Nordic skiing has origins that go back to the 1700s and Scandinavia. The sport has three integral components: cross-country skiing, ski jumping, and Nordic combined. The latter is a synthesis with portions of ski jumping and cross-country. Cross-country races range from fifteen to fifty kilometers and may be individual or relay team competitions. With ski jumping, the competitions take place on a seventy- or ninety-meter hill.
The concluding years of World War II led to a potent grassroots movement for growth in U.S. skiing. According to E. M. Swift, the U.S. Army needed to find both local and able volunteers to support the development of a U.S. Mountain Division. Many expert skiers from the National Ski Association eventually saw action in 1945 in the Italian Alps. "After the war many members of the 10th Mountain Division moved back to Colorado where they helped boost a fledgling recreational ski industry" (Swift, p. 50).
Nordic skiing has been typified by its constantly changing landscape. For example, at the 1924 Olympics, only men competed, and the four events were eighteen-kilometer cross-country skiing, fifty-kilometer cross-country skiing, ski jumping, and Nordic combined. At the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, the picture of Nordic skiing was an eclectic mosaic: a coeducational athletic canvas that included five- and ten-kilometer races (classical), combined pursuit (essentially a timed cross-country race), thirty-kilometer (classical and freestyle), 4 x 5 and 4 x 10 kilometer relay, ski jump (normal hill, individual), ski jump (large hill, individual), ski jump (large hill, team), Nordic combined (individual), and Nordic combined (team).
The Chamonix International Winter sports week of 1924 is generally recognized as the first Winter Olympics. In the Nordic skiing category there were four events; Norway won eleven of the thirteen medals awarded. The United States saw their representative, Anders Haugen, win a bronze medal in the ski-jumping competition. Olympic raconteur David Wallechinsky recounts how in 1974 Toralf Stromstad, the silver medalist in the 1924 Nordic combined, found a mistake in the original scores. As a result, the thirty-six-year-old Norwegian-born Haugen, who had paid his own way to the Olympics, was moved up to third place. The International Olympic Committee honored Haugen at a special medal ceremony in Oslo. Four years later, at St. Moritz, the United Stateshad no medalists. In 1932, the Winter Olympics were hosted at Lake Placid, New York, a regional vacation resort in the Adirondacks. In terms of U.S. Nordic skiing, the competition was a medal drought.
An American absence of success was repeated at Garmish-Partenkirchen (1936), St. Moritz (1948), Oslo (1952), Cortina d'Ampezzo (1956), Squaw Valley (1960), Innsbruck (1964), Grenoble (1968), Sapporo (1972), Lake Placid (1980), Sarajevo (1984), Calgary (1988), Albertville (1992), and Lillehammer (1994). One exception, and an exceptional performance indeed, was that by American Bill Koch at Innsbruck in 1976. The native of Guilford, Vermont, became the only American to win an Olympic Nordic skiing medal. He tenaciously fought Serge Saralyev of the Soviet Union and after one and a half hours of frantic activity, during which time the athletes had to battle incredible muscular fatigue compounded with the buildup of lactic acid, Koch crossed the finish line in second place. David Wallechinsky underscores the Cinderella status of Nordic skiing with the pointed comment that at the thirty-kilometer post-race press conference, not one American reporter was present.
Quite simply, Nordic skiing, within the United States, has always been a minor, indeed a marginalized, group of athletic activities. While huge advances have been made within American winter sports in areas such as alpine skiing and speed skating, the same has not been the case with Nordic skiing. Special note should be made, however, of certain American competitors who, despite not receiving medals, were skiing pioneers willing to train ferociously and take on rivals for whom Nordic skiing was their country's premier cultural activity. Examples of this come from performers such as the members of the men's 4 x 10 kilometer relay at the 1976 Olympics (sixth place); Casper Oimoen in the large hill individual ski jump at the 1932 Olympics (fifth); Gordon Wren in the same event—and a similar placing—at the 1948 Olympics, and finally Jeffrey Hasting (same event), who, at the 1984 Olympics, missed a bronze medal by only 1.7 points. In women's Nordic skiing, in the 4 x 5 kilometer relay, America produced Olympic squads in 1980, 1984, and 1988 that had creditable seventh, seventh, and eighth places, respectively, in the Olympic finals.
