A Benign Dictator-Or Just Misunderstood?

An exclusive interview with FIS President Gian Franco Kasper.

What have the Swiss ever done for world culture except cuckoo clocks and secret bank accounts? Let’s not forget, Switzerland is also home of the Federation International du Ski (FIS), long feared as the evil empire, the faceless bureaucrats who control-some say suffocate-every aspect of winter sports, including snowboarding.

Or could we have been wrong all along? Is the FIS really a fun-loving bunch of guys just like us with our best interests at heart? We tracked down FIS President Gian Franco Kasper on his cell phone as he traveled by train back to his FIS headquarters in Bern, Switzerland, for this exclusive interview.

SNOWboarding Business: Do you spend a lot of time on the road?

Gian Franco Kasper: I’m just back from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia discussing plans for developing winter sports. Although it could take years to reach a high enough standard to attract tourists, the possibilities they have for quickly offering some very good low-cost training facilities are quite exciting.

I’ll grab a day in the office, then Friday I’m heading to the first FIS event of the season-The Glacier Race. There will be a lot happening, including a major press conference with about 200 journalists. I’ll see representatives from many of our 128 member organizations. I often say they’re like 128 bags of fleas you have to keep under control.

During the season I go to at least two events every weekend. I might do one ski and one snowboard event, or one jumping event and one cross-country event. But it always depends on weather and the scheduling.

Is your function mostly as an ambassador?

In part, but seeing people is not usually a problem because so many of them are around the circuit. We even make time for the smaller member organizations in the summer or catch up with them at our biannual congress. The biggest part of my job is operational. With 3,000 events each winter across our five disciplines-Alpine, cross-country, ski-jumping, grass-skiing, and snowboarding-the logistics are incredible. We have to staff, supervise, and organize the technical aspects of all these events.

How does snowboarding fit into FIS culture?

Snowboarders often don’t realize the differences between, for example, cross-country and ski jumping are far larger than they are between Alpine skiing and snowboarding.

The athletes and their whole mentality of these disciplines makes it seem like they are from different planets. In comparison, something like halfpipe snowboarding and freestyle skiing are very close in principal.

Remember FIS is just the umbrella that offers member organizations general resources like experience in race organization, or medical and legal questions. The FIS, as a single body, might decide on political issues that effect a discipline, such as eligibility questions. But we also have technical committees specific to each discipline with about twenty members each. The snowboard committee is all snowboard experts. All technical decisions about snowboarding are taken by snowboarders.

So there is no valid argument for a different governing body for snowboarding?

No. In the beginning all snowsports were done through national ski clubs that grew to include the various disciplines. Think of all the other sports where huge differences between disciplines are accommodated within the same organization. Even if there was another snowboarding organization, we would continue to organize snowboard events because our mission is to include all snowsports.

Nobody forces the Mongolian snowboarders to participate in our events. They can be represented by whomever they like. But if they want to come to FIS competitions then they have to come with the agreement of their national association. FIS is simply an association of national associations.

And of course, we are recognized by the International Olympic Coittee; so without FIS, snowboarding couldn’t be an Olympic event. Our power and influence enabled snowboarding to be accepted as an Olympic sport. Without FIS it wouldn’t have happened for many years.

What is FIS doing for snowboarding at an Olympic level?

The main issue is including boardercross on the schedule for Salt Lake City. In the old days, it would take ten to fifteen years to get a new event. Now it happens much faster. I think our chances are about 75 percent. But it’s complex. A new event means more athletes and new facilities. Millions of dollars are involved.

In Nagano we had to pay for the accommodations for snowboarders, which was very expensive. If we took a purely commercial view-which we don’t-we would have never introduced snowboarding.

In ten years we’ll never make up the costs we incurred in Nagano. If you want to put it another way, Alpine skiing pays for snowboarding to be an Olympic event. But that doesn’t matter, because it also pays for cross-country.

With hindsight do you have other thoughts about Nagano?

The sport matters most and can’t just become a show, but I hope to see improvement before Salt Lake in the way snowboarding is televised. Nagano showed it can be quite an interesting competition, but it’s not the event with the most television appeal.

