Understanding the Nordic Combined at the Winter Olympics

The Nordic Combined event in the Winter Olympics combines the best of both ski jumping and cross-country. This sport looks for the best overall athlete — one that has the strength and control required for ski jumping as well as the endurance required for cross-country skiing.

This sport has been around since the early 1800s when communities in Norway would gather for winter carnivals. These carnivals always included athletics and this event determined the all-around winner. Nordic combined individual events (both normal hill and large hill) have been a part of the Winter Olympics since 1924; however, the team event was only added in 1988.

Only men are allowed to compete in this sport in the Winter Olympics, although women have petitions to play several times. The latest petition was made in 2009, and was rejected, although the case made it all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court. Despite the fact that women can't yet compete in the Olympics, the women’s version of Nordic combined is gaining in popularity around the world.

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In this event, skiers start by gliding down a steep hill and up over a bump. This abrupt bump at the end of the hill propels the jumper into the air at speeds around 90 kph. The skier jumps from one larger hill onto the down slope of another smaller hill. To score well, he must maintain control throughout.

When all competitors have jumped, they begin the cross-country portion (a 10 km race) in a pursuit start — which simply means that the skier with the best jump goes first. Each successive jumper begins in the order they placed during the jumping portion.

There are two different skiing techniques in cross-country skiing: the classic and the freestyle. 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. In the free technique, only the toe is secured to a shorter ski and the skier moves his feet from side to side in a way that looks more like speed skating than skiing. The free technique is substantially faster. The Olympic Nordic combined event alternates between the two cross country styles from year to year. At the 2010 Games in Vancouver, the event will be skied freestyle.

To determine how long each competitor must wait before beginning the cross country section of the competition, the Olympic judges use something called the Gunderson method, which works like this: Judges calculate how many points separate the competitors after the jumping portion, and each jumping point is worth 4 seconds. So, for example, if the person in first place of the jumping section of the competition is 10 points ahead of the second-place jumper, then the person in first place gets a 40 second lead over the person in second place in cross country. This pattern continues through the entire field — and the last place competitor might have to wait several minutes before leaving.

By staggering the start of the cross-country portion, there is no need to wait for points to be calculated at the end of the cross-country portion. Whoever crosses the finish line first wins.

In the team event, there are four members on each team. The basic pattern is the same except that the cross-country portion of the event is a 4 x 5 k event. At the end of each leg, a skier hands off to his team mate by touching him.

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