A Missive From 3+ Years Covering the Russian Doping Scandal

FasterSkier’s Alex Kochon, Nat Herz, and the author (Chelsea Little) at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Little did we know what was going on behind the scenes of those Games. Looking back at our coverage of the 2014 Olympics, I’m very proud of the work we did. But I’m not too proud to say that while we thought we had a realistic understanding of international sports governance, we were still naive to its incredible inertia.

The following is an editorial I wrote for FasterSkier.com. As always, head there for more news and reporting about cross-country skiing and biathlon.

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Last week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) cleared 28 Russian athletes of doping charges. Many people seemed shocked by this development.

The athletes had been disqualified from the 2014 Games by an International Olympic Committee (IOC) Commission. This was after more than 18 months of buildup in which the world learnt of systematic manipulation of the anti-doping process by the Russian state security apparatus at those Olympics.

I was both shocked, and not shocked. When all these athletes had been disqualified by the IOC and handed lifetime bans from Olympic competition, I knew in my heart of hearts that it would be undone (I’ll explain why below). But I hadn’t, somehow, put any thought into how exactly that would come to pass. So on one level, I was surprised, even if on another level I wasn’t.

When the news broke, I had written a profanity-laced all-caps message on our company Slack channel. On Twitter, I wrote, “I am so tired. That means that they have won.” That’s about all I could muster.

“I’m sure you are extremely disappointed by the CAS ruling,” one member of my extended family wrote in an email, knowing how many nights and weekends I had spent covering this story, how many hours and days of my personal life I had erased to chase it, because doing so does not pay the bills if you work for a cross-country ski website in America.

And I was disappointed.

I had thought that those nights and weekends would help make a better sporting world, help bring cheating to light, help hold the powers that be in sport accountable and call on them to do a little better.

But it felt like all that work had accomplished nothing, not changed a single thing to make nordic sports more fair.

I can only imagine how the athletes felt. The ones who found out that they would not be receiving medals after all, medals that they felt had been stolen from them by cheaters, medals that they had been slated to finally receive but now would never see.

I can only imagine.

More than anything, I was disappointed because I didn’t understand. I’m an analyst. No analysis I could do would explain to me just what had happened because CAS did not release a reasoned argument for their decision, which, as USADA General Cousel Bill Bock pointed out, is ludicrous. So at the moment we don’t know why these athletes were cleared; we only have speculation and hearsay.

But I had read previous CAS decisions, including the one partially upholding cross-country skier Alexander Legkov’s provisional suspension by the International Ski Federation.

In that decision, an arbitration panel wrote that they trusted the statements of whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov and investigator Richard McLaren.

That testimony that is widely speculated to have been found untrustworthy by the arbitration panel which more recently cleared the athletes.

There is a difference between provisional suspensions and rule violations, and maybe that’s the root cause (or maybe it’s not; one day we will find out).

But if two different arbitration panels can come to two completely different conclusions about whether evidence is trustworthy, then what is the point of a “high court” of arbitration? That’s disappointing.

On the other hand, maybe the new panel did believe that the whistleblower testimony was true, but that witness statements alone are not enough to prove a doping violation. We’ll set aside for a moment all the forensic evidence [see footnote 1].

If that’s the case, it’s even more disappointing. It means that all of the rhetoric over the last few years about putting more resources into investigations will not actually result in cleaner sport, unless there is a positive test or the presence of drugs or medical equipment (see: Austrian skier Wurm, Russian skier Pankratov).

It would mean that the World Anti-Doping Agency’s new “secure digital platform” for whistleblowing — and statements by athletes and doctors and team staff — are all useless to anti-doping unless they are followed by physical evidence of prohibited substances or methods.

But we don’t know the panel’s reasoning. This is all just speculation.

I was tired and disappointed because my job as a journalist is to take complicated things, and make them make sense to our readers.

Here, there was nothing to work with. There was nothing to explain.

Or was there?

Here’s my analysis.

Armchair commentators have said that someone at CAS must have been paid off. Olympic observers have noted that while Russia appealed the choice or arbitrators by the IOC, the IOC apparently did not appeal Russia’s choice. So maybe the panel really was biased. That’s one storyline.

A second suggested storyline is that the IOC set up the cases to fail, so that it would look like they tried to do something heroic, but in the end nothing would change.

To some extent, that is absolutely the case. Lifetime bans for doping have been attempted by the IOC before. Every time, they have been overturned. There was a zero percent chance it would work this time, either.

Did the IOC go further than that in “set up to fail”? Both storylines may be true. Neither may be true. But each of these storylines is far too myopic in their attempts to explain what happened with this CAS decision.

The reason that, in my heart of hearts, I knew that things would turn out just fine for most of these seemingly disqualified athletes, is that far more than CAS is broken [2].

Broken would imply that at some point the system worked. When was that, again?

This scandal has been going on for years. And in both it and other, non-Russia-related doping scandals, organizations have dragged their feet at every turn. There is no political will to keep sport clean. Ensuring clean sport would be hard. Nobody wants to do hard work. Universally, these organizations just want to run sporting events and for fans to be happy.

“We need to stop pretending sport is clean,” International Ski Federation (FIS) President Gian Franco Kasper [3] famously told New York Times reporter Rebecca Ruiz. “It’s a noble principle, but in practice? It’s entertainment. It’s drama.”

People were mad when Kasper said this, but it was an especially revealing comment. Maybe it is a testament to our optimism that we quickly moved on, focusing on how we would try to “solve” the problem of doping.

There have been individuals and groups who have worked passionately to uncover the truth, and done an admirable job. Beckie Scott at WADA [4] is one who comes to mind. But their work is always prevented from reaching its logical conclusion.

Let’s first look at the IOC, which has deservedly gotten a bad rap for dragging its investigations out for as long as seems humanly possible.

