How Much Innovation Can Cross-country Skiing Take?
Cross-country skiing has come a long way from athletes competing on their own against the clock in a Norwegian forest to sprint races in an Asian Dome.
Norwegian purists will be shaking their heads at all the new formats and exotic venues, even though their athletes picked up both sprint golds at the Nordic worlds on Thursday.
Not only were the sprints the first races to be decided under a roof in the 83-year history of the championships, the atmosphere was also quite unique.
Gimmicks included the sound of barking dogs and starting motorcycles when the starters were introduced.
A majority of athletes enjoyed the experience.
"It felt great to ski in here," said Swedish silver medallist Mats Larsson while American fifth-place finisher Andrew Newell spoke of "the coolest sprint race ever" before the start.
However, the Sapporo experience should remain unique, some warned.
"I think it was a good idea, but it is a distinct Sapporo issue," said Thomas Pfueller, general secretary of the German ski federation.
Innovation and viewer friendliness is a key for survival in an era of growing competitiveness between a large number of sports for less and less television time.
The cross-country revolution started in the late 1980s with the freestyle-skating technique, which was much faster than the traditional - and arguably more elegant - classic style.
Sprint, mass-start and double-pursuit races followed with the sprint bringing the sport out of the woods and into the cities.
There is a traditional season-opener on the banks of the Rhine River in Dusseldorf. Sprinters have competed on slopes in the streets of Vienna and Stockholm as well as in Munich's Olympic Park.
The latest innovation is the Tour de Ski series with eight stages in three countries over 10 days, the winner getting a golden bib that resembles the yellow jersey of cycling's Tour de France.
"If this is a way to increase the popularity of cross-country skiing, we will do it," was the mildly critical assessment of Italian two-time 2006 Olympic champion Giorgio Di Centa.
Gian-Franco Kasper, head of the ruling body FIS, said that many of the changes coincided with major doping scandals in the past years that turned out to be blessings in disguise.
"The discipline was almost killed, but it [the scandals] helped us introduce new formats and races like the sprint and Tour de Ski," he said. "We had to start from zero."
The latest recommendation came from German coach Jochen Behle, who is all for the scrapping of the classic-style sprint.
"The sprint is the fastest race, and it should have the fastest style," Behle said.
Such a move would likely send shockwaves through Norway, the most successful Nordic sport nation and an important market that can't be ignored.
"In Norway, you are not considered a real skier before you have won the 50-kilometre [classic] at Hollenkollen," Norway's Marit Bjoergen said after her 30km world title in 2005, referring to the famous venue outside the city centre of Oslo.
Young women's sprint world champion Astrid Jacobsen is well aware of this as well, saying after Thursday's win that she would soon reach out to the longer distances as well to follow the example of Bjoergen.
"My goal in the future is to be a good all-rounder," she said.