Wallflowers at the dance

Short note on the events at the US Capitol today: a disgraceful performance by a bunch of people who have deluded themselves, and by someone who never had the capacity or temperament to be President.

And now, on to regularly-scheduled programming.

Colorado 19th century skiers

Pretty much every winter I can count on at least a couple of articles in Mainstream Media (MSM) about cross-country skiing, and possibly a photo of someone skiing along in an urban setting. It often feels perfunctory and obligatory, as if the leadership in the student government were told to start the party by getting the wallflowers out on the dance floor.

Every season, I think: maybe this year can be different. Well, 2020 certainly was a different kind of year almost from its beginning. So here’s a rundown on a few stories of the season, with an editorial coda.

From the Wall Street Journal comes the clickbait title: ‘Why Cross-Country Skiing Will Be the Winter’s Coolest Activity’ (signin required). I found out about it via the Mid-Hudson Valley Cross Country Ski Google group (a useful email group for any skiers in the lower Hudson Valley, BTW). The notable quotes:

Participation in cross-country skiing over the past few years has mostly been on the rise compared to downhill skiing, according to studies covering 2015-2019 by Snowsports Industries America, a trade group.

WSJ Magazine, Dec. 22 2020

Well, didn’t know that, but what I do know from the SIA stats I’ve seen is that XC participation fluctuates significantly year-to-year. Most likely the variation has to do with seasonal quantity and distribution of snowfall. The marginal skier will tend to think of skiing only when they see snow.

Americans tend to obsess over the fitness element more than Scandinavians, who excel in competition but also at treating cross-country as a comfortable weekend activity

WSJ Magazine, Dec. 22 2020

I’ve noticed that Americans tend to gravitate toward performative or measurable values (time, money, win/loss) over those that aren’t subject to easy comparison, like satisfaction. As if we can’t assess our lives except in comparison to others. Because ‘soft’ values are hard to equate or translate across cultural or experiential differences, it’s easier to express things as quantities.

IMHO, the fact that even positively-intended articles about Nordic skiing emphasize ‘calorie-burning workouts’, and ‘fittest athletes’, adds a mental hurdle for many would-be entrants. Not to mention issues of availability, accessibility, and representation.

Badass cross-country skier in “The Heroes of Telemark”

And it’s not like calling something tough is an incentive to excel. Former Olympians like Kikkan Randall and Noah Hoffman began high school competing in sports other than cross-country skiing. They didn’t switch because they wanted to be more badass. A Maine TV station illustrates one way opportunity can strike. In this segment, high-schoolers talk about being frustrated with Covid safety measures for indoors competition and are trying out skiing instead, with the help of a coach who also happens to be a dad of one of the teens.

Performance measurement is great as a tool to see if you’re doing better, but if you’re not in it for competition, what is cross-country skiing for?

don’t even think of learning from a loved one

Jonathan Wiesel (Forbes, Dec. 18 2020)

Forbes’ interview of Jonathan Wiesel for ‘Cross Country Skiing Explodes During a Winter of Social Distancing’ beat the WSJ story by a few days. Wiesel is quite knowledgeable about the sport in the US, having occupied various roles and positions across a long span of time.

Regarding learning to ski, Wiesel offers some sage advice: “First, don’t even think of learning from a loved one, or even a friend – instead, learn from a ski professional.”. But in echoing the same advice people give about learning a skill like driving, Wiesel begs a question that should occur to most of us, especially in a time of climate change: what makes cross-country skiing worth learning?

Wiesel mentions skiers choosing XC as an alternative to the waiting and crowding at Alpine ski areas, which fits an image of the sport as an ‘alternative skiing activity’, not something worth learning for its own sake. He also casts some shade on the nascent Nordic ski industry of the 1970s in the US:

In a visionary but totally wrong-headed move, the fledgling Nordic ski industry declared that, “If you can walk, you can cross-country ski.”

Jonathan Wiesel (Forbes, Dec. 18 2020)

Another way the industry tried to play itself off existing recreational infrastructure was to advocate using golf courses for ski touring during the winter. As a business matter this was a smart use of fallow recreational areas. In places where the golf course is transformed with groomed trails in winter, it’s great for training and practice: Theodore Wirth park in Minneapolis and Weston ski track outside Boston are two terrific examples. But as a nature-enjoyment activity, skiing on golf courses is kind of boring.

The notion of cross-country skiing as an alternative winter activity fits into bygone days of the 1960s and ‘leisure time sports’. The appeal to fitness is just as bougie in the assumption people have time and money to choose a sport just for workout benefits. In either case it’s an appeal to people with access and time. And despite the USA’s recent successes in international competition, having athletes find an entry point to XC skiing by timely coincidence doesn’t seem like a sustainable development pipeline.

In what may be part of a one-off pandemic-driven surge in getting outdoors, via OZY comes an article about a resurgence of interest in cross-country skiing in Ohio, Indiana, and southern Pennsylvania. One passage quotes the president of the Pennsylvania Cross Country Skiers Association saying: “There are shops that are selling cross-country ski packages right now that haven’t sold cross-country skis for years. They think that people are going to be wanting to get out on the trails and golf courses and in their neighborhoods.”

According to the article, reasons for renewed interest range from parents wanting their children to go outside in a safe and socially-distanced way, to ski clubs that have had to refocus on skiing locally rather than travel across states to a resort destination.

Catherine Curley, who teaches kids ages 5 to 18 cross-country skiing through the Hilltoppers XC ski club outside Cleveland, says three times as many people have signed up this winter compared to pre-pandemic times.

“Cross-Country Skiing Finds a New Home: The Industrial Midwest”, OZY Jan. 5 2021

Seems to me there’s a mismatch between what could be done to promote Nordic skiing in various localities and the capabilities of the XC ski industry and probably some clubs for growing or sustaining their operations. The crux lies in the equation of snow+place=skiing. Our small ecosystem of activity, business, and desire relies on coincidence. If pandemic winter awakens interest in cross-country skiing, what happens when that’s over?

The old idea of ‘if you can walk you can ski’ has outlived its usefulness. But it may also be that people have to rise over a threshold in order to appreciate XC skiing as an activity. We know that reliable snowfalls are likely to become less so, and it’s expensive to make snow. For enough people to want to ski that they’ll visit manmade snow next to brown grass, cross-country skiing itself has to have inherent value, a reason for being beyond ‘the alternative winter activity’.

Along with rowing or canoeing, bike riding, and even surfing, cross-country skiing is based on simple tech and technique to leverage physics for self-propulsion. Like those other sports it has many variants. Skis are categorically as old as the earliest boats- two ways people developed to cross expanses of water. In talking about this niche sport, maybe the starting point is: why should it be any less relevant or enjoyable than rowing a canoe?

More to come? Maybe. Thanks for reading.