The IOC has certainly not put the resources or good-faith effort into looking under every stone, or doing so quickly. That’s how we got the first Sochi disqualifications – like Legkov’s – being announced in November of 2017. Most of the criticism leveled at the organization on this front is absolutely justified.

In all the time between May 2016, when the Sochi scandal was first broken by the New York Times, and November 2017, the IOC did very little. The decision banning Legkov relied mostly on the same evidence that had been in the McLaren Report.

The IOC Commission asked new experts to revisit the issues of scratches on sample bottles and salt content of urine samples. Basically, they repeated a lot of work which had already been done, expanding it to a larger number of samples but taking longer to do so by insisting on using different experts, who nonetheless came to the same conclusions.

For Legkov, all of this resulted in the same evidence that had been in the McLaren Report: that Legkov’s sample bottle from after the 50 k, which he had won, showed signs of being tampered with.

Sure, the IOC Commission got testimony from Rodchenkov. But that only at the last minute, perhaps because they were publicly shamed when it was revealed that they hadn’t contacted him.

It’s fair to criticize the IOC for its anemic investigation, but this is not just an IOC problem, just like the disqualifications being overturned is not really a CAS problem.

Look further. Since the McLaren Report, few other governing bodies have been doing better.

78 anti-doping samples belonging to biathletes are referred to in the McLaren Report. The International Biathlon Union (IBU) has not suspended any of the 38 athletes, that we are aware of, other than those who were suspended by the IOC. In fact, they have explicitly said that they would not investigate 22 of those 38.

“We like to play coy, like the cat wagging its tail when the mouse runs in front,” IBU Vice President for Medical Issues Jim Carrabre told me back at the 2014 Olympics, in an interview that led to the IBU’s media chief calling me into his office at the press center and dressing me down for talking about things that he would rather journalists didn’t ask his organization’s board members.

“It goes by once or twice, and then the third time it gets bitten,” Carrabre said at the time.

He was referring to blood profiles, a topic that has recently gained prominence.

For years I have been told by various people that the IBU has cases in the works, that soon I will hear about them, that they know some people are doping and are about to catch them.

I don’t doubt that Carrabre is a true believer in the anti-doping fight. He gets pretty fired up about things, as does fellow Executive Board member Max Cobb.

But the cases that I heard rumors of, even promises of, have never materialized.

The Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) was supposed to revolutionize anti-doping and indicate if athletes had been blood doping even when no illicit substance was detected. That sure would have been handy due to the drugs’ short detection windows and athletes’ and doctors’ strategies of “microdosing.”

But there have been no doping bans on the basis of ABP in skiing or biathlon [5]. I don’t think that even the most optimistic of fans really believes that this is because there is no blood doping going on.

What does that mean? That ABP doesn’t work, that it wouldn’t hold up in arbitration? Or that something else is going on?

It would be hard to look at IBU President Anders Besseberg’s behavior in the last two years – for instance, the IBU’s continued insistence that it’s totally fine to hold events in Russia, or his demeanor and statements during meetings with athletes – and conclude anything other than that he is sympathetic to Russia and would even more generally like to simply pretend that there was no scandal in his sport.

Having a few true anti-doping crusaders on a governing board does not clean sport make. I don’t want to put words into their mouths, but probably, it just makes these crusaders even more frustrated.

“When the McLaren Report first came out, I thought that doping was the greatest threat to our sport,” U.S. biathlete Susan Dunklee told FasterSkier in January 2017. “However after watching the last few weeks play out, I believe that the IBU’s reluctance to meaningfully act to prevent doping is the greatest threat to our sport.”

Then there is FIS. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, there were 46 skiers implicated in the McLaren report. Not all of them, obviously, were at the 2014 Olympics or Paralympics, yet as far as anyone can tell, FIS has done nothing to investigate the other cases, some of which include alleged anti-doping rule violations.

A FIS whistleblower just leaked a bunch of old blood profile data to an international team of journalists.

(Which, by the way, how can I get in on that? Hi? I’m over here! I know a lot about doping in skiing and I also how to do statistics!)

The data is interesting, but nothing can really be done with it, as it is old and from the days before ABP was a policy. Without the journalists or their experts explaining how they decided what an “abnormal or highly abnormal” blood profile is, it’s impossible to judge what percentage of the athletes they identify as potentially having doped actually were likely dopers.

But perhaps this indicates that someone within FIS is frustrated with how things are going. If you cared about skiing being clean, cared about doing your job well, and listened to Kasper say things like “sanctioning entire countries is purely political and I do not agree with this,” you might be frustrated too.

And here’s the last thing. In this whole scandal we are talking about one country. That’s Russia, and it has led to a lot of ideological discussion.

But it’s not really about Russia.

Yes, the IOC and the IBU and FIS want to keep Russia happy, because their sports are popular in Russia, the Russian athletes are talented and popular even outside the country, because Russia is great at hosting events, and because Russian fans travel all over to watch competitions. That’s part of it.

And yes, some commentators have complained that athletes are being punished just because they are Russian. They have complained that this is a U.S.-led effort reviving Cold War hostilities. That we are Russophobes. That we are hypocrites because American sports stars dope too, and/or that lots of countries dope but we just haven’t found out about it.

But again, that’s being far too myopic about things, and believing that this scandal is only a thing unto itself, not part of the bigger problem.

If this scandal had taken place with Norway, Sweden, Germany, the United States, or any other country at the center – the outcome or the (lack of) speed of its resolution probably wouldn’t have been much different [6].

I – yes, I’m among those journalists accused of being hypocritical and anti-Russian, I’ve even been compared to Nazis, gee that was fun – I would chase this scandal just as hard if it had arisen in any of these other countries.

In fact, I would have investigated it with even more fervor if these were American or Canadian skiers and biathletes we were talking about. And presumably most of the evidence would have been in English, so I could investigate more effectively, without translating things I was looking for into Russian, searching the internet or evidence documents, and then translating the Russian back into English, in a crappy game of “telephone”.

