For the third time, the International Ski Federation ‘FIS’ has had to postpone the proposed fluorinated (or fluoro) wax ban. This ban cannot be implemented for the coming 22/23 FIS season because the technology to reliably detect the use of fluoro wax has still not been perfected.
As far back as November 2019, FIS decided to ban fluoro waxes and was developing a handheld “Fluorine Tracker” machine. However, the technology remains unreliable and the ban was first postponed in October 2020 to come into effect for the 21/22 season instead of 20/21. In June 2021, FIS announced that the ban had to be postponed again due to inadequate testing opportunities during the previous season due to Covid-19. Last week’s announcement by the FIS makes this the third delay in the implementation of this ban.
Fluorinated wax contains lab made chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyflouroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are very stable and are used for example in non-stick coatings or protective coatings. They are not biodegradable and will stay in the environment for a very long time. PFAS have been shown to be harmful to the environment and human health.
As a result, FIS and the International Biathlon Union (‘IBU’) were the first to propose a ban on the use of ski waxes containing these chemicals. The European Union (‘EU’) was the first to implement this ban in July 2020. The U.S. Ski & Snowboard and the Canadian Ski Association followed suit banning the use of fluorinated ski wax in competition from all disciplines in North America for the 20/21 season.
Leading wax producers Toko of Switzerland and Swix of Norway, both part of BRAV, have switched their productions to so-called C6 waxes and other alternatives. The ‘C’ stands for the carbon molecules. High-fluoro waxes or so-called C8 waxes have eight carbon molecules. While C6 waxes do not fall under the proposed FIS ban, they might be next to go.
Fluoro wax is a special ski wax snowsports athletes across many disciplines have been using for more than 30 years. Any ski wax is designed to repel dirt, grease, and moisture and thus decrease friction. Less friction means better glide, resulting in higher achievable skate speeds. High-fluoro waxes were particularly good at lower altitudes with higher moisture around the freezing point or even above it, making them particularly popular with cross-country skiers.
While the advantages of using a fluoro wax are negligible for alpine skiers, the difference can be significant for cross country skiers who compete over significantly longer distances, often at comparably lower altitudes. In a 9-mile (15km) cross-country race, the advantage of using a fluoro-based wax can mean a time advantage of one to one-and-a-half minutes.
During the last Olympics, Germany’s and Russia’s cross country teams were accused by the Finnish newspaper Iltalehti of cheating by using high fluoro waxes. The German Team coach Andreas Schlutter vehemently denied these claims and suggested it was perhaps Finland’s disappointment speaking. The German Ski Association ‘DSV’ called the allegations “outrageous.”
Allegations like these, even when entirely unfounded, put an unnecessary cloud over the amazing performance of individual athletes and teams. Unfortunately, until FIS implements the ban and has a bulletproof method of testing for fluoro waxes, these types of accusations and second-guessing will prevail as the current enforcement of the EU and North American bans is difficult.