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A Rookie's Guide to Cross-Country Skiing at the 2018 Winter Olympics

Don't know anything about cross-country? No problem. Here are all the basics you need to know before the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea are right around the corner! That means it's time to watch sports you might not have seen in four years. To help you feel at least a little more informed—either to impress your friends or fake your way through a conversation with an actual expert—SI will be providing rookie's guides to each of the 15 sports. These will be published daily, Monday through Friday, from December 4-22.

Cross-country skiing has been a staple at the Winter Olympic Games since the first competition in 1924 in Chamonix, France. However, the women's events did not begin until 1952.

In 2018, the events will be held at the Alpensia Cross-Country Centre in PyeongChang, South Korea. The competition will consist of 12 events from February 10-25.

Here's everything you need to know about one of the most exciting and physically demanding events at the Games.

So, what is cross-country skiing?

Cross-country skiing is to skiing as cross-country running is to running. That is to say, it's pretty much the same thing as normal skiing, except it takes place on a flat plane rather than an inclined hill. In cross-country skiing, competitors use ski poles and strength to propel themselves across long (usually flat) distances.

This form of skiing forces competitors to propel themselves either by striding forward (classic technique) or by a side-to-side skating motion (free technique). Professional racers average 15 miles per hour for continuous distances up to 35 miles.

What is the history of the sport?

In Northern Europe, Canada and even the United States, cross-country skiing is a common hobby and competition. It is also the oldest type of skiing, emerging from a method of travel to a sport at the end of the 19th century.

According to the Olympic website, "For centuries in the snow-covered North, skis were required to chase game and gather firewood in winter time. With long distances between the small, isolated communities and hard, snowy winters, skiing also became important as means of keeping in social contact. The word “ski” is a Norwegian word which comes from the Old Norse word “skid”, a split length of wood."

Winter Olympics 2018: Cross-Country Ski Schedule

The earliest form of the sport emerged in the 19th century. The first race on record is 1842 and the famous Holmenkollen ski festival started in 1892, with the focus initially on the Nordic combined event. In 1901, a separate cross-country race was added to the festival.

What are the rules of the event?

Officials will be spread across the race course looking for technique violations, which occur in the following situations:

On the corners - If a track exists on a corner, racers must stay within those tracks by using classical technique.

Switching tracks - In classic cross-country skiing, there are usually multiple tracks to ski on (depending on the number of athletes). Skiers change tracks in the middle of the race to efficiently pass another skier. However, if a racer repeatedly changes tracks, especially on hills, they will be given a violation. In the video below, you can see how these athletes change tracks during the race.

Disqualification - A racer that is assessed two violations in a race will be disqualified from the event.

Is there a technique that goes into it?

Yes. There are two different skiing techniques (mentioned above) that are used for cross-country skiing: the free technique (side-to-side skating) and the classic technique (striding forward).

In the classic technique, the toe and heel of the foot are secured in the ski and the athlete moves his or her skis back and forth in a parallel motion.

In the free technique, only the toe is secured to a shorter ski and the athlete moves his or her feet from side to side to propel them forward. The free technique is considerably faster than the classic.

Why Should I care about the sport?

Well, first of all, it's scientifically proven that if you cross-country ski you get jacked as hell.

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It's also one of the most contested sports at the Winter Olympics and can provide some intense and exciting finishes, like this one.

How do athletes qualify for the event?

Olympic qualification for cross-country skiing began on July 1, 2016 and will conclude on January 22, 2018. In total, 310 athletes will compete in the event. The International Ski Federation (FIS) allocated places for athletes to compete based on point totals accrued by athletes at FIS events. Countries can be awarded up to 12 places for men or 12 places for women, but teams cannot exceed 20 athletes.

An athlete with a maximum of 100 FIS distance points will be allowed to compete in both or one of the event (sprint/distance). An athlete with a maximum 120 FIS sprint points will be allowed to compete in the sprint event and 10 km for women or 15 km for men provided their distance points does not exceed 300 FIS points.