I think that the North American athletes I routinely interview are aware that if I found out they were cheating, I would have no remorse and they would have nowhere to hide.

Just as I’m not a hypocrite, these sports organizations aren’t, either – well, they are, but not in this way, not when it comes to nationality. The claims that various decisions just come from Russian money and bribes are missing the point.

Whether coming from Russia or elsewere, these organizations don’t want a big scandal. They don’t want to rewrite their results sheets. The athletes who missed out on medals they probably should have taken home? These organizations don’t really care about athletes.

They are just an unfortunate bit of collateral damage, but oh well.

Time will march on. A new race will be held. It will be an exciting race! We will all be caught up in it.

Maybe Pellegrino will upset Klæbo.

Maybe an American will finally win a medal.

Maybe Fourcade will mess up his first stage, but then climb back to gold anyway.

Maybe Makarainen will mess up all her shooting stages, and we will all watch rapt to see whether she can pass 15 people on the final loop. Maybe she can.

Maybe Harvey will finally truly become the Prince of Quebec, crowned with an Olympic medal.

Maybe the breakaway will succeed.

Or maybe the favorite will win, but we will be enthralled until the final moment, watching to see whether they will pull it off.

Soon, we will forget about those athletes whom we were wondering about, the ones who maybe probably should have a medal stashed in their safe deposit box somewhere and a whole lot more sponsor money than they have now.

Those athletes will slip farther and farther to the back of our minds. In the forefront will be the day’s competition – so amazing! – and the big happy family that is sport.

Actual clean sport is not, and never was, these organizations’ goal.

*****

Footnotes:

[1] On the topic of skiers who were cleared by CAS: Maxim Vylegzhanin’s sample from Sochi also had scratches on it and had an incorrectly reported specific gravity; the two other members of the men’s relay team also had marks on their sample bottles, and one had a sample whose specific gravity was too high to be believable; two sprinters had marks on their sample bottles and for one, there as also a foreign fiber inside the bottle. Julia Ivanova, whose ban was not overturned by CAS, had an impossibly high salt value in her urine sample.

[2] I actually think CAS does work. CAS handles far more than doping cases – they handle contract disputes, team selection, trades, anything you can think of that would need arbitration. And as far as I know, they do a good job. This is the first CAS decision that has left me truly baffled.

[3] Term limits, man. We really, really need term limits.

[4] I’m not going to talk in much detail in this piece about WADA, which alternatingly does the right thing and the wrong thing, and often does the wrong thing for a very long time first. But at least in the last year or so, WADA is no worse than any other group, and indeed maybe a bit better.

[5] Blood profiles have certainly led to targeted testing, which caught athletes before the 2014 Olympics. But nobody bothered to try an ABP case, that we know of. Nor, seemingly, did the biathletes that the McLaren Report alleges were doping – Olga Vilukhina and Yana Romanova – fail their ABP’s. Either ABP is not being used, or it is not being successful and the details of the cases are never made public.

[6] If the perpetrator of this scandal hadn’t been Russia, I think the main difference might have been the reaction within that different country. I don’t think the Norwegian public would react the same way the Russian public has. Each place has its own culture around sport and what it means, and government also plays various different roles in supporting and controlling sport. But the reaction from the international organizations? Things would probably be much the same.

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I Met My Book-Based 2017 New Years Resolution!

Last year, I made a resolution to try to read more. I did it because I really love reading, but I realized that I wasn’t doing so much of it outside of work. I wanted my New Years resolution not to be something that was a responsibility or a chore, but something that would increase the time I spent doing something that I liked. Something that would improve my quality of life and bring me some happiness. So: I resolved to read 52 books. One a week.

And, dear reader, I did it! This might be the first time that I can say I hands-down nailed a resolution and kept it going all year long. I read 20,300 pages in print, aside from papers read for work or things read online (which is a lot; after all, one of the reasons for this resolution was to spend less time staring at a screen, but I still have a lot of screen time!).

Here’s what I read, with some notes below about

  1. my favorites,
  2. how I chose them,
  3. who the authors were
  4. and why my resolution this year will be to read even more diverse authors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(I also read an issue of Brick, the Canadian literary magazine, but this output is captured from Goodreads and I can’t find Brick on there.)

A Few Favorites (although nothing in here was bad):

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys: This book seemed life changing. I put it down and thought about the world differently. It is an inherently feminist book, and I also reveled in the different characters’ descriptions of nature. Why is this not required reading right after high school students read Jane Eyre!? I feel strongly about that, but I also think that if you had never even heard of Jane Eyre and picked up this book, it would be revelatory. Obviously, it stands on its own. I wanted to read the whole thing all over again, immediately. I think there was some aspect in which it was the right book at the right time, too, but I can’t exactly put my finger on how. (Link to buy at Powells)

The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides: A gem; there’s a reason Eugenides became a big-name author. (Link to buy at Powells)

Evicted, Matthew Desmond: This book won the Pulitzer Prize, and it is so important to understanding how things work in America and the structural inequalities our population faces. It is also simply a dang good read, with compelling characters and stories amidst the facts and statistics. An amazing book. (Link to buy at Powells)

Lab Girl, Hope Jahren: I know some people have issues with this book because they think it glorifies working too hard and some behaviors that are, well, not the best way to supervise students. However, I think it is clear that the author is writing about mental health issues that she suffered for a large chunk of the time covered in the book – certainly not saying that how she worked in the early part of her career is healthy, or that it is the way everyone should work. I also found it to be a great description of doing science, and the magical opportunities but also complete failures that you bounce around in from month to month. Plus the naturalistic and biological descriptions used as metaphors are so sparklingly beautifully written and crafted. I love this book. (Link to buy at Powells)

