Racing towards PyeongChang: Sarah Lewis on the Winter Olympics and beyond

Ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Sarah Lewis, secretary general of the International Ski Federation (FIS), looks back on a packed year for the global governing body and provides an update on the organisation’s preparations for February's Games.

Racing towards PyeongChang: Sarah Lewis on the Winter Olympics and beyond

It’s difficult to envisage a busier sports organisation than the International Ski Federation (FIS). 

The global governing body for skiing and snowboarding is annually tasked with organising over 300 senior events across its various Olympic disciplines, not to mention thousands of additional competitions that take place under the organisation’s watch. Throw in the added dimension of an imminent Olympic year to accommodate and it would be safe to assume that the cogs at the FIS headquarters in Oberhofen, Switzerland have been in particularly intensive motion over the last 12 months.    

When Sarah Lewis, secretary general of the FIS, sits down for a chat with SportsPro at Host City 2017 in Glasgow, Scotland last week, the 53-year-old has not long stepped off a flight from Beijing, where she made a brief stopover to check in on the Chinese capital’s progress ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics.

For now though, all slopes lead to PyeongChang in South Korea for next year’s Games and, after joining the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in the host city for its final project review, Lewis seems confident that the first instalment of two successive Winter Olympics in Asia is more than ready to deliver a memorable occasion.      

With just two months to go until the opening ceremony, Lewis reflects on the year that was for the FIS, looks ahead to PyeongChang and discusses the struggle to attract bidders for future editions of the Games.      

SportsPro: You’ve been involved with the FIS for more than 20 years. How have you seen the organisation evolve in that time?

SL: The main underlying factor is that it’s evolved from an organisation which was primarily run through technical committees, to having the technical committees that serve in their function in terms of technical expertise and the sports political aspects, but now the actual execution is now carried out by professionals, so the organisation has been able to generate resources through commercial activity and through media rights in order to be able to finance that professional structure. 

I would say that’s an overall general element, but we could easily go into many different details in a lot of different areas. 

Sarah Lewis has been the International Ski Federation's (FIS) secretary general since 2000

What have been the highlights of 2017 for the FIS? 

2017 was a World Championship season which happens every second year, so that’s a big highlight of the season to showcase the sport. We had championships at very important venues which were very high profile.

Our alpine championships were at St Moritz in Switzerland, which is one of the most important tourist destinations in the world. The Nordic championships took place in Lahti, Finland, which was a record-breaking seventh time the competition has been held in the same place, in the heart of the Nordic skiing community just one hour from Helsinki. Then we had the freestyle snowboard in Sierra Nevada in Spain, which is a sunny place that you would really associate with young people. So we had three great events with excellent viewing figures which ran alongside a smooth-running World Cup series with both new and old champions.

There have also been challenges around the sport that we have had to deal with. The focal point of those discussions is concerning the ongoing issues with the doping cases from Sochi and the situation surrounding that. So there have been the sporting highs along with the challenges that you have to overcome as an organisation in terms of ensuring its credibility and its proper governance. 

How are preparations for next year’s Winter Olympics in PyeongChang coming along?

I was there last week for the final IOC project review and the nicest surprise was just how cold it was when I arrived and how much snow there was already. Three of the resorts are already open and there are plenty of skiers and snowboarders who are already out, so the venues are really coming together, tribunes are in place, overlay is coming in and it’s starting to look very Olympic. The roads that have been improved are also pretty much ready, and looking at the refurbishment and the new hotels you can see it’s on the final legs, so the operational readiness is already in good swing.   

I always try to go to the Olympic or our FIS World Championship organisers one or two months out just to learn if there are any last minute issues we need to be dealing with, and I had a very good feeling in PyeongChang. 

Of all the different issues that were being addressed, there were no major ones that were raised relating to sport, so that’s very important.  

How do the Winter Olympics affect the rest of the FIS calendar?

It’s fully integrated. The Olympics is when it is and we build the calendar around it. That’s very straightforward to do and has worked like that forever, actually. It’s the same with the FIS World Championships; we build the rest of the World Cup calendar very well and in a complementary way around it. 

