in advance with 35,000 spectators watching all Nordic disciplines in one action-packed day.”

These two events – and March’s Freestyle World Ski Championships – were staged in skiing’s heartland of Europe. However, with the next two Winter Olympics being held in Asia, the FIS is looking to move into a market that Lewis believes has a “major potential for winter sports”. Over the past 18 months Asian conglomerates such as Wanda and Alibaba have been striking partnerships with global sporting organisations such as Fifa and World Rugby. Likewise, Asian investment in privately owned sporting entities has been astronomical. This is a marketplace that the FIS will be keen not to miss out on. 

International Ski Federation (FIS) secretary general Sarah Lewis.

“We are already seeing significant growth and expansion on the continent,” says Lewis. “Thanks to the Olympic test events, we have had the chance to hold additional World Cup competitions in Asia, such as the men’s Alpine skiing races last season in Japan, which were widely well received. 

“Having two editions of the Olympic Winter Games in Asia will only further help promote our disciplines in this region and encourage further development. New, interested winter sport participants and fans, in cooperation with tourism, industry partners, entertainment and education, open new fields in an interesting target group. And today’s options are much more dynamic, and requested data includes new options such as CRM models, so we have a high chance to grow by involving different stakeholders.”

The FIS has many long-term commercial partners on board of the ilk of Swiss watch brand Longines and German automobile manufacturer Audi. Lewis says that while many of them run until the end of the 2017/18 season, the FIS is “in the process of negotiating the existing partnerships”. Extending with longstanding partners and attracting new sponsors is, of course, made all the easier when its showcase championship – the Olympics – is of the highest calibre. Needless to say, this is one of the reasons that such importance was placed on March’s test events ahead of the 2018.

“We are generally very pleased with the outcome of the various FIS World Cup competitions that have served as PyeongChang 2018 test events across all of our disciplines and especially that there has been notable progress made just from last season’s competitions,” says Lewis.

“In many ways, the pre-Games season and the test events are more complex from a sport’s organisation and venue perspective than the Games themselves, with many persons involved for the first time and the venues still under construction. Like with any Olympic Games Organising Committee, the elements that cannot be effectively tested before the Games themselves present the challenges next year, with logistics for many different stakeholders and their specific needs from the athletes and teams to the spectators, including security, transportation, catering and so on. 

“We have confidence that POGOC [the PyeongChang Olympic Games Organising Committee] is ready to undertake the necessary measures in order to meet these challenges next February.”

Racers compete in the men’s 100m final at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships. 

The ISU is equally confident with a year to go before South Korea’s maiden Winter Games but this Olympic cycle has nevertheless been one of change for winter sport’s oldest federation. Last year, at its 56th ordinary congress in Dubrovnik, Croatia, Dutchman Jan Dijkema became president of the federation. He replaced the Italian Ottavio Cinquanta, who had held the role since 1994. 

Dijkema won on the second ballot, defeating Hungary’s Gyorgy Sallak. Two other candidates, France’s Didier Gailhaguet and Britain’s Chris Buchanan, withdrew after the first round.

Dijkema, who was an ISU vice president for speed skating prior to his new role, plans to serve only a two-year team. What’s more, he is renowned as a moderniser who based his successful election on promises of improving the federation’s promotional, marketing and digital output. 

“I look back on very productive months,” says Dijkema, speaking to SportsPro in mid-March. “Ice skating is central to my heart, and at the ISU we want to further promote and develop the sport worldwide across all levels – figure skating, short-track speed skating, speed skating and synchronised skating. In this regard, we established a new ISU Development Program in the first weeks after the elections. 

“It’s key to educate more coaches and officials worldwide and to support the identification and development of promising young skaters. Besides developing new policy and working on projects, the skating season started in the first months. It’s an important season with the Olympics coming up next year. We have seen great skating performances and a fantastic audience at events.”      

