Markus Waldner took over as FIS Chief Race Director for the men’s World Cup in April 2014, succeeding Günter Hujara who served in the role for 23 years. As the highest ranking FIS official at a World Cup event, Waldner is one of the key people making the competition happen on a race day.
What does a fis chief race director really do?
To put it simply, I consider myself to be the referee. Just like a referee in a football game, I officiate, with the exception that my tool on a race day is a radio, not a whistle.
There is much more to the job of a FIS Chief Race Director however. Gone are the days when the ski season only comprised racing. Today, the job is a full-time position, with the summer agenda being even longer that the winter one.
The racing season is indeed rigorous, but most of our work is done during the off-season. After the season is before the season. As FIS Chief Race Director, I am responsible for calendar planning, coordination and evaluation with the organisers, rule definition, and the overall development of the sport including race formats, general appeal, and our long-term success. Our planning cycle is four years; hence we are already focused on the 2020–21 season at the moment.
What do you think are the main qualities of a fis chief race director?
Besides being a good skier and having an excellent understanding of the element of snow and the sport, you need to be a good leader. You cannot do this job alone. When I accepted the position, I took my time to put together a solid team where we have clearly defined roles. It was a conscious strategy and it has worked well so far. This is a job where you have to be tough – a really cool guy. You must be able to make fast decisions without losing sight of what is our priority: the sport. Fair sport remains our ultimate objective. To make decisions in situations such as the Kitzbühel downhill last year, you need vast experience on the snow, as a racer, ski instructor, coach or race organiser.
What do you like best about your job?
More than anything else, this job is a massive challenge. You must always function perfectly. There is no room for mistakes – you will not be forgiven. In fact, there is little reason for joy during the season. Everything has a very definite window of time. As soon as you deliver a race, your mind is already onto the next one. It is only at the end of the season that you have time to reflect. That’s when you comprehend what you have accomplished. I feel immense pleasure when I can say, like at the end of last season, that we together with the organisers were able to deliver the season so well as we did despite all the difficulties. Having to cancel a race at any time is such a shame. It hurts because of the hard work the organisers invest, because of the general disappointment and also because of the financial losses. That’s why I get happy when we can make a race happen, in conditions that are safe and fair for the athletes. That is when everyone is pleased and we know we helped them rejoice.
Before a race, what keeps you awake at night?
Nothing. I have chosen this job and the role of the FIS Race Director. So my task and responsibility on site are to stage the next race to the best of my abilities according to the rules. That is where certain autodynamics emerges. Compared to the European Cup, the situation is not much different at the World Cup level – only the stakes are higher.
How do you manage the different needs and expectations of all the world cup stakeholders, from the athletes to the teams, organisers, spectators and the media?
It is very important to find a balance among the stakeholders. You have to be very diplomatic. You also have to act authoritatively while encouraging dialogue and listening to everyone’s opinions. It is not easy to find the right mix. Key to winning respect is to keep a clear mind and to take balanced decisions.
You have been in the ski business for almost thirty years. If you weren’t doing this job, what would you be doing?
I certainly don’t feel dependent on this job. Besides skiing, I am also a certified tennis, surf and swim instructor as well as a licensed mountain guide so I have several alternatives. I don’t plan ahead for more than a year at a time. This is a tough job with huge pressure and a high risk for burn-out. I will be watching out for myself!
What is skiing’s main challenge at the moment?
In short, the weather. Skiing is an outdoor sport but in recent years our greatest challenge has become staging the races. Everything today must be perfect; from the snow to the courses, safety installations and other facilities, media coverage and so on. The main question now is; how far can we really go and push it while still being able to take the responsibility for running the race? That’s our main challenge currently.
What are the sport’s greatest opportunities?
I believe we still have tremendous opportunities to exploit. Today, the average TV viewer of ski sports is over 50 years old and traditionally FIS is conservative and slow. But we are working to adapt our sport to the changed media consumption patterns and to attract new and younger fans. From a marketing perspective, we are in the early stages but I believe we can make the sport more attractive, introduce faster-paced, shorter race formats and offer the package to the consumers on all the channels and multiple screens that they use. We are already able to react faster. For example, we lost no time in re-adjusting the ski specifications and will introduce a new start order for the speed events already from this season. I am very optimistic about the current direction – I can feel a change in the air and we are pushing hard.
If you had a crystal ball, how would you describe ski racing as a sport in 10 years’ time?
Fundamentally, the basics will remain the same. We will still be starting atop the mountain and skiing down. We will be skiing around gates, although their colours may no longer be red and blue. I feel confident to venture a guess that the sport will be more compact and more spectacular. It will be more focused on presenting the top stars. The core product will be more concentrated and appealing. We will still be present in our main market, the Alps, but also include new, growing markets. And we will be faster to react and nimbler in responding to our fans’ wishes and expectations.