The way it started, the idea was to get from one place to another in wintertime without floundering in snow, maybe even enjoying the frozen scenery along the way. Then someone made a sport out of cross-country skiing, as people will out of almost anything, and over the last few hundred years the game has been refined to a cold form of athletic torture. Nordic racers plow along with pumping strides, burning off calories at a 1,350-per-hour count and steaming like human locomotives, each alone in his own world of agony. At the last world championships in Czechoslovakia, Photographer Neil Leifer and Reporter Anita Verschoth found that this special breed, typified by the racers at right and on the following pages, is made up of stubborn competitors who hold it all in until the event is over. Only then, fighting for breath, do they surrender to waves of fiery pain.
In those first aching moments at the end of a race there is no way to tell the winners from the losers. "You are in complete fatigue," groaned one entrant, "but you keep pushing yourself. Only at the finish do you give in to the hurt." Then, wrapped into a comforting blanket by considerate friends, a racer is happy to have his poles to lean on.
Few suffer as much for their sport: cross-country skiers explode into a race (above), then labor along lonely trails, up hills and over bridges—moving too fast to feel the cold—and finish in triumph. But then comes the final chill: men, women, winners, losers all face the special decompression that is enough to make a grown-up cry.
SEE SOME, SKI SOME
Like all athletes, Nordic skiers need cheering on. But cross-country spectating need not be a sedentary activity, as it is at other games; one can tramp vigorously through the snow, breathe in cold, crisp air and enjoy the countryside as well as the races. Here is a seasonal schedule for skier watchers—including a couple of races where, if you are overcome by energy, you can enter and swing along with the best of them:
Jan. 8: Kennedy Memorial Games, Lake Placid, N.Y.
Jan. 16-21: USSA Cross-Country Championships, Durango, Colo.
Jan. 24: Putney Relays, Putney, Vt. (A great family race; anyone may enter.)
Jan. 30-31: Alaska International Cross-Country Championships, Anchorage.
Feb. 21: Putney 50-kilometer race, Putney.
Feb. 22: Washington's Birthday Cross-Country race, Putney. (Another event open to all, over 20 kilometers. Remember, that's 12 miles.)
Feb. 26-28: Swedish Ski Games, Falun, Sweden.
March 4-6: NCAA Championships, Terry Peak, S. Dak.
March 5-7: Salpausselk√§ Games, Lahti, Finland.
March 7: The Vasaloppet, 51 miles from S√§len to Mora, Sweden. (Any man over 21 may enter officially, and some liberated women have been known to sneak in. It is a classic: U.S. cross-country Coach John Caldwell did it in seven hours.)
March 11-14: Holmenkollen, Oslo, Norway.
March 17-20: National Junior Nordic Championships, Boreal Ridge, Calif.
March 20-21: Puijo Games, Kuopio, Finland.
April 11-18: Top of the World Ski Championships, Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada.
They insist that they are happy in their sport even though their faces don't show it. But never mind those pained expressions; just consider that when Finland's Kalevi Oikarainen (upper right) pulls himself together, he is going to be delighted to discover he's the champion.