The Contemporary Scene
With the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan Sports Illustrated compiled an intensive and exhaustive speculative list, whereby Anita Verschoth gave her top three picks for Nordic skiing, and then, as a footnote sidebar, discussed the status of American involvement. Repeatedly Verschoth's observations underscore the picture of an "also-ran" sport, where the possibility of American success was not about medal contention but rather a top-ten finish. For example, in the men's ten-kilometer (classical style) cross-country race, Marcus Nash was mentioned as "headed for the top 25." With the women's ten-kilometer pursuit freestyle cross-country race, Suzanne King was named as being a probable finisher in the top thirty. In the men's (4 x 10 kilometer) and women's (4 x 5 kilometer) relay, the prognostication was that the United States would finish in the top half of the twenty national teams. As for the three ski-jumping competitions, the American selections were not deemed able to break into the top twenty slots. Nevertheless, the Verschoth landscape was not totally devoid of American hopefuls: Todd Lodwick of Colorado had been the World Junior champion, and Verscoth prophesized that Lodwick would win a bronze medal for the United States. Sadly, the United States did not win one Nordic medal, despite a gritty performance from fifth-place finisher Lodwick. Nordic skiing, regardless, established itself as an extraordinary medium for sport as both a dramatic theater and cultural conduit. Japanese ski jumper Masatiiko Harada won a bronze medal with a final jump of 136 meters at "the outer limit of human flight," and the situation was so overwhelming that he, his Japan television interviewer, and the Japanese anchor reporter all broke down and wept (Rushin, 1998).
An important aspect of American Nordic training and preparation going into the various ski-jump competitions at Nagano was recruitment and coaching. The American male jumping members were young—ranging in ages from sixteen to twenty-three—and their new team coach was Finn Kari Ylianttila, who had coached the Finnish national team for nine years.
The 2002 Winter Olympics were staged in Salt Lake City and allowed the United States a wonderful opportunity to showcase Nordic skiing. Richard Hoffer, in a Sports Illustrated essay, commented on just such attractions being televised from the United States by NBC and reaching a world audience of more than 100 million people: "There goes another guy off the ramp in the Nordic combined, skis splayed, sailing through miles of sunshine. Millions of viewers around the world gawked: 'My God, that looks like fun.'" Another Sports Illustrated writer at Salt Lake City, Steve Rushin, evocatively captured the aesthetic appeal of ski jumping. One competitor with "his skis in chevron—like geese flying in formation backward—looks as though he'll never alight." This is a sport where a soaring body in a space suit magically "captivates the imagination."
At the 2002 Winter Olympics, American Nordic skiers had the additional lure of a United States Olympic Committee cash incentive—for a gold medal, $25,0000; silver, $15,000; and bronze, $10,000. Overall, both the policy and American advances in winter sports in general were spectacular. The United States won ten gold and thirty-four overall, more Winter Olympic medals than it had won before (thirteen in 1994 and 1998). Nevertheless, in the sphere of Nordic skiing, the United States again drew a blank.
The high point for the United States was in the Nordic combined twenty-kilometer relay team event. In the two-day event (first day jumping, second day racing) at the halfway stage, the United States was in third place. However, in the cross-country phase the Americans slipped to fourth place.
Nordic skiing requires, for the most part, highly specialized equipment and calls for technically demanding and exhausting skills. Terrain needs to be specially groomed, and a major problem for the sport's grassroots development is that it continues to be perceived as a fringe or marginal pastime. Very few colleges or schools support programs that focus on Nordic skiing. All of that notwithstanding, the cost of cross-country skis has reached a level where it is increasingly affordable. Since the 1990s, the number of people trying cross-country skiing for the first time has been significant.
Alpine skiing lends itself wonderfully well to both feature and documentary film treatment. Sadly, Nordic skiing has garnered little attention, but the spectacular crash landing by European ski jumper Vinko Bogataj was so visually sensational that it became a key opening sequence to the celebrated ABC television network program The Wide World of Sport. Commentator Jim McKay famously described Bogataj's ski-jump spill as "the agony of defeat."
At Salt Lake City the United States won ten ski and snowboard medals and followed that with fifteen medals in the 2003 World Championships. What the sport of Nordic skiing desperately needs is a breakthrough personality in the order of a Bonnie Blair (speed skating) or Michelle Kwan (figure skating). U.S. Ski and Snowboard President and Chief Executive Officer Bill Marolt, as he looks forward to the 2006 games in Torino, has a rallying cry of "Best in the World." Certainly the challenges for U.S. Nordic skiing are considerable.
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