An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears: Rarely have so many completely unreliable narrators combined to tell such a great story. All the political, historical, scientific, and religious details are fantastic, and for me it was an intriguing reminder that a few hundred years ago we considered philosophy, medicine, biology, and physics to basically all be part of the same field. Plus, it’s a great mystery! (Link to buy at Powells)

How To Be BothAli Smith: I didn’t know what to expect from this book, and I’m still not sure what it really even is, but every part of it is delightful and thought-provoking, with fascinating characters. Their inner thoughts and dialogue are so fresh and new. (Link to buy at Powells)

Best Gift From a Stranger:

The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins: I did one of those pyramid-scheme type things, only with books. You receive an email with two names, move the names around and add yours, and send it on to friends. A few days or weeks later, you receive books in the mail as friends of your friends send you a book that they liked. It was great fun and I ended up reading several things I never would have otherwise. This was one of them, a classic and among the first great detective novels (and I love detective novels!), and it was one of the best things I read all year. The fact that I received it in this unusual way made it all the more fun. (Link to buy at Powells)

Most Frustrating Read: 

The Sport of KingsC. E. Morgan: 4/5 of this book was one of the best books I read all year, an absolutely incredible accomplishment of storytelling. I was amazed at every page. The next 9/10 was… less good. The 10th 10th was disappointing, I thought. (If you’ve read the book I’d be fascinated to know your reaction.) But I wouldn’t say that this disappointment makes it not worth picking up a copy. It’s still special, and I can’t wait to see what the author does next. (Link to buy at Powells)

Weirdest Read: 

Norma, Sofi Oksanen: If I tell you the plot of this book, you will not even believe that someone would come up with it, much less that it would have a fairly successful launch. I’ll just say that it’s set in Finland, it’s super strange, and involves both organized crime and some sort of genetic magic? I picked this novel up after reading the author’s piece on LitHub, “How Women Experience Beauty”. It’s a fast and fun read, if you’re up for something weird. (Link to buy at Amazon)

Only Thing I Was Reading for the Second Time:

Middlemarch, George Eliot: I rarely re-read books. But I got this for a friend who I then didn’t see for a while, so I decided to read it myself first before gifting it. It was just as good as I remembered. A favorite from the Classic English Novels canon. If you haven’t read it, do; if you start it and hate it, keep going. Both the book and Dorothea get more interesting. (Link to buy at Powells)

How I Chose What To Read

As the year progressed, I kept track of what I read, when I finished it, etc. I got this idea from a blog post I read somewhere but… I can no longer remember where. The spreadsheet I used was adapted from Nicole Zhu. So I can say:

  • 13 books were received as gifts from various people (mostly my parents, but also friends), plus The Moonstone  which was received in the book exchange (most of the other book exchange books I had read the previous year).
  • One book (The Haywire Heart) was sent to me by a publisher asking for a review.
  • A few I chose because they were classics (East of Eden) or at least, classics for a particular crowd  (The Selling of the President, Wide Sargasso Sea, Desert Solitaire), which I had never read.
  • Some I picked up off my parents’ bookshelf when I was home (The Painted Drum, East of Eden, Cod).
  • Others were recommended to be by friends (Burmese Days, Where the Rivers Flow North, Outlander, Solar Bones).
  • One I picked up from a bookshelf at Powells which highlighted their selection of women authors in translation (Adua).
  • Some I picked because I loved previous works from the authors (The Unconsoled, The Buried Giant, The Dispossessed).
  • And most of the rest I chose because they were award winners, I had read reviews of them, or they were parts of various lists that I saw.

I read a lot of books that were either gifts or recommended to me by friends. They were mostly excellent. I found Thank You For Being Late a bit long – there were sections that I found really interesting and inspiring, and long sections which seemed tedious. Solar Bones I did not find as magical as some other people did, but, again, there were entire sections which were amazing – and as a feat of writing it is stylistically a marvel. If you can’t think of what to read, definitely ask friends for recommendations. You’ll get out of your rut and find some amazing stuff.

Of the work-related books, four were chosen myself and three were chosen for me, either as part of our research group’s book club or because one was a “gift” of my boss (probably a signal I should read it…).

Who Wrote These Books? 

In my spreadsheet, I kept track of some basic data about the books and authors I was reading. I was going to make some nice R ggplot graphics of this data, but I’m just way too tired. So I’ll describe the data verbally instead.

Of the seven work-related books, all the authors were white men. Sigh.

Leaving out those as well as the two literary journal issues (which featured writing by men and women, and of various nationalities), I read three short-story collections, 29 novels, and 13 nonfiction books.

29 books were published since the year 2000, with BY FAR the biggest year being 2016 (11 books). I’m ready new writing, for the most part. The earliest books were The Moonstone (1868) and Middlemarch (1871), with a big jump until Burmese Days (1934) and then East of Eden (1952).

25 books were by men, and 19 by women. The disparity really comes on the nonfiction side: with novels and short stories combined, 16 books were by men and 15 by women. For nonfiction, nine books were by men and four by women.

11 books were by non-white authors – and interestingly, it was 5 by men (20% of the total number of male authors) and 6 by women (32% of the female authors).

28 authors were American, of which at least two were born outside the country (Viet Thanh Nguyen in Vietnam and Yaa Gyasi in Ghana). 7 authors were British, of which at least two were born out of the country (Jean Rhys in Dominica and Kazuo Ishiguro in Japan). The other authors are one each from Finland, India, Ireland, Canada, Jamaica, North Korea, and South Korea, and Ideaga Scebo is Somali-Italian. Most of the works take place completely or partly in the country of the author’s origin.

4 books were translations: Adua (from Italian), Norma (from Finnish), The Vegetarian (from Korean), and The Accusationhow the translation process helped verify that it is an authentic North Korean work (from Korean, and you should read about ).

