Now is the right time

Now is the right time


‘It is an extraordinary privilege to be able to finish my career at home in Quebec City’

By Alex Harvey for CBC Sports
March 22, 2019
 

(Editor's note: This POV was written for Radio-Canada and has been translated from the original French)

I will retire and I will not come back.

I still have fun training and racing, but it’s not the same between races. Ski racing really is over for me. Loneliness struck me over the holidays. For years, I was surrounded by my best friends, including Devon Kershaw, on the national team. Then they all retired. It was once they left that I realized how great it was to have them with me all those seasons. It was an ideal situation. You don’t know what you had ‘til it’s gone.

Alex Harvey and his girlfriend Sophie Ringuet, left, have thoughts of starting a family. (Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images Alex Harvey and his girlfriend Sophie Ringuet, left, have thoughts of starting a family. (Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images

In the middle of the Tour de Ski, I lost my safety net. When things went wrong before, the guys were always there to help me think it through. Without them, it was too difficult. I found myself dwelling on my performance, my experience on the snow, the fact that my legs felt heavy. Without the old teammates, I lost my support, my bearings, my balance.

There is a big difference between the image and reality of life on the road. Social media gets some blame. We only share photos of beautiful landscapes and beautiful hotels. But reality is more ordinary. Just finding a place to do the laundry can be a headache. Not being able to cook your own food gets tired too. No complaints about World Cup buffets, but it will be nice to make myself a morning coffee and lunch again.

 

I also retire because this exact moment is right. It is an extraordinary privilege to be able to finish my career at home in Quebec City. Retirement does not frighten me, quite the contrary. I cannot wait to get back to normal life. I have not spent a Christmas at home since 2009.

It is mentally exhausting to live from a suitcase for half of the year. I can’t wait to stay at a dinner party with friends until after 9:15 on a Friday night because I won’t have to train early the next day. I have exciting projects waiting for me. I want to finish my law degree and pass the bar. My girlfriend Sophie and I are thinking about children.

 
 

The highlights

The biggest victory of my career is undoubtedly my 2017 world title. That February day, for 50 kilometres in Lahti, Finland, I was the best in the world. I beat five Norwegians, four Russians, four Finns and all the others. On paper, it's my greatest triumph. But the biggest emotional win? Quebec City, one month later. My sprint win on the Plains of Abraham, even if it was only a World Cup, energized me like nothing before.

 

To win a sprint is to perform at peak for four hours, including qualification. Four races are combined in the event. It's mentally draining. Throughout the day of racing it becomes more and more intense on the track. The crowd of fans stokes the intensity for the athletes. We feed each other. I was in symbiosis with the fans that day. I really wanted to win in front of them.

In the final, I beat Norway's Finn Haagen Krogh by three-tenths of a second — a matter of centimetres. It was euphoria. As tradition dictates, I took a small lap of honour and saw my family and friends in the crowd. I jumped in their arms.

Apart from my father Pierre, who saw me on the spot at the Olympics because he analyzed the races on TV, and my mother Mireille, who is a doctor with the ski team,  very few close friends or family have had the chance to see me win in person. To be able to win and share this victory with them was beyond special.

Watch | Alex Harvey crowned world champion.
 

Equally emotional, but without the happy ending … I have never cried so much as I did after the 50-km race at Pyeongchang. I wept and wept in the interview area after my fourth-place finish. I have cried after a competition before, but never like that. I was so close to an Olympic medal, and in the context of Russia's doping scandal, my fourth place was extremely hard to accept. Two Russian skiers finished before me. Generally, if I can beat all the Norwegians, I get a place on the podium. Not this time.

 

I was shocked. My father came over and joined me. We cried together. I lived what he had lived too often in his career. I remember what he said to me at that time: "You will get your medal. But it will come in the mail. "I no longer believe I will get that medal. It took me a long time to accept the results. I had to dig deep to find satisfaction in a four-place finish.

An Olympic medal was a source of motivation — a goal, a dream. To achieve it, I had to deliver one of the best performances of my career. I delivered my part of the bargain. I put in that 50-km performance skiing classic style, which is not my specialty. Nobody can guarantee the skiers who preceded me were clean or not, but I must accept that on this occasion, those three were stronger than me. I cling to the fact that I achieved one of the two or three best performances of my career when it mattered most. That performance was a dream. I realized it, and nobody can take it away from me.

 
 

The world of doping

There are many parallels to be drawn between my father’s career and my own. Both of us won our first World Cup in Falun, Sweden. We retired at the same age. And of course, Olympic medals escaped us both. Putting up with cheaters has been part of both our careers, too. I am convinced there are still doping skiers among my rivals. It is unacceptable that nothing has changed in 30 years.

The images of the Austrian skier, Max Hauke, caught in the midst of a blood transfusion during a police raid at the world championships in Seefeld, Austria this year raised my spirits.

It may seem petty to write this, but Max Hauke is not even a good skier. Despite his cheating, he is so far behind the best. It made me realize that doping may be more prevalent than I thought. When an athlete dopes to get from seventh to second place, I understand the logic.

There are financial gains and recognition in a win. But Hauke, who is perhaps 40th in the world? It's like a college student cheating and still failing their exam. For me, it's the very definition of a loser.
I did not like the tone of a letter recently published by Floyd Landis on the Radio- Canada Podium site. (Coming soon in English at CBC sports)  Floyd accepted some blame for his decisions, but had a justification for it all. He says he wished someone could have warned him about the life of a professional cyclist before he took up doping.

In my opinion, Landis said yes to steroids because he wanted to make more money and be a better cyclist. Nobody forced him to do it. Nobody threatened him. If he had not doped, he might not have won the Tour de France, but he wouldn’t be miserable now, either.

