(ATR) Gian Franco Kasper remains candid, colorful and enthralling as ever as he heads toward retirement in May after 45 years of service to the International Ski Federation.
However, in the wake of snowballing criticism following dismissive comments about climate change and after praising dictatorships last February, the 75-year-old ski federation chief concedes: "I have learned one thing – I shouldn’t make jokes."
Kasper officially declared on November 23 that he will relinquish the ski federation presidency, a position that he has held for nearly 22 years. Before that, the longtime Swiss IOC member served as FIS secretary general beginning in 1975.
"Next spring, I will be 45 years with FIS, that’s quite a long time – I’m almost 76 years old, so I think this is really necessary," Kasper tells Around the Rings in an exclusive interview.
Kasper, an IOC member from 2008-2018, is stepping down from the FIS leadership role with two years remaining on his term.
"I wanted to give our national associations six months before I step back so they have the possibility to really look at and discuss my successor," said Kasper, who will officially leave his post at the 52nd FIS Congress in Thailand on May 22. "In six months, I hope they will have found someone.
"I will not get directly involved with my successor. We have formed a panel of the ‘Wise People’ I will call it. We will discuss my successor and see what comes out of it."
FIS has expanded globally under Kasper’s leadership, growing from 100-member National Ski Associations to its current 133. On the competition front, the development of new formats and younger disciplines – with a focus on the Olympic Games – has been a priority. The implementation and expansion of the federation’s various World Cup tours has been notable, while also boosting the recreational aspect of the sport.
"I’m quite satisfied that we still have lots of recreational skiers that the World Cups have helped develop," Kasper says. "When I started, we didn’t have a World Cup in cross-country skiing, ski jumping, freestyle skiing and snowboarding.
"There are thousands of things that we introduced over the years, but we also made a lot of mistakes," he admits. "I think I can leave my federations in a good way and then it's up to my successors to continue."
Still, Kasper is quick to point out that lucrative television rights, mega corporate sponsorship deals and the overall big business that international skiing has become, poses inherent challenges.
"I’m not so sure the big money that came in over the last years is good for our sport – not only in skiing, but sports in general," he said. "I believe in the old days, without too much influence from the financial side, sports were easier to handle.
"In the old days of skiing, if you had a problem, you went to the next mountain hut, you had a beer and discussed things. Nowadays, the lawyers of each athlete come out and big discussions are going to court, so this is not so easy. This is the professionalism or commercialism of sport."
Under Kasper’s leadership, the number of skiing and snowboarding medal events at the Olympic Winter Games has, in total, increased from 33 to 55 between 1998 and 2022.
"We have over 50 percent (medals) in the Olympic Winter Games, but that’s not the most important thing – it’s the development in the sport," said the Swiss leader. "Don’t forget we had much less medals in the past, but the others sports also had less."
Considering the recent retirements of ski racing stars Aksel Lund Svindal, Lindsey Vonn and Marcel Hirscher, the sport appears in need of new, captivating personalities. Three-time overall World Cup and Olympic champion Mikaela Shiffrin might be the only current marquee name. Kasper says it is a natural process.
"We’ve had dozens of stars in skiing that influenced the sport and influenced television (ratings)," he said. "Toni Sailer, Jean-Claude Killy, (Alberto) Tomba and now the newest ones. Each generation of athletes had their stars and of course they had a big influence on the interest.
"When Tomba was racing, even Sicily was interested heavily in skiing and now Tomba is away so it’s just northern Italy. In the old days with (Ingemar) Stenmark, alpine skiing was highly respected in Sweden and one of the best TV shows. Also in Croatia, with the Kostelics.
"How much interest we have in one country always depends on the national champions. It moves up and down and left to right, this is quite normal."
In part two of Kasper's interview with ATR, topics discussed include his Winter Olympics attendance record, how his recent controversial remarks were misinterpreted, the 2002 Salt Lake City bidding scandal and the upcoming Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games.
Click here for part two of the interview.
Written and reported by Brian Pinelli
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