(Interview, 2nd Part)
Leaving the international scene and analysing the domestic season, what is your balance?
B. N. - In any country, orienteering lives exclusively of the Elites. So, the big thought that must be made - not just by me but for all the agents of the sport - it's about what's going on, why our events have fewer people participating. Rather than analysing who won or lost the ranking, this should be the major concern, why we have fewer people competing.
B. N. - Well, I have twice expressed my opinion on this matter in the appropriate place, which is the General Assembly of the Portuguese Orienteering Federation . In my opinion, there is an excess of events in our annual calendar. A “normal” Portuguese family, a couple with one or two children, doesn't have funds to make the required number of stages to complete the ranking. It's almost unbearable, unless you have behind you a club that supports most of these costs. So, my perspective is that orienteering should be more and more based in local and regional competitions, thus minimizing the costs of a weekend away from home, with travel, accommodation, food and even the inscriptions on the race heavily weighting on the family budget. If we want to develop orienteering, we have to reach more people. Take a look on what is happening with the Trail running, with races emerging every day, “like mushrooms”, and giving to the people the possibility - if not this week, then on the next one -, to participate and make what they like doing, without the problem of a long displacement. I think this is a good example of how to attract new participants. It is a matter of realizing what we want, after all. But, again, I emphasize that this is a decision that should be taken not only by the Federation but also by the orienteers, in general.
The fall of the number of participants heads your concerns. And competitively, was there also a regression?
B. N. - Yes, the fact that we didn't have all the top athletes in all races lowered the level of competition. We should expect to see in the World Championships the two top athletes in the ranking and none of them was in Vuokatti. A large number of athletes saw their participation in a large number of events conditioned by professional or academic commitments. You can see what happens with Tiago Aires, our most valuable athlete, unable to participate in a large number of events for being the mapmaker. In my opinion, however, with a smaller number of stages, we could increase the competitiveness and the final results would translate more accurately the reality of our sport.
Which is having the athletes focused in the great challenges, the great moments, achieving great results.
B. N. - Yes, that's what we want. The way the Portugal O' Cup's calendar is designed, from January to November, makes it very difficult to win the ranking and to be in shape in the World Championships, which is what you want to our top athletes. Personally, I prefer having the athletes in top shape at the World Champs than having an athlete who scores very well in the Portugal O' Cup, ends up being the winner, but can't be at the highest level in the World Champs.
Men vs Women. This year we didn't have female athletes in the World Championships and I ask you if we are disinvesting in the female sector.
B. N. - I 'd say that it's not a question of disinvestment. Unfortunately, the Federation doesn't have enough money to take two full teams to the World Championships, as I wished, and that's the problem. We could also do as our Spanish colleagues did, forgetting the week of adaptation and training in Finland before the Championships and bringing more athletes. But I think that, in terms of results, it wouldn't be helpful. It was my choice, based on the analysis I was doing throughout the season. I do not see this as a disinvestment, but just a question of lack of resources.
Are we going to be able, without resources, to reverse the situation as soon as possible?
B. N. - I don't know. My hope is that next season will be the turning season. We will have the European Championships in Portugal and, finally, we have no limitations in terms of athletes, teams may submit complete, both the male and the female sector. Likewise, there will be an investment in bringing female athletes to the World Championships, in Italy. It is an effort and a commitment to improve the female's sector and I think there is enough motivation to make it happen.
This new “batch” of athletes, our juniors, our youngsters... what's coming up?
B. N. - They're coming up athletes that will face many years of experience at youth level, something that is fundamental to make the leap to the Elite. Predominately athletes from H16 class, like João Bernardino, António Ferreira, João Novo, Ricardo Esteves, Daniel Catarino... But they will have to work hard before reaching this level.
Interestingly, you didn't mention a female athlete...
B. N. - No, I didn't. But, as you may have noticed, none of these athletes have made the jump to the Elite yet, whereas in girls the situation is different. The idea of forming a group of girls and women to the EOC leads us to think of names like Beatriz Moreira, Joana Fernandes and Carolina Delgado, all of them belonging to the youth level, and also Vera Alvarez, still aged junior, to integrate the work of the Portuguese National Team. Some of them will possibly be in Palmela, what constitutes a bet for the future and also gives them the opportunity to make the transition to the Elite as smoothly as possible.