To keep it exciting for most people, it currently has to be presented just as highlights. Television directors don’t yet have enough experience with the halfpipe to figure out the best way to show it.

Of course, one problem in the TV coverage was the big difference in standards between riders.

Does that suggest a problem with the selection process?

Any new discipline needs time for a leveling process, and whenever a Mongolian rider competes against Americans, they’ll improve a bit.

There’s no doubt we had problems with the selection and qualification system for Nagano. We wanted riders with the ISF to be able to qualify, and at the same time, had very hard restrictions from the IOC on numbers.

Remember, we requested the IOC to include snowboarding after most of Nagano was already organized. We need to do better with selection criterion for Salt Lake. But the system can’t just be based on FIS points. If we did that for Alpine skiing, we’d have 500 Austrians and only two other nations. We want as many nations represented as possible, but still be fair to the best riders. I doubt there is a perfect answer.

Does it worry you that many top snowboarders are ambiguous about Olympic snowboarding?

We organize a huge range of competitions. Young people and athletes can participate if they want. That’s all we do. It’s up to each individual to decide where they compete. There are numerous Olympic sports-tennis, boxing, or soccer-where the top professionals don’t compete.

What do you know about the discontent in the U.S. between the snowboard industry and the United States Ski And Snowboard Association?

I know there are strong feelings, but we can’t interfere in an autonomous national issue.

The best we can do is try to help find solutions. There are many other countries where there are big differences between individual disciplines. But we only deal with one national body in each country.

How can the U.S. snowboard industry make its feelings known to FIS?

In the last ten years, links between the ski industry and FIS have grown because we depend on their equipment and they help the discipline. They share their opinions with FIS at frequent meetings. It could be exactly the same with snowboarding. We would be happy if the U.S. snowboard industry was more involved, and if they have ideas we’ll follow them up-although we’re involved in the sport-not in sales.

It doesn’t need to be formal. If a group of the major producers in the U.S. snowboard industry approached us, I would be happy to sit down with them next time I’m in the United States. But so far, the only company we’ve met with is Burton. We had a breakfast and they had some great ideas. Let’s talk and see what comes out of it. That’s how international sport is done.

There are only two or three World Cup snowboarding events in the United States this year. Is the U.S. underrepresented?

Yes, but again we can’t force organizers in the United States to put on more events. Scheduling pressure for World Cup snowboard events is not that big. As far as I know, we would be open to giving USSA more events.

It’s a pity because interest in snowboarding in the United States is big. And if the circuit is traveling to the U.S. anyway, there’s no reason there shouldn’t be an extra couple of events before it comes back. But it’s up to them to ask and they probably have their reasons. Perhaps it’s political or simply to do with the local organizers.

So do you snowboard?

A little, but at age 50 it’s hard to learn and I’m just an old conservative skier. When I do, I carve. Originally, I was a ski jumper. I’m probably on skis every weekend in the winter when I’m checking the course at races, but that’s not recreational. During vacations I ski as much as I can. I still have the passion 1,000 percent. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have any business being in this job.

-Matthew Kreitmany we’ve met with is Burton. We had a breakfast and they had some great ideas. Let’s talk and see what comes out of it. That’s how international sport is done.

There are only two or three World Cup snowboarding events in the United States this year. Is the U.S. underrepresented?

Yes, but again we can’t force organizers in the United States to put on more events. Scheduling pressure for World Cup snowboard events is not that big. As far as I know, we would be open to giving USSA more events.

It’s a pity because interest in snowboarding in the United States is big. And if the circuit is traveling to the U.S. anyway, there’s no reason there shouldn’t be an extra couple of events before it comes back. But it’s up to them to ask and they probably have their reasons. Perhaps it’s political or simply to do with the local organizers.

So do you snowboard?

A little, but at age 50 it’s hard to learn and I’m just an old conservative skier. When I do, I carve. Originally, I was a ski jumper. I’m probably on skis every weekend in the winter when I’m checking the course at races, but that’s not recreational. During vacations I ski as much as I can. I still have the passion 1,000 percent. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have any business being in this job.

-Matthew Kreitman