To Keep Para Nordic Thriving, The Sport Needs More Race Officials
by Alex Abrams
Kendall Gretsch competes in Para Nordic skiing. (Photo: Dani Aravich)
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Eileen Carey traveled to conferences around the United States speaking to race officials. Her hope is to recruit more officials — known as technical delegates and biathlon international referees — to participate in competitions involving Para athletes.
Carey is the director of U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing and a race official herself with the International Ski Federation. She regularly invites technical delegates to get experience officiating Para Nordic competitions around the country.
“The more (technical delegates) who have experience in the U.S. means that we have more race opportunities for our Para athletes around the country,” Carey said.
Para Nordic skiing associations across the globe are increasing their efforts to recruit more race officials. Their goal is to get a more diverse pool of officials to safely and fairly run competitions.
In late October, World Para Nordic Skiing held a pair of online sessions for technical delegates and international biathlon referees to learn more about Para Nordic skiing and ways they could get involved in the sport.
Elke Gundermann, World Para Nordic Skiing manager, said its race officials must be licensed through the International Ski Federation or the International Biathlon Union and then trained in specifics associated with Para Nordic skiing.
“Therefore, our pool of people is quite limited,” Gundermann said.
In October, World Para Nordic Skiing had only seven active technical delegates and three international biathlon referees. Most race officials tend to be men.
Race officials are responsible for ensuring a Para Nordic event is run according to the rules and the course conditions are safe and meet certain standards.
A race official’s duties include everything from validating results and ruling on any issues that come up during a competition to making sure there are appropriate places for wheelchair athletes to get on snow.
They sometimes also do construction work, such as building a shooting range from the ground up in the days before a biathlon competition.
“You could say that they are like an umpire or a referee, but in addition to the responsibilities of ensuring a fair competition, they also sometimes need to actually build infrastructure around the event,” Carey said.
“In a Paralympic event, it is common to have experienced organizers who have never held a Paralympic race before. This introduces many more variables, and officials are ultimately responsible for making sure that those variables are smooth enough to allow for a fair and safe competition.”
Tip Ray never competed in Para Nordic skiing or Para biathlon before he became a biathlon international referee. As a parent of a son who competed in the biathlon, he volunteered to help run local and regional competitions.
Ray said he believes he’s now the only licensed World Para Nordic Skiing biathlon international referee in the U.S. Other licensed biathlon international referees come from Canada and Germany — and one from Russia when needed.
“As for international events, there is definitely a small pool of technical officials who are called upon. I’ve worked with a few several times,” Ray said.
“I think it should also be noted that many of the officials, including (biathlon international referees), are younger, have families and hold down full-time jobs. This can limit their ability — or willingness — to travel extensively for the up to two-week commitment to an event. Recruiting new officials may be stymied as a result.”
Along with expanding its number of race officials, World Para Nordic Skiing is seeking to recruit more female officials to work competitions around the world.
Ray said he knows several women who serve as technical delegates at Para Nordic events, but he’s aware of only one female biathlon international referee. Most of his experiences at races are with male officials.
“I don’t know why we don't see more women assuming technical official roles,” Ray said. “It’s certainly not because they aren't qualified.”
There is hope, though, that the pool of race officials will grow and become more diverse.
Each of World Para Nordic Skiing’s two online sessions with technical delegates and biathlon international referees in October attracted around 40 participants.
Gundermann said World Para Nordic Skiing invited as many people as possible to the online sessions “to tackle this problem” of a lack of Para Nordic race officials.
“Having a pool of licensed and experienced officials has to be every organizer's dream scenario, I would believe,” Ray said.