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Cross-Country Skiing

Cross-country skiing has been an Olympic sport since the first Games in 1924.


Cross-Country Skiing
Winter Olympics

TORINO, Italy (CNN) -- Cross-country skiing is considered the oldest discipline of them all.

The sport is considered to have developed from the earliest forms of skiing, evidence of which has been found dating back as far as 5,000 years. Competitive events emerged at the end of the 19th century -- the famous Holmenkollen festival drew 10,000 spectators in 1892.

How it is done

There are 12 events within the cross-country discipline. Men compete over 1.5 kilometers, 10 kilometers, 15 kilometers, 30 kilometers and 50 kilometers, as well as a 4x10-kilometer relay. Women compete in 1.5-kilometer, 5-kilometer, 10-kilometer, 30-kilometer and 4x5-kilometer races.

In the 1.5-kilometer races, known as sprints, competitors start at 15-second intervals with the fastest 16 advancing. The finalists are then broken up into groups of four for elimination quarterfinals. The top two skiers from each race progress to the semi-finals, from where the top two in each compete in the final. In the team sprints, teams of two ski three