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Cross-Country Skiing Events in the Winter Olympics

Cross-Country skiing (part of the Nordic skiing family) is the endurance event of the Winter Olympics. In cross-country skiing, competitors use ski poles and strength to propel themselves across long (usually flat) distances. Cross-country skiing is an enormously popular in Northern Europe, Canada, and many of the northern part of the United States.

[Credit: PhotoDisc/Getty Images]
Credit: PhotoDisc/Getty Images

One of the things that makes cross-country skiing such a difficult sport is that it uses every muscle group at the same time. It is also one of the top three sports for burning calories per hour.

There are two different skiing techniques that can be used for cross-country skiing: the classic and the free style. In the classic technique, the toe and heel of the foot are secured to the ski and the skis move back and forth in a parallel pattern. The free technique is substantially faster. In this technique only the toe is secured to a shorter ski and the skier moves her feet from side to side in a way that looks more like speed skating than skiing.

Although a relatively new sport in America (only 150 years old), cross-country skiing has been used as a mode of transportation for more than 6,000 years. Cross-country skiing has been a part of the Winter Olympics since 1924. There are several different Olympic cross-country events, including men’s and women’s individual sprint, team sprint, pursuit, individual start, mass start and the relay.

Individual sprint (Classical technique)

The individual sprint course is only 1.4 km for men and 1.2 km for women. The sprint competition is set up much like the sprint competition for track events. It begins with a qualifying round. The top 30 finishers make it to the quarter finals. From there the top 2 finishers in each heat proceed to the semi-finals and this pattern continues on to the final rounds.

Team sprint (Freestyle technique)

Each team consists of two skiers. The first skier runs two laps around the sprint course and then trades off with his team mate, who then runs two laps. This continues until both skiers have skied six full laps. The first team to cross the finish line wins.

Teammates don’t pass a baton as they would in a running race. Instead a skier must touch his teammate without blocking or interfering with any other teams before they can resume racing.

Individual start (Freestyle technique)

In this event, the skiers begin with a staggered start: one skier starts every 30 seconds. The skier with the best time wins — which is not necessarily the one that crosses the finish line first. The men’s course is 15 km long and the women’s is 10 km.

Mass start (Classical technique)

The mass start is the longest cross-country skiing event in the Winter Olympics. The women race for 30 km and the men for 50 km. Unlike the individual start race, all of the skiers start together in a single line (shaped like an arrow >). The mass start event is a great spectator sport. It is usually skied in large loops instead of over long solitary distances. This ensures that the audience gets to see the skiers every few minutes. Because there is no stagger at the start of the race, the first skier to cross the finish line is the winner. Unlike traditional marathon races, this race to the finish line is usually close. Exciting, photo finishes are not uncommon.

Relay (both)

The relay race is very similar to the team sprint in format. However, each team has four members instead of two. The women’s race is a 4 x 5 km and the men’s is a 4 x 10 race. The relay begins with a mass start so the first skier to cross the finish line is the winner. This event requires the teams to use both of the cross-country ski styles. For the first two legs, they use the classic stroke, and for the last two legs, they switch to the free stroke. Note the differences as you watch the event.

Pursuit (both)

The pursuit event is similar to the mass start but with one important difference: The skiers begin the race (22.5 km for women and 30 km for men) using the classic technique. Part way through the race, the skiers change out of classic skis and into the shorter free technique skis, and use these to the finish.

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