Next Thoughts…

I found this year of reading so rewarding! A few close friends almost made fun of me for how voraciously I was reading, but I learned so much, and learned to think about things in a different way, even if sometimes only temporarily. I also fairly frequently read on the bus or tram to work, which is a big improvement over reading about politics on Twitter and getting mad. I read a lot of fiction, and I read a fair amount of work that is set somewhere else, maybe in the future or the past, and some that involves magic. I do read some nonfiction to learn, but a huge aspect of my current love of reading is to be transported somewhere away from work and my daily life. And I think that spending more time in these other universes imagined by some fantastic writers has, indeed, improved my outlook on things and my balance.

More generally, this resolution reminded me how important it is to make space for things you love to do. Maybe that isn’t reading for you, but think of something that is and that you find yourself not doing as often as you used to or as you’d like to. Try to make a habit to carve out a little bit of space for it. We spend a lot of time doing things that just make us tired and frustrated and aren’t helping us out (hi, Twitter…). Eliminating those habits completely is not a realistic goal. But trying to replace them some portion of that time with a different thing that makes you happy is both realistic and more likely to succeed than simply resolving to NOT do something.

This year, I’m going to make more of an effort to read a better balance of male and female authors, and more books that aren’t by Americans. Although that’s hard, because there are so many good books by Americans. I’d also like to read more translated work. We’ll see how that goes.

Haute Savoie and the Best World Cup Yet?

Men’s mass start, Le Grand Bornand, 2017.

France has its own way about many things, and the Biathlon World Cup turns out to be one of them. The recent weekend of competitions in Le Grand Bornand was one of the most fun, atmospheric, and exciting events I’ve been to, although I’ve struggled to explain in words exactly what made it different.

“I could go for the greatest skiing right from the venue!” Yeah, but I also had amazing ski adventures in Norway, Austria, and Germany.

“The crowd was so huge, and so energetic!” Yeah, but see also, Ruhpolding and Holmenkollen, not to mention the Czech Republic for 2013 World Championships.

You begin to see the problem. It was different all right, but is there a word for how?

But whatever it was, which I will try nevertheless to articulate, it was amazing. Not only the races, but also everything else I did while there: the extra day I got to spend skiing up on a plateau, the ventures into a historic city nearby, the tartiflette I ate two days in a row in perfect happiness.

My usual reporting gig goes something like this: take a plane or train until I’m in the closest big city, take a train or bus until I’m in town, walk to wherever I’m staying or else beg for a transport from the organizing committee. Usually, walk. Sometimes far.

As the beginning of this World Cup weekend drew nearer, it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t going to work very well. The distance from Zurich to Le Grand Bornand is not too far, but the connections were terrible. There was a bus directly from Geneva to Le Grand Bornand, but as a ski-season bus it only began to run the week after the World Cup came to town (come on, guys!). An email to the organizing committee asking for a suggested alternative went unanswered. Sleuthing revealed that instead I would have to spend a long layover in Geneva, take a bus to Annecy, spend a long layover there, and take another bus to where I was staying.

Knowing that FasterSkier wouldn’t be able to reimburse me for it, I nonetheless rented a car. The weather forecast was terrible. I began to slightly dread the trip.

It was dark by the time I left Geneva on a Friday night, when everyone else is also trying to escape from the city to the mountains. Traffic was at a standstill on the highway. I eventually reached Annecy and turned up to the mountains, creeping along in a line of cars through the increasingly snowy roads. The mountains were hidden in snowsqualls and I had no sense of where I was going. With few named roadsigns, I drove past the place I was staying three times before actually finding it.

France, it must be said, is not always convenient or straightforward.

But when the World Cup was last held in Le Grand Bornand four years ago, everybody raved about it. And I had been told that La Clusaz, just on the other side of a ridge, was one of the best places in the world to go for a ski. Maybe when I woke up in the morning, I figured, I would see what all the fuss about Haute Savoie was really about.

The next morning, it was snowing – a lot. I had hoped to go for a ski nearby, but knew the trails wouldn’t have been groomed so early. Instead, I tried to get to the race venue to get my accreditation and snag a spot in the media center. The roads were terrible. I walked up to the main road and spotted a bus coming, clearly heading for the venue. Traffic slowed and as it happened, the bus idled to a stop just next to me. I put out my thumb to hitchhike. The bus was completely full, but the driver, an aging French man in an excellent beard and sweater, opened the door and folded down a sort of jump seat for me. I was in luck. We were off!

I was deposited in the old town of Le Grand Bornand near the beautiful church at its center. The mountains were still partially hidden, but provided a gorgeous backdrop. Even though it was three hours before the race, the town was already packed with spectators, dressed up patriotically and happily chatting, having a beer or hot mulled wine to get in the spirit.

After dropping off my laptop and snagging some cheese from the media cafeteria, I wandered around the venue, trying to figure out the stadium setup and how I would get between the shooting range, the finish line, and the mixed zone.

Spectators were filing in and music was blasting – good music, creating a party atmosphere. The French athletes had all made playlists and up on the big screens you would see, “you are listening to the playlist of Chloe Chevalier!”

This sounds silly, but playing good music goes so far in creating an atmosphere. And I’ve never particularly noticed or not noticed the music at races, but this time, I noticed it. The music was good, and it was fun, and it made everyone excited.

As race time drew near, the stands were already so loud. There were 15,000 or 16,000 people there, between the stands and the various hillsides out on the course. In the stadium, they were doing the wave. On the hillsides, fans were going crazy when a French athlete skied by. At one point, those filling the stands sang the Marseillaise. Someone had a trumpet they would play occasionally.

And then – race time. Off they went, and the crowd went even wilder. In they came to the shooting range, and the crowd cheered every hit target from a French athlete. They cheered for everyone else, too, although at two points they also cheered when other athletes (Johannes Bø and, I think, Anastasiya Kuzmina) missed shots, before seeming to remember that this was really rude and not doing it again.