Taking on the subject of the Europeans, what Championships will these be? How may the home ground factor play in our favour?
B. N. - I don't know, things are not fully defined in my head yet. As for the qualification and the final Sprint, the things are already very well structured, given the terrains, but I still have many doubts regarding the remaining distances. I think it will be a Championship with a high organizational level, lining with what Portugal has already shown to be capable of. I don't know if the choice of terrains has been the most appropriate for our athletes' characteristics, but we are here to give our best and to dignify our country.
You know a lot of orienteers from around the world. Do you feel any particular interest or motivation to be in Portugal for the EOC? Are there many people contacting you in order to know what to expect?
B. N. - In the beginning there were some people asking me about the type of terrain and even now some teams and some athletes, individually, are trying to seek the most appropriate terrains to prepare the European Championships. However, I can't see the same interest in the Europeans as I see in the World Championship. The World Champs continues and will always continue to be the most important event of the season for all top Elite athletes.
Within a couple of days, the best athletes worldwide will start to settle in our country, for the Training Camps, preparing the new season. This year, however, we can realize that there is a huge concurrence from Spain, Italy and even Turkey. How do you assess a situation that ultimately may result in the loss of a certain prominence of Portugal in the recent years, in the called winter season?
B. N. - This concurrence is part of the globalization process and we can not prevent the others from organizing. The Portuguese purpose should always be to maintain the high quality standard of our organizations, because it's in there that many international athletes believe. I understand that if we continue doing well our job, the athletes will continue to visit us. But we have to be realistic and realize that we will not retain people forever, that Portugal is and will forever be the only winter destination. Any one of us likes to vary the holiday location and the athletes, especially elite athletes, also looking for different terrains and new challenges year after year, having new experiences that further enrich their navigational abilities.
We approach now the end of our interview, and I still have three quick questions for three quick answers too. The first one: “WOC in the Future”?
B. N. - I don't know if I can give you three quick answers (laughs). I had the chance to speak in this year's Conference of Presidents of the IOF, showing my disappointment about the new format of the World Championships. As you know, grouping the countries in three divisions limits the number of athletes present at the Long Distance and Middle Distance's Finals and this is the great ax in our sport given by the International Orienteering Federation itself. What they are doing is telling many athletes from many countries that they can stop training towards the World Championships because they will never be able to get there. This will lead, inevitably, to a decrease in the competitive level in those countries. How do you motivate a group of ten or fifteen athletes, training season after season, if they all know that only one of them will be present at the World Championships?
B. N. - In terms of media coverage, what I would like to see would be the International Orienteering Federation giving an effective support to the organizations. If we take as an example the World Championships this year, we have to recognize that we had done so much before in the field of mediatization. The production and distribution of items was extraordinarily well developed and the International Federation should concern about going to ensure this level of media coverage in a more consistent way, for example by investing in all competitions of the World Cup and its regular broadcast by major television channels connected to the sport. But what I see is they leave things on the hands of the organizations, apparently without a concerted strategy. And things don't work this way.
The previous answers lead us to a third question: “rich countries vs. poor countries”.
B. N. - That is the real question. Just look at the entries for the World Cup in Turkey. Until now, there are almost 140 athletes registered from fifteen countries and some countries have only one or two athletes, and which, most likely, will be in Antalya at their own expenses. Result: the level of the rich countries is increasing, while the poor countries have more difficulties to get up there. It's an unequal struggle and I believe that it's the sportive justice itself that is in question.
From your point of view, what was the orienteering achievement of the season?
B. N. - Simone Niggli, obviously. She is an athlete who gave much to Orienteering - and I'm sure she will continue to give -, an athlete that marks an era. Even more, to leave orienteering by the big door, with her victory in the World Cup's Final, the Post Finance in Switzerland, was truly phenomenal, was the “icing on the cake”.
What will you have to tell me when, within a year, we talk about another season?
B. N. - Quite frankly, I hope I can tell you about my new baby – I don't even know if it will be a boy or girl -, born at the right time, everything going well and developing normally. To me, this is the most important, our personal life. This is what I owe to my family and that's what I wish for 2014. I still leave a vote for the orienteering community in general, that everything goes well with the organizations and, above all, that we can see more people practicing our sport.