 

For me, there is a difference between doping cases like Landis, or Max Hauke, and the generalized, systemic doping the Russians were caught in after the Sochi Games. Hauke and Landis made individual choices to dope and I have no sympathy for them.  Ironically, because Russia has probably stolen the most medals in the last decade, I see their athletes as victims.

Talking with my former teammate Ivan Babikov, who is Russian by birth, I learned that athletes in Russia have very little freedom. Theirs is an almost totalitarian sports system, rife with anti-Western propaganda. They are made to understand that they have to cheat because all the other countries do it. Resistance may mean expulsion from the national team, and precarious consequences.

The World Anti-Doping Agency is doing a good job, but it is still not enough. It was the police, not WADA, who unmasked the five cheaters at the world championships in Austria. They collected evidence for five years. It shows a bit of WADA's limitations if the agency could not catch them during that time. I believe that the major organizations and federations must renew their efforts to combat doping.

The president of the International Ski Federation, Gian-Franco Kasper, has been in office for more than 20 years. Before that, he was secretary general from 1979 to 1998. At some point, leadership needs to change a little, or the status quo becomes too entrenched. The longer a person is in a position like this, the more likely they are to fall into corruption. We need better governance guidelines; otherwise it is hard to believe that everyone is blameless.

 

No filter

I never had a filter in interviews. I say what I think. In 2014, at the Sochi Games, my criticism about equipment failure ruffled a lot of feathers, especially in Quebec City. It was so complicated, the waxing in Sochi. Conditions were difficult and variable. We weren’t the only ones to face plant. Even the powerful Norwegian team failed in some races.

Harvey (4) has never been shy to share his opinions. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press) Harvey (4) has never been shy to share his opinions. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

My critique was never personal. I didn’t attack the wax technicians. It was a failure they shared with me. The first people I talk to after a race are the waxers. In Sochi, I did not even need to open my mouth. The waxers knew that the skis were not good. But I had to learn to manage what I said in front of the media.

My criticism has sometimes been interpreted as excuses for my own failures. Some radio hosts have not been gentle with me. Some say I was a whiner, a poor loser. Opinions have a way of spreading.

This did not affect me right away. Things changed when I returned to Quebec City that spring. I saw that my four most faithful admirers, my mother, my two sisters and my girlfriend, had been deeply affected by what they heard about me. They were annoyed, saddened, and hurt by what was said. Seeing their pain hurt me, especially since the criticism continued for several years.

I changed my ski brand in 2016, from Fischer to Solomon. A few weeks later, my sister accompanied a friend to a ski shop. The salesman offered Fischers and she told him that she preferred Solomon, "like Alex Harvey."

 

The salesman said "Alex Harvey changed his skis because he is a whiner. The problem was not his skis."
The shopkeeper did not know he was speaking to my sister. She did not answer, but she was hurt. If you hurt my little sisters, you hurt me too.

So we decided to change our approach with the media. We thought that someone other than me needed to say when skis were not good. I gave myself a mission to better educate the public.
Waxing is not an exact science. It is normal to err on occasion. Even the best countries, with more resources, get it wrong sometimes. I tried to make that clear.

I found that the best approach was to explain that sometimes I had a big day, but bad skis. Another day I might have very good skis, but my legs were not so good. I had to say that too. I do not think I have criticized my equipment in public in three years, mostly because our team was no longer making equipment mistakes.

 
 

Paying it forward

I hope I have been a good role model for young cross country skiers. I hope I have shown them that it is nice to ski and that it is possible to become world champion. I hope I helped push back against doping, like my father, Beckie Scott, Devon Kershaw and others have done before me.

 

To be at the top, you need at least a little bit of ego. I have it when it is necessary. It takes self-confidence to become world champion. On the morning of my first World Sprint Team title at Olso in 2011, I asked my partner Devon Kershaw: "How do you feel, just hours away from becoming world champion?”

I do not know why, but that morning, I was convinced we were going to win. You need that ego sometimes, but you also need to put it aside. Alex Harvey the skier is only a part of Alex Harvey, the man.

On the track, in my head, I often thought badly of my opponents. I used this inner speech to motivate myself. You have to be pig-headed to keep pushing through so much suffering. For some people, I was known first as Pierre's son. Later, he became known as Alex's father. Will I be the father of a top athlete one day? I don’t know the answer yet.

I was lucky never to be pushed by my parents to get into elite sport, and this is the approach I will take with my own children. I just want to expose them to a range of activities. If they choose to go cross-country skiing, it will be their decision. High-level sport is difficult, even unhealthy at times.

My sister Sophie, who also did cross-country skiing, was distressed by some of her results when she was trying to make her way with the Quebec team. The life of an elite athlete is a balancing act: it’s a thin line between doing everything to be the best and tipping over into obsession that can lead to depression or other mental-health problems. It's hard to be constantly compared to others and sometimes be told that you are not good enough.

 

The most beautiful gift life gave me was to be born in the right family. Although I have always had a tendency to be obsessive, I have been able to maintain balance thanks to the extraordinary support of my entourage. Not everyone has the chance I got. I am blessed to have had the physical and mental predisposition to lead an elite athlete’s life.

There is luck in all this. We don’t all get the same starting line in life. Would I want my children to follow in my footsteps? It is very difficult to say. Competing at the highest level is perhaps not what is healthiest for teenagers. It's easy to slip into obsession. My dream, quite frankly, is that my children enjoy a lot of sports, but that they are not good enough to be part of a national team and go to the Olympics. But if they are, I will of course be by their side. And proud.

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