The crowd cheered for everyone. In press conference after press conference, non-French athletes would say how the energy of the place helped them, how it was one of their favorite races, how crazy it was how the fanbase in France had grown in the last four years.

In the men’s mass start, Russia’s Matvey Eliseev ‘dirtied’ his first stage: he missed all five targets. That put him a minute and 15 seconds behind the next last competitor. When he reached the shooting range again, the crowd cheered him – the last place skier, and a Russian to boot – nearly as loudly as they had cheered Martin Fourcade. And when he went out on the course, the hillside cheered him up the climbs every bit as loudly.

That is something I don’t see (or hear) very often.

After a frustrating three days of racing for the French, they finally swept the mass starts. Both Justine Braisaz and Martin Fourcade carried the tricolore across the finish line. To say the crowd went wild is an understatement.

“This was tougher than some World Cups where we are less expected,” Fourcade later said of the pressure. “But it’s also what we want, asking for a World Cup at home.”

Biathlon wasn’t a big sport in France just five years ago, even though Fourcade was well on his winning ways. What happened? When asked what she would suggest a North American organizing committee do to try to mirror this success, Susan Dunklee said, “marketing.”

Whatever it was, it was magical. The crowd was big, but it wasn’t the biggest I’ve ever seen. Instead, something about their energy was completely different. It was French. It was more joyous than you would find at most other venues. The happiness at being outside, on a beautiful day in the mountains, watching an exciting sports event, was expressed totally differently than anywhere I’ve ever been.

But I didn’t work all weekend, and the other stuff was just as great as the competitions. Before Sunday’s race I had gone for a ski with fellow Dartmouth and Craftsbury alum Mary O’Connell, and Dartmouth alum Jenny Land Mackenzie. Because of all the security and closures around the race course, we had to walk maybe a kilometer up the road before finding a ski trail to hop on. Then we simply followed it up a long valley. It was a sunny morning. There were the mountains.

Mary and Jenny, rather excited at the good skiing we found ourselves having.

And there was all the snow! It has been so long since central Europe has had a good December. I was blown away at how good the skiing was. We saw Matthias Ahrens, the head coach of the Canadian team, out for a classic ski too.

“This is so amazing!” I said.

“Isn’t it!” he said.

We had a quiet Sunday evening, and I resolved to go to La Clusaz the next day. I’d been told it should be on my bucket list of places to ski and I was beyond excited. Jenny and Susan were considering alpine skiing, and I was torn: I knew going with them would be a blast, but I had wanted to cross-country ski La Clusaz for a long time and this was my one day of opportunity.

When we woke up in the morning, it was a blizzard. We couldn’t even see the hill across the valley. It was supposed to keep snowing all day. Downhill skiing was out of the question. We had a long and slow breakfast. I despaired: part of the La Clusaz experience of my dreams was the blue sky above and the mountain views all around. That clearly wasn’t going to happen.

But we had all day and nothing to do, so my companions pointed out that we should just drive up there and check it out. The drive was fairly harrowing, as the road got more and more snowy and greasy as we went. The rental car was steering like a large boat, climbing slowly, stopping slowly. Also, I had no idea where I was going or what the touring center even looked like, so I was afraid we would pass it without knowing.

That was no concern, as when we finally made it up, up, up to the plateau, the ski center was one of the last things on the road. It was still snowing, but we saw a groomer heading out. We were in luck!

I had only two pairs of skis with me, so I skated and Jenny classic skied, and Susan went for a walk. As we followed the groomer down a big hill to the Lac des Confins, we thought, now this is pretty good! The groomer stopped to work on a snowfarming project, though, and the skiing got a lot more difficult. We climbed to cross the road again and get onto the main trail system, where we spotted an uphill trail that seemed to have been groomed… not recently, but at least that morning.

Photos of La Clusaz taken later in the day, after lunch, when it was only snowing a little, rather than SO MUCH.

“Let’s go!” Jenny said. And off we went.

After maybe 200 meters, I was absolutely dying as I tried to skate up the big climb through the soft powder. It seemed like a death march. After what felt like forever, we had made it one kilometer. I regretted giving Jenny the classic skis. The trail was five kilometers up, and I wasn’t sure I would make it. But slowly but surely, we reached the top of the trail, where there was a picnic table. It seemed that we were on a small ridge and that there were taller mountains on every side, although we couldn’t really see them. On a sunny day, it would have been the ultimate spot to stop and have a snack. This wasn’t that day, but as the snow kept falling it was completely magical and quiet.

We were covered in snow, and wet, and I worried about how cold it would be descending the 5 k back to the touring center. But we covered the ground in literally just a few minutes, screaming at the hairpin corners, and eventually shooting out into the huge field back down on the plateau.

We tossed the skis in the car, and went inside to drink coffee and have lunch with Susan as the blizzard continued outside. The restaurant/café was cozy, the atmosphere warm and charming. I devoured more tartiflette (a dish of potatoes, bacon, and reblochon cheese, the local specialty), and gradually warmed up.

We spent the afternoon driving down to Annecy, wandering the Christmas markets and eating roasted chestnuts. We admired the old architecture, walked past a huge castle, wondered how the canal system worked. And then it was back to the chalet for another quiet night before we all flew back, separately, to the U.S. the next day.

Perhaps part of the reason this was such a happy trip for me was that it came at the end of the work year. I was embarking on two weeks of ‘vacation,’ or, at least, time away from the office. I was free of all the things I had said I would do before I left. That creates a certain jubilation.

But the amazing scenery and atmosphere, the ski trails and the cheese, all of that was pretty special and I think even if I had been in a bad mood it wouldn’t have lasted long.

I’ll conclude by saying what I heard so many people say during that weekend: “why doesn’t the World Cup come here more often!?”

Jenny and me, giddy!

My Hiking & Trail Running Guide for Eastern Switzerland.