NOC's that do not have any athlete meeting the A standard can enter one competitor of each gender (known as the basic quota) in the sprint event or 10 km classical event for women/15 km classical event for men. They must have a maximum of 300 FIS distance points at the end of qualifying.

What are the events for the 2018 games?

There are six different events in cross-country skiing at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, with each event having a men's and women's competition.

The FIS designates which technique will be used for each event. At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the men's 50 km mass start was raced using the freestyle technique but in PyeongChang, the 50 km race will feature the classical technique. 

The Individual Sprint (classical technique) competition will take place on a course that is 1.4 km long for men and 1.2 km long for women and usually takes around 3-4 minutes for men and 2.5 minutes for women. It is set up similar to a track competition, beginning with a qualifying round. The top 30 finishers will make it to the quarter-finals, where the top two finishers in each heat will proceed to the semi-finals and finals.

Team Sprint (freestyle technique) consists of two skiers. Each skier will ski six full laps around the sprint course, with each contestant skiing two laps at a time. The first team to cross the finish line wins.  In 2014 in Sochi, the Finnish men's gold medal team finished with a time just over 23 minutes.

Individual Start (freestyle technique) begins with a staggered start. One skier starts every 30 seconds and the skier with the best time wins (not necessarily the one who crosses the finish line first). The men's individual start course is 15 km long, which usually takes athletes around 38-40 minutes to complete, while the women's is 10 km and lasts around 28-30 minutes .

Mass Start (classical technique) is the longest cross-country skiing event at the Games. All of the skiers start together and the first to cross the finish line wins. This event is usually one of the most popular at the Games because of extremely close finishes and physically demanding workloads. Men race for 50 km in this event (around 1 hour 45 minutes), while women race for 30 km (around 1 hour 15 minutes).

Relay (both techniques) is similar to the team sprint. The men's race is a 4 x 10 km race, which lasts for about 1.5 hours, and the women's is a 4 x 5 km race for about 55 minutes. Each team consists of four members, rather than two, and the race begins with a mass start, meaning the first skier to cross the finish line wins. For the first two legs of the race, athletes use the classical technique, and for the final two legs, they use the freestyle technique. The event is a breathtaking display of the physical and technical skills of the athletes.

Skiathlon (both techniques) is another event that combines the two skiing disciplines. The skiathlon is a cross-country skiing race in two stages. The first stage is done with the classical technique, after which racers can change skis at a transition area and continue racing using the free technique. The race is 22.5 km and around 40 minutes long for women and 30 km and one hour long for men. It can be extremely exhausting, as you can see here.

All events outside of the individual sprint consist of a single competition, with the medals awarded at the end.

How many athletes participate?

There is a maximum of 310 spots available for athletes to compete in the sport. A maximum of 20 athletes can be entered by a National Olympic Committee. In 2014, 310 athletes from 54 nations participated. Norway and Russia led the way with 20 athletes each, followed by Sweden (19), Germany (18) and Finland (17).

Do they wear cool uniforms?

Yes! They usually wear tights and a bib with their number and country on top. Also, they're decked out in some pretty cool shades and either a helmet or a bandana to complete the outfit.

I would argue their uniforms are the best in sports. Everyone looks fly.


How many medals are given out?

In total, from the six events, twelve gold medals are given out (six to men and six to women). 36 total medals will be given out across the event.

Who are the favorites?

Swiss skier Dario Cologna won two gold medals in Sochi (15 km classical, 30 km skiathlon) and is among the favorites to claim a gold medal in PyeongChang. Marcus Hellner, of Sweden, and Ola Vigen Hattestad, of Norway, are also expected to make noise.

In the women's competition, Norweigan skier Marit Bjørgen has dominated the sport. She won three gold medals at the 2014 Winter Games and is widely considered the most successful sprinter in Cross-Country World Cup, with twenty-nine victories. She, alongside Raisa Smetanina and Stefania Belmondo, is the most medaled female winter Olympian. Polish athlete Justyna Kowalczyk also won a gold medal in Sochi and is expected to be successful in Korea.