Veteran skiers worth betting on | Skiing | CBC Sports

Veteran skiers worth betting on

Posted: Thursday, December 1, 2011 | 11:28 AM

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Canada's Jan Hudec has struggled with injuries, but his past World Cup success makes him valuable. (Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images) Canada's Jan Hudec has struggled with injuries, but his past World Cup success makes him valuable. (Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)

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In every sport there are some safe bets: reliable athletes that, more often than not, deliver top results. However, sports such as golf, whitewater kayaking and alpine skiing are more difficult to predict than others.

It's these idiosyncrasies within the sport of alpine that makes team selection difficult - especially at a time when budgets are tight. Organizations like Alpine Canada have to place their bets on which athletes will continue to perform and draw in revenue dollars. With only so much money to go around, there simply isn't enough to support everyone. So the athletes who are performing well now get supported. This makes sense, but it's still hard to swallow for many strong athletes.
In every sport there are some safe bets: reliable athletes who, more often than not, deliver top results. However, sports such as golf, whitewater kayaking and alpine skiing are more difficult to predict than others.

Canadian ski racer Erik Guay put it well when he said, "Skiing is one of those sports where it's a fine line between the podium and 50th."

It's these idiosyncrasies within the sport of alpine that makes team selection difficult - especially at a time when budgets are tight. Organizations like Alpine Canada have to place their bets on which athletes will continue to perform and draw in revenue dollars. With only so much money to go around, there simply isn't enough to support everyone. So the athletes who are performing well now get supported. This makes sense, but it's still hard to swallow for many strong athletes.

"Unfortunately, after the Olympics we lost a lot of big sponsors," says Canadian men's team member Jan Hudec. "Some of the most talented, result-producing guys had to pay [part of their own way] this year. I think only two [Guay and Mike Janyk] didn't.

"It's a little disheartening. It's tough."

Podium experience key

Hopefully this will be less severe in years to come as Alpine Canada has done  a great job securing new sponsors like Audi, KLM, and Osisko. Still, it feels as though there is never enough support as we strive to not only compete, but win.

Criteria are set every year to qualify for the different levels of the team (World Cup A, B, C, or Development Team). What's difficult here is those criteria will change depending on how much money is available. If the team can only support two athletes on the A team, then the criteria suit what can be afforded. However, when a reliable athlete like Hudec has a rough year with only one top-30 result, should he be cut or demoted? Where does the line get drawn and what's reasonable? 

During my 11 years on the team, many athletes have come and gone, having never left the "grey area" of performance as they hover between cracking World Cup points (top 30s) and podium results on the Noram/Europa Cup race series. The reality is, not every athlete is going to make that next step, even with impeccable support. Therefore, the difficult question is constantly being asked: "Who do you bet on?"

It seems as though, once an athlete hits the podium (or is consistently hovering around it), that athlete can be relied upon for a long and successful career. Even if years go by with injury and lacklustre results, these athletes seem to find a way back to the top. Hudec is the epitome of such athletes - even while skiing less in 10 years than most do in two, his ability to find his inner racehorse is nothing short of extraordinary. 

Guay is another proven performer was once again out in force last week at the speed season opener at Lake Louise. Even 20 pounds lighter, with less training under his belt, he consistently performed well all week, save for the downhill race in which he finished 44th.

Cuche still going strong

Erik's strong suit has been his consistency throughout his career, but still there were tough years. I know the ski community was happy to see that everyone who stayed on his bandwagon got to watch him win a crystal globe for the overall super-G title in 2010 and the world championship downhill title in 2011.

His lighter weight and lightened training schedule this season is an effort to extend his career as long as possible. This is yet another reminder of how athletes' careers have changed and progressed differently than in the past, largely due to our ability to compete at a world-class level for a long, long time. Case in point: Didier Cuche, who is 38 years old, won the downhill and placed second in the super-G last weekend at Lake Louise.

The difficulty comes when developing athletes need opportunities and support to see which ones will find a way to make that next step. How much money is reasonable to put into unproven youngsters vs. proven vets? Plus, with athletes' careers lasting longer and longer, the whole sporting industry has to revisit our stereotypes regarding age and performance.

Ben Thomsen is an example of a young up-and-comer who was nearly lost to the sport. When considered too old for the B.C. team and not fast enough for the national team, he was left without coaching or support. He had to do odd construction and landscaping jobs to continue pursuing his alpine dream. Luckily, he was given a chance last year to show his stuff on the World Cup, and he didn't disappoint. With four top-20 World Cup results last year, and a 27th in this weekend's World Cup openers, he is likely to make that next step to the podium. From there, who knows, he may become one of Canada's consistent performers for, possibly, more than a decade to come. 

I don't see an obvious solution for how best to place bets on athletes' future performances (if I did I'd be playing the lottery a whole lot more!). The reality is that budgets exist and teams aren't able to support everyone. However, once an athlete has reached a podium, you can reliably bet they'll be back to visit it again. Let's not give up on our veterans too quickly - shiny and new can sometimes be attractive, but trusted and true always comes through. 

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