Inline Speedskating as a truly professional sport is a work in progress. The World Inline Cup Grand Prix races are the best funded and highest profile events in a sport yearning to be accepted on the same basis as other professional, international sports such as cycling and soccer. This race season a brewing controversy on cheating and rules enforcement is threatening to boil over just as the sport is realizing its ambitions in the public eye. This is about fairness, sportsmanship, ambition, promotion and money.
What are the rules and how are skaters alleged to have cheated? Rule 26.1 of the FIRS Roller World Cup (page 22) states �During the race, athletes shall neither push or pull each other, nor hinder or help another racer.� That is clear enough and all skaters know they are not allowed to push their teammates, but some skaters are deliberately ignoring this rule and apparently using the �Train Push� as a strategy to be employed as needed.
The �Train Push� works like this:
- the skater in front feels the effects of the wind and must normally use a lot of energy just to overcome the wind resistance to maintain a high speed
- the skaters in the back have the advantage of the draft so they can devote all their energy toward maintaining or increasing the top speed
- the skaters from back to front form a train and each skater from the back forward imparts a little bit of his energy/propulsion to the skater in front so that the effects of the wind and the advantages of the draft are evened out through the line
- therefore the front skaters can maintain the lead longer while the skaters in back are not still not burning out fighting the wind, the lead skater can maintain his lead position longer at higher speed so the group as a whole can bring more skaters in prime position to the final meters of the sprint
- the non-train pushing team on the other hand has to peel off its lead skaters as they fatigue to maintain the same high speed until they are left with 1 or 2 teammates in prime position for the final meters of the sprint
- this gives the Train Pushing team such an advantage that is considered to be like having a 7th skater on your team in reserve, hence the term �Skater 7� or �Guy 7� (WIC Teams are allowed 6 per team maximum in a race).
There is general agreement among the skaters that this is happening; in fact video evidence was reviewed in the meeting attended by all top teams and managers prior to the Grand Prix Engadin. No penalty was imposed on the violators shown on tape and by multiple first-hand accounts of the Engadin race the illegal push tactic was used again. The Saab-Salomon team took the top four spots at Grand Prix Zurich. That is a tremendous accomplishment when all skaters are playing by the rules and a team can dominate the competition by shear athleticism. The video shows that is not how it was done.
Team Rollerblade has been the most vocal in the condemnation of the use of the Train Push. Their Engadin race report used the word �cheating� very deliberately in describing how Pier Davide Romani and Pascal Briand of Saab-Salomon used the Train Push to lead the chase that closed down a breakaway of Rollerblade�s Jorge Botero and Hyper�s Chad Hedrick. The word �cheating� and the direct accusations against Saab-Salomon were removed from the report on the Rollerblade website after a few days.
This is not just a war of words. In the heat of the finish sprint other teams are feeling the pressure. Slinging of teammates and last minute relay pushes are being used in desperation during the final meters to counter the success of the Train Push. Perhaps in the next race some skaters may decide to enforce the rules themselves by introducing their opponents to the fence right before the finish sprint. Tension and emotions are running high.
So, why are the rules not being enforced?
Some would argue that the pushing rule has never been enforced in the past so it is not really a rule therefore the skaters are just being shrewd and innovative in exploiting a tolerated tactic. You might say winning is more important than sportsmanship and fair competition. The officials should be able to end this argument by imposing penalties to show it is not a tolerated tactic and it is in fact against the rules just as written. The video played at the pre-race meeting was not shown to educate all the teams that this is how it is done. It was shown to make a statement that this is cheating.
Now, consider the race promoter. He has the coveted television broadcast of an exciting race and finish and all the sponsors are happy to be part of the event. How would it be for all the viewers to have their first exposure to inline speedskating involve a team disqualification for the �winning� team? Just a few years ago a doping scandal in the Giro D�Italia threatened to severely damage Italian cycling with sponsors pulling out and the public looking scornfully at their former cycling idols. The current controversy in skating is not nearly at the level of that and probably should not be termed a scandal at this point.
The question is: how bad will it get if the rule book is ignored and you let the skaters know that anything is okay as long as you can get away with it? Are the race promoters really ready for an escalating series of �innovative� strategies beyond the Train Push? Will the Train Push now be an accepted tactic that may be freely used?
We asked each of the managers of the WIC teams and the WIC race promoter to respond for this article. We received replies from two teams: Saab-Salomon and Verducci.
Interview with Saab-Salomon team manager Paul-Eric Chamay and his statement:
RRN: There are serious accusations of cheating against the Salomon team in several recent races including Engadin and Zurich. What do you have to say about these accusations?
PEC: They are only suspicion because the Saab Salomon Team has never been sanctioned or even advised in 7 years.
RRN: Did the video reviewed prior to the Engadin race show pushing, train pushing or any questionable tactics by the Salomon team?
PEC: Those videos are difficult to work with, because nothing is concretely visible to say: there's a fault!
RRN: Are you for or against the rules that prohibit train pushing or any pushing from one teammate to the other?
PEC: Salomon works for the development of the Speed: every team has to develop similar tactics and strategy and this is in the way of the race: everything evolves in our sport! But if something is forbidden then it has to be clearly written in the official rulebook.
RRN: Have the rules been fairly enforced?
PEC: They haven't been enforced since they're are not describe as a fault in the WIC rulebook and since other teams are doing the same!!
Further Team Manager Chamay states:
�By answering to your email I will not try to justify our actions but try to be as clear as possible: People don't like winner! Our team spirit, team organization and our commitment to our athletes is working pretty well since almost 2 years and I think it create jealousy and resentment. Hope it will help you understand that the Saab-Salomon Team is not "cheating" as much as other teams and that we have to rule on whether train pushing is prohibited or part of a team strategy.�
Team Verducci Manager Gary Ryan (excerpts):
�Yes I have seen the video from Engadin, and I have seen it first hand in the racing, I of course don't approve of this pushing tactic, as it gives the team doing it a "6th" gear while the other teams have to settle a slower 5th. Personally I think that its causing more cheating in the finish by the other teams "slinging" just to keep with the speed of the "pushing" teams, the whole thing is getting out of hand.
The problem is that we know who does it, the WIC knows who does it, and the teams themselves know they do it, but even though the WIC have hard copy proof of cheating no one was DQ'd. So if they start now the teams get out of it by saying " you have the same evidence as before and nothing happened...why should now be different?" I believe the pushing tactic is not for the purpose of just winning, Both RB and Salomon have many World Champions capable of winning single handedly, I believe its money. If Salomon get 1st through 6th in the men, that�s a lot of Euro each. I think to stop it without injuring our TV coverage, all that is needed is that the team that wins by pushing is docked the race winnings as a fine, but still get to keep points and podium position...Now you might think its unfair they still win, but you watch how quickly it stops, its all about the money.�
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