The Dutchman is keen to push through his proposed implementation of a new digital strategy and he argues that there was a certain malaise in the ISU headquarters, combined with a sense of an ‘it has always been done like this’ attitude. Before the major task of planning for an international Games, he had evidently made it his objective to clean up his house.

“My predecessor used to say that change for the sake of changing is not really helpful for anyone,” Dijkema points out. “I have three main objectives, which are development, marketing promotion and digitalisation, and finally good governance. I got to work straight away so these objectives are achieved which is a challenge as I am elected for only two years. 

“We have created a new Development Commission and, like I said, we completely restructured the development policy. We will be changing the ISU website soon, which is part of my marketing, promotion and digitalisation strategy; we are exploring and testing innovative event formats; we will soon have an Athletes Commission. 

“These are all big projects that are happening at the moment. Is it evolution or revolution? You can be the judge of that.”

Nevertheless, PyeongChang is never far from the 71-year-old’s thoughts.   

“We are confident that the 2018 Olympic Winter Games are going to be a success,” says Dijkema. “ISU disciplines will be in the spotlight and the public will be able to enjoy and rediscover our sports. The level of competition this season has been very high. This time next year we will witness the crowning of the Olympic champions which is going to be exciting. 

“The Ice Arena held its first test event back in December 2016 and the second in February. The building is quite stunning and the main rink and practice rink are very well done with a good layout. The Ice Arena is a shared venue between figure skating and short-track speed skating, meaning that the infrastructure has to be adequate for both disciplines and this is a challenge within itself. The test events take place so everything is tested and any kinks can be worked out. We are confident that POCOG will deliver everything as required.

“The Speed Skating Oval in Gangneung was tested during the ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships earlier in February. It was a great event and everything went well. In particular, the ice conditions were excellent. Many skaters set new personal records and national records. We were sometimes even close to world records. The new track records place the Gangneung Oval among the fastest lowland tracks in the world.”

The Gangneung Ice Arena, where skating events at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics will be held.

Aside from executing an effective Games, the questions that is dogging almost every international sporting championships, of late, concern the efficacy of doping programmes and – more specifically – the inclusion of Russian athletes. The 2016 report by Professor Richard McLaren, produced on behalf of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), surmised that over 1,000 Russian athletes in over 30 sports were involved in or benefited from state-sponsored doping between 2011 and 2015, including at their home Olympics in Sochi in 2014. 

While some have called for a blanket ban for the country’s athletes – a measure meted out by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), but not the IOC, for 2016 – others, like FIS president Gian-Franco Kasper, believe that it is not Wada’s place to dole out such punishments.

“We should not suspend those who are innocent,” said Kaspar, to the Deutschlandfunk magazine in January. “We should punish only those who are guilty, we cannot do that indiscriminately just because they have Russian passports. That’s wrong both humanly and legally.”

His colleague Sarah Lewis takes a diplomatic view on the Russia issue. “The protocols evolve between each edition of the Games through scientific and technology developments,” she says. “After the occurrences in Sochi, there will certainly be close attention paid to the security aspects as well.

“We are confident that all possible measures will be in place. As far as the issues surrounding the participation of the Russian athletes, we hope that the ongoing investigations and any subsequent actions will be concluded in good time before the PyeongChang 2018 Games.”

It is a pragmatic outlook that Jan Dijkema shares. “Mindful of a due diligence process, the ISU is proceeding with the evaluation of the evidence and related necessary investigations,” he says. “For the cases relating to the Sochi Olympic Winter Games, the ISU is of course closely following the IOC proceedings and will take into account possible new evidence becoming available thanks to the re-analysis of the concerned samples.

“If and when there are sufficient elements and evidence to pursue anti-doping rule violations, the ISU will not hesitate to open disciplinary proceedings and possibly apply provisional suspensions against bodies or persons subject to infringements of the World Anti-Doping Code or ISU Anti-Doping rules.”

This article was originally published in Issue 93 of SportsPro magazine.