Long before Marielle Thompson, Erik Guay, Justine Dufour-Lapointe and others stole our hearts with their winning smiles and Olympic triumphs, a strapping young Pierre Harvey captured our collective imagination when he became the first Canadian to compete in both the Olympic Summer and Winter Games, and the first North American to win the legendary 50 km Holmenkollen cross-country race in Oslo, Norway. Though he never achieved Clara’s Olympian heights, the gentle, soft-spoken man from Rimouski, Quebec, so commanded our attention that he inspired a snowbound nation to get off its couch and take up cross-country skiing.
We caught up with the legendary Pierre Harvey at his home hill of Mont Sainte-Anne, Quebec, last winter. We talked about his son, Alex (World Cup winner and Canada’s top ranked skier), the state of cross-country skiing in Canada, the challenges facing our athletes today, and the wisdom of leading a balanced life.
What was more exciting: Winning the Holmenkollen or watching your son, Alex win World Cup silver and gold medals racing in Quebec City?
It’s almost the same. Winning the Holmenkollen was the greatest race I ever won. But to see your son doing even better, because he won the world championships in the 50K, in Finland… it’s unbelievable.
Has cross-country ski racing changed since you were competing?
It’s changed. A lot. When I was competing we had only started skating. Before that it was just classic (kick and glide) technique. Since 1988, the FIS has tried to make the sport more spectacular and easier to watch on TV.
In what ways?
When we were racing 50K, we would start off in the stadium, ski into the woods, and you wouldn’t see skiers for an hour and 15 minutes when we would come back to the stadium and go for a second, 25K loop.
Now it’s a pursuit. You take your time from the first race and add it to the second. So if you’re 24 seconds behind the leader, you wait 24 seconds before you take off to try and catch him. And when you catch him, there’s a group race to the finish line. So there’s plenty of action. They’ve also shortened the loop, so fans in the stadium see the skiers more often.
Is it harder being an athlete today than when you were competing?
I was on the national team for about fourteen or fifteen years, and I never had to pay to travel to races. The Canadian Cycling Association or Cross-Country Skiing Canada covered all expenses. Now, in 2017, a guy like Doug Kershaw who was second in the World Cup standings five years ago paid $35,000 (out of his own pocket) to compete in Europe.
How do you feel about Own The Podium?
It was good, but now they don’t have the money. Cross-Country Canada used to receive $1.2 million a year from Own The Podium. Last year, they got six hundred thousand.
Won’t Alex’s victories make Own The Podium want to spend more on Cross-country ski racing?
Yes, but they won’t go back to $1.2 million. The best Canadian woman at the National Training Centre here at Mont Sainte-Anne is a first year senior named Sandrine Braun. She was at the World Championship in Finland, but she paid her own ticket. She paid for her hotel. She spent $50,000 this year. I’m sad when I see this.
I have a friend from Brasilia who lives here at Mont Sainte-Anne and competes in cross country skiing. Brazil pays all her expenses. We’re not able to do that any more.
Do you blame the federal government for that?
The priority just isn’t there any more. In Quebec, we spend half our budget on health care. If our kids and their parents would be more active, then health care costs would be reduced. A lot.
You competed in the Olympics as both a cyclist and a skier. Which sport do you love most?
My first love was cycling. But overall, when I finished my career, my biggest love was cross-country skiing. Cycling is a really tough sport. In road racing in Europe, you go for six days. You’re completely dead. You rest for two or three, then you have another stage, two hundred kilometers, in the rain, six or seven-hours on your bike, mud in your face, two hundred guys in a group. There are crashes. It’s really tough. Physically.
Cross-country skiing is more pure fitness and technique. You’re always in the best places on the planet. We used to train on the glaciers in Canada, Austria or Norway. The longest race is 50K, which is about two hours. Most are 10 or 15K, or 30 to 40 minutes. You go really hard for 40 minutes and then you rest. Then you go again. Cycling, you spend six hours a day on your bike.
I would imagine that they’re very complementary sports?
Cross country skiing is more complete. It’s overall body exercise and not just the legs. Cyclists have to be really thin. Cross country skiers are bigger. They have stronger shoulders. And the training is much more fun.
Does Alex train mostly here at Mont Sainte-Anne?
Alex climbs Mont Sainte-Anne almost every day when he’s here. In summer, he goes roller skiing in the morning, eats, rests and at three o’clock he runs up the mountain slowly, with his poles. Then he comes back home, eats and goes to bed. Between April and November, he spends 80% of his time training here. Sometimes they go to Park City, Utah to train at altitude. Then they go to the National Training Centre in Canmore, Alberta.
What is you involvement Pierre Harvey National Training Centre here?
I’ve been on the Board of Directors since the beginning. I’m not the president. We have better presidents.
Are you a trainer?
No. I’ve never been a trainer. I’m a mechanical engineer. I like to work in my field.
So you went straight from competing in the Olympics and at the World Championship level to sitting behind a desk?
Yes! Even when I was skiing, I was working. I finished university in 1981 and I was already competing in cycling and skiing. After I finished university, I got a job and arranged with my boss to let me ski for six months with no pay. Then I would come back in the summer and work because this is real life.
Mechanical engineering is a very demanding field.
Yes. It’s nice. But now I work as a consultant.
Have you encouraged Alex to follow your path academically?
Oh, yes, for sure. Alex is studying to be a lawyer. He’s almost completed his degree at the University of Laval in Quebec City.
I recently read that Alex attributes his success to good genes.
Genes count, for sure. But he works really hard. I think he works more than I did. He’s more focused. He just finished the World Cup season and now he’s flying to Korea to inspect the course. But he’s also able to have fun. You need to. If you’re serious all the time, it’s not possible. Alex is a funny guy. It seems that if you put more pressure on him, he will produce more. Not everyone can do that. I’m really impressed with him.
What are you going to do when you retire?
I will travel. I will keep skiing and be active every day. We have to stay healthy as much as we can.
– By Dave Fonda, for S-Media.