I think I’ve lived in Switzerland long enough now that I have some ideas about the adventures I’ve had. There are few places I’ve been that I would recommend avoiding, but the highlights stand out for good reasons.

So, I’ve compiled 22 of my favorite hiking/trail running routes into a handy little guide with descriptions, directions, and links to maps (as well as links to my blog posts and photos from the routes, in most cases). You can find it on the main menu bar at the top of this page ☝️ or by clicking here.

I’ll update the page with more recommendations in the coming year, too!

Ugly/pretty.

If you look at the photo above, maybe you will not notice anything amiss. Maybe the thing that jumps out is the cut on my right leg. But actually, if you look at my ankles, you’ll see the left one is bulging out like crazy.

I later found out, this is what it looks like when you slip on some mud, fall, and tear two ligaments in your ankle trail running, and then you cinch your shoes up real tight and say “I can do this, I’m probably overreacting”, run 10 more kilometers, begin to be in really excruciating pain, attempt to hitchhike without success, and then walk five more kilometers over uneven ground down to the nearest train station. When you take your shoe off, finally, your ankle does not look good.

When you finally get the MRI’s and the doctor explains just how much you tore, it will all make sense.

So, kids, be careful and take care of yourselves. I am not going to be doing much for quite some time while the ankle heals (this is my first major injury ever and I don’t really know what to do with myself).

The run I was out on when it happened was spectacular, but I don’t have the emotional energy to describe it very well given what happened afterwards. I will just say that I started in the Brand valley in Austria, which is quite easily reachable in Zurich and amazingly beautiful. As I passed the well-maintained traditional-style hotels on the bus, I thought, maybe I should come here for a weekend vacation. Anyway, from there I ran up to the top of Schesaplana, the highest mountain in the Rätikon Alps, and down the other side back into Switzerland. It was a truly amazing route. I hope the pictures do it more justice than my brief explanation can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hiking hut-to-hut in Slovenia.

For quite some time, I have been wanting to go to Slovenia. I’m not quite sure who the first person was to tell me that it was very cool, but whoever it was, it stuck in my brain. Slovenia is a young country, formed after the breakup of Yugoslavia, but it has everything from Alps to beaches on the Adriatic Sea.

For my 30th birthday, I decided to finally go. The capital, Ljubljana, is just an hour flight from Zurich, so I could put together a meaningful trip of only a few days by not wasting much time in transit. It was a very last-minute decision – I think I booked tickets two weeks in advance, bought a map of Triglav National Park in the outdoor store, and called a few mountain huts to reserve a place to stay. I was heading out on a hiking trip!

I flew to Ljubljana and spent an evening wandering around. It’s a very cool small city with rivers winding through and tons and tons of nice little outdoor restaurants and cafes. Despite the threat of a rainstorm (which eventually unleashed its torrential downpour while I was eating dinner), it was summer and everyone seemed so thrilled to be out in the streets drinking beer or wine and hanging out with friends. The atmosphere was so great.

 

 

The next morning, I took a slow local bus up to Lake Bohinj. The buses leave every hour from the main station in Ljubljana, are pretty cheap, and don’t require advance reservations. Seriously, getting around in this country was sometimes slow, but very easy.

I had decided to start my hiking here basically just by reading a few blogs of other people’s trips in the National Park. There are many other potential starting points. But the lake is beautiful and was a nice place to start. I could see the mountains where I was headed and got really excited.

I started by accidentally wandering up the Mostnica gorge – it was simply a trail in the direction I wanted to go, and I was surprised to find a manned info desk in the woods charging me €3 to enter the gorge!

It was funny, because as I started walking, a couple people actually asked me if I was going to “the gorge” and how to get there (apparently I at least LOOKED like I knew what I was doing). And then that’s where I ended up. It was money well spent, because it was gorgeous (of course). I was utterly unable to capture the beauty of it, but here’s a taste.

Then I wound back and took the steep climb up to an outcropping overlooking the lake, where I stopped for lunch. I could look back from where I had come from in the morning and it was rather rewarding.

After lunch I continued above the lake, up and over Pršivec – a lovely peak (1762 meters = 5780 feet) and my favorite spot of the day. As I got to the top however, I saw very dark clouds and instead of stopping to take pictures ran down the other side of the mountain. I kind of regret that now as it never thundered and I could have survived the rain for a few extra minutes, but oh well. Just know, if you make the trip to the area, that Pršivec is a super worthwhile destination! It was quite a scramble at the top, but I saw some people with small children or even less appropriate gear than I had, so that illustrates that it’s very doable.

After 20 minutes in the drizzle I arrived at Koča na Planini pri Jezeru, my hut for the night. It had a cozy dining room, good company (six fun Belgian guys who shared their wine, cheese, and apple strudel with me, and a cool Croatian family), and a nice outdoor terrace where I could sit and read my book after the rain cleared. There’s no camping allowed in Triglav National Park, but the hut system is fantastic, cheap, and allows you to travel light. And make new friends!

During the trip, I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. It was a really interesting pick for the trip. I thought a lot about what wilderness means and what national parks should be. The Slovenian national park was in a lot of ways so different than an American one – for one thing, basically no car access except to a few small farming communities mostly on the edges. And unlike most of the places I hike in Switzerland (which aren’t parks, but nevertheless an interesting comparison), there are no ski lifts/gondolas to take people up and down in winter or summer. With no cars or gondolas, that meant that everyone I met had gotten there completely on their own two feet – and it was a lot of people. At the same time, the huts were all half a day or less apart (at average hiking speed), so you never had to go super far to be able to do a hiking trip in the park. That makes hiking an approachable goal – I saw lots of people fairly high up in the mountains who definitely weren’t experts. Around Triglav itself (I’ll get to that later), it was quite busy. But many other parts of the park are very quiet, and at points I would go an hour or more without seeing another person. How to make nature accessible to people certainly varies by culture, but I appreciated the Slovenian approach more than many others I’ve seen.