But it’s not just about this season; it’s also about building up to the Games. Especially if we take PyeongChang now, going forward to Beijing and back to Sochi, these are organisers who have never previously done major events. That’s not strictly true with PyeongChang because we had the first alpine World Cup there in 1998 and the snowboard World Championships in 2009, so we have had events there but they’re not an annual part of the circuit, so you have to ensure that the pathway over those five or six years includes different events at different levels and then you’ll have the final test events that are at World Cup level – the stress tests. 

PyeongChang 2018 is just two months away, when the Alpensia Ski Jumping Stadium (pictured) will host several events

The Winter Olympics haven't been staged in Asia since 1998, but the next two editions of the Games are both going to be held there. What opportunities will that provide the FIS both in terms of showcasing the sport and commercially?

There are lots of opportunities. From PyeongChang I hopped over to Beijing and we had the first ever FIS Snowboard World Cup big air event in the city. Then next month there is a whole series of World Cups up in the Olympic resort in Genting Secret Garden. But the big air was really a huge success and worked out very well indeed.

We are working very closely with the Chinese Ski Association and the country’s Olympic committee – which is very much under the framework of the ministry – to support them in the government’s intention to have 300 million new winter sport participants by 2022. So we have established a project called ‘Get into Snow Sports – China’, which is basically an entry level course which really will be designed to ensure that newcomers to the sport will have a great experience - they’ll have fun, will enjoy it and will be safe. 

China has a long, cold winter, and we feel that snow sports have not even started to achieve their potential there yet and have a great opportunity to do so

The important thing is ensuring that they will not just be one-off participants but that they want to take up the sport and ski regularly during the winter, because China has a long, cold winter, and we feel that snow sports have not even started to achieve their potential there yet and have a great opportunity to do so because the public at large will become so much more exposed I think firstly through the 2018 Games, and then we will also host the FIS Freestyle and Snowboard World Championships the year before the 2022 Games.

Beijing sensibly bid for those championships which will be a tremendous showcase for the sport a year before the Games to promote the event but also of course as an operational test event for the organisers too.     

How do you see the future of the Winter Olympics taking shape given some of the current difficulties to attract bidders?

It’s very interesting and, clearly, it’s very much connected to other political issues. We’re not just talking about major sports events as a whole, because when the referendum in Munich for 2022 was unsuccessful we were simultaneously hosting the FIS Alpine Skiing World Championships in Garmisch - which was going to be the venue for alpine skiing and other snow sports - with a lot of enthusiasm. 

Innsbruck and the region of Tyrol have unfortunately had a negative referendum for 2026 and we’ve got World Championships in the Nordic disciplines in Seefeld – which would have hosted the Nordic events – in 2019. So these major events are continuing with great public support and government - local, regional and national investment. 

There are interested potential candidates out there at the moment and we’re very much trying to support, encourage and work together with the IOC as well so that they [potential bidders] can see the benefits and the opportunities that are provided, especially those who are traditional organisers with existing venues, like would have been the case in Innsbruck. 

In terms of the resources and the revenues potential hosts are going to get from the IOC, this is a substantial amount which they can utilise going forwards in terms of the platform of the Games for future legacy for sport in their country.   

Residents of the Austrian state of Tyrol recently rejected a plan for the region to bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics

Would it would be good for skiing if future Winter Games returned to a traditional European resort?

I think also for traditional resorts, yes. I think it’s important that they show that they still want to be part of the future - the new model, the new concept - and that they believe in it. 

What will be the biggest challenges for the FIS going forward?

It’s a tough landscape in terms of many different sports all competing for airtime, exposure, commercial investment and sponsors, but more than anything I think we’re competing against the emergence of non-sporting rivals for youngsters’ leisure time with gaming and esports which have developed massively and very fast, so we all have a shared goal to deal with that. 

We also need to make sure that lessons are learned from the doping crisis emanating from Sochi. We’re very vigilant about that and have a strong no tolerance to doping policy, but that doesn’t mean to say it happens automatically. It’s a big investment, a big commitment and a lot of work, but we’ve seen that for the credibility of the organisation and the sport that it is so important that it is properly handled.