There are just over 200 days until the next Olympic Winter Games. Thousands of athletes from around the globe will participate in the fun, fanfare, and competition of the biggest international event for winter sports. For many, it will serve as the pinnacle of their careers. It’s also a significant milestone for the unsung heroes, those behind-the-scenes warriors who make the races, matches and everything else happen. One such warrior will make history come February.
Jaana Karhila-Rasanen will make her Olympic debut in South Korea, but not as an athlete. The Finland native, who has called Levi her home resort for the past seven years, will serve as the technical delegate (TD) for the women’s races at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. It’s historic because Karhila-Rasanen will be the first Scandanavian female alpine technical delegate ever at an Olympic Games. The first ever female alpine TD was Laura Gaja des Ambrois of Italy, who served at the 1992 Games in Albertville, France.
“To go to the Olympics, that would have never ever occurred to my thoughts that I one day would be doing that, and hopefully, to the same Olympic Games where my son will be racing,” she says excitedly. “I hope that he will be there, but you never know.”
The Finnish official lives near Helsinki in Kauniainen – a town just 15 kilometers outside the city. It’s the same area that Finnish GS standout Marcus Sandell hails from.
“I made up the ski school in Kauniainen and took care of it for 30 years, so there are like 600 to 800 kids every year, every week in the ski school, and they were taking lessons for 10 weeks every winter, so I built it up,” Karhila-Rasanen explains.
She then started her route into the ski racing work that accelerated with her sons’– Joonas and Jesper –involvement in the sport. Joonas, born in 1989, raced for the University of New Mexico, was an NCAA National Champion, and currently competes at the World Cup level. Her younger son, Jesper, no longer races but is in the process of following in his mother’s footsteps and becoming a TD.
It wasn’t until five years ago that things really changed and the Finn unknowingly started on her path towards the Olympics. After working as a chief of race for about two decades all over Scandinavia and then becoming a national TD in her home country, she was encouraged to become a FIS technical delegate.
“Everyone told me, ‘Do the FIS TD. Do the FIS TD,’” she recalls. “And although I was too old because the age limit is 45, they took me in, and the Swedish guys, they told me to do it because they were so satisfied with me being the chief of race, so that’s how I became a FIS TD.”
A FIS technical delegate is at the helm of the race. As a FIS memorandum from 2016 states, the TD “does not usually come into the ski world’s public eye until there are protests, postponements or cancellations due to poor weather or snow conditions. Unprepared or not in control, the TD could be blamed, should things go wrong and may be made to look inept by the media and the ski racing leadership.” It’s not a low-pressure job, but Karhila-Rasanen was up for the task.
Then, just a few years later, the 60-year-old FIS official advanced one step further.
“The [Olympic] TD assignments, they are divided in Europe, Scandinavia, America, like this. So this place was given to Scandinavia,” Karhila-Rasanen shares. “And then, Jarl Forsmark, who is the head of the TDs in Scandinavia, he told me like two years ago, he asked me, ‘How about if I give your name out there, and we suggest that you would be the TD?’ and I was like, ‘What?’ Because I could never have thought that he would do anything like this.”
In preparation for the Olympics, the Finnish official served as the TD at her first World Cup races last season, the test event in Jeongseon, South Korea. Before that event, she had served in the position at European Cup races and some standard FIS races in Scandinavia. In her first experience at the World Cup, she had quite a few challenges to contest.
“They had to do the lottery because the computer wasn’t working well,” the Finn shares. “Then, in the timing, the race was stopped for 20 minutes because the photocells didn’t work. And then, we had to do hand timing … and then, we gave a penalty to a coach who didn’t behave himself properly. It was quite a lot in one race.”
Surely, the test event prepared her well for the upcoming Olympic Winter Games and anything an event of that scale can throw her way.
Her new role comes at a time when more women are rising in the ranks of the ski world, but there are still serious disparities in gender distribution in high-ranking positions. In 2016, U.S. Ski Team coach Karin Harjo became the first female to set a World Cup slalom. A recent initiative instituted by the Norwegian Ski Federation aims to bring more women into the fold after presenting the information that among its 34 coaches at the national level across disciplines, only one is currently female.
At the end of the day, Karhila-Rasanen says it’s incredible to see what she’s been able to accomplish just because she got involved with her children’s hobbies.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misidentified Jaana Karhila-Rasanen as the first female alpine TD at an Olympic Games. Thanks to Elena Gaja, we now know that her mother, Laura Gaja des Ambrois, was a TD at the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville, France.