Anyway, after a very good night’s sleep and a nice breakfast with my new friends, it was off to really get up high!

I set off into the forest. Such a morning is alive with possibilities and it felt like everything could happen. I knew that today I was going to the big mountains, and just 45 minutes later I saw them, providing a backrest to Planina v Lazu, a very old tiny village where they make cheese. Not even the cows were out and about yet as I passed by, bound for higher places.

I walked the high route to Vodnikov Dom for lunch, enjoying the alpine gardens – one of my favorite landscapes – at Lazovški preval and Mišeljski preval. This was hands-down my favorite spot of the day. On my way down from the pass it started drizzling, but I was so giddy with my mountain high that I didn’t even care.

I had lunch at Vodnikov Dom, reading a bit while a rain shower passed, and then continued up to the flank of Mount Triglav, the highest peak in Slovenia. I crossed the Konjsko sedlo pass and took a slightly detouring route up to Dom Planika, a hut at 2401 meters. Click to enlarge the panorama from Konjsko sedlo:

The area around here is not only above treeline, but almost completely devoid of vegetation. It’s just scree and a lot of rocks – but of different colors and sizes, and it’s very beautiful.

The hut is a key spot for people wishing to summit Triglav the next morning. The dining room was crowded and I ended up sitting with four German guys: three friends from Stuttgart on a trip together, and a fellow solo traveler named Chris. We discussed all of our adventures and how to summit the next day. We all had varying types of equipment, from helmets and harnesses to me in just my trail running shoes, and we also had varying willingness to wake up early. After a fun couple hours of chatting we headed to bed at 8 pm (!) wondering what (and what weather) the next day would bring.

Getting to the summit of Triglavinvolves via ferrata (cables fixed to rock with iron bars), and if it was crowded it would mean a lot of waiting. I knew breakfast would start at 6, so the next morning I left just before that to get up the mountain while the rest of the crowd was eating. There were some clouds on the summit (obscured on the left of this photo), but I decided to just go for it anyway.

I had only my trail running shoes, no helmet or harness, and was worried I was unequipped. But there were no problems – I had tons of fun racing up the mountain, climbing my way along the via ferrata with my hands. Don’t look down! The summit was clouded but still lovely, and just 50 meters below it the views were spectacular.

I had made it up in 45 minutes but took much longer to carefully descend, passing people who were on their way up (including my German friends from the night before). Highest peak in Slovenia, check! I enjoyed my breakfast back at Dom Planika.

After breakfast I set off to the west, crossing a few places and stopping for lunch at the Zasavska koča na Prehodavcih hut. From there, I dropped down onto the 7 Lakes Trail, which is one of the places which had initially drawn me to Slovenia – it is part of the Via Alpina and famed for its beauty. It did not disappoint. The trail meanders past high alpine lakes and I was there at the perfect time of year: the wild flowers seemed to be in peak bloom. I took my time this afternoon, stopping to look at flowers, watch marmots play, and read my book on a rock next to one of the lakes. What an amazing landscape.

By dinner time I had made it to the Koča pri Triglavskih Jezerih, where I would spend the night. I had dinner and a beer with two Irish teachers who were walking around the National Park for two weeks as part of their summer break. They were awesome ladies and once again, I was surprised how happy I was to have some new people to talk to.

I woke up before 6 a.m. to hit the trail. This time it was because I had to be on a bus to Ljubljana by 11:40 and I had quite a way to walk first. Leaving the Triglav Lakes Hut in the dawn light was beautiful.

It had rained hard the night before and as I hiked through the forest water was still dripping off the trees. The birds were singing and the landscape was peaceful, but alive. I painstakingly descended the steep, technical trail by the Savica waterfalls, entering the cloud of fog sitting like a second sea over Lake Bohinj.

Finally, I was into the hot morning sun and walked along the lake back to “town”. Before getting on the bus I took a swim to try to spare whoever I was flying with from the smell of four days of waking with no shower…

After that, it was onto the bus and then onto the plane and then back to Zurich. It had been an amazing four days.

Some of my friends expressed surprise that I had celebrated my 30th birthday alone, rather than having a big or small party, or at least inviting friends on my trip with me. If I had planned a bit farther in advance, maybe I would have invited friends. But actually, it was really perfect. I had lots of time to think to myself, and I could do whatever I wanted: I could wake up as early or late as I felt like, eat breakfast fast or slow, stop to take as many pictures as I wanted, or ID flowers; I could hike fast sometimes and slowly other times; I could stop to read a book, and given the technical nature of a lot of the trails, I didn’t spend any mental brain space worrying about others’ safety, just about where I should put my own feet (and hands). It was nice to be totally the master of my own days. Solo travel can be incredibly rewarding.

In the end, I’m so glad I finally decided to go on this trip, and that Slovenia is close enough that I could pull it off at the last minute.

Science Fundraising and Day-In-The-Life

I recently took part in the Earth Science Women’s Network “science-a-thon” fundraiser, where over 150 scientists all over the world gave play-by-play snapshots of their days over social media. As I shared what it’s like to be a research scientist, I also asked for donations to support the ESWN, a peer-mentoring group for women in all earth-related fields of science (from ecology, my field, to geology, atmospheric sciences, you name it). Their goals go from career development and networking to teaching scientists to better engage with the public and with policymakers.

I used Storify to make a recap of my day, drawing from my own tweets as well as posts from lots of other of the 150 scientists, and adding some commentary about why I thought this fundraiser was so important. I hate asking people for money or anything else, so it was quite the experience.

What’s it like to be a research scientist? Storify and WordPress don’t play well together so I can’t embed the resulting post, but please click over to here to see it: https://storify.com/chelsl/my-scienceathon-day-and-what-i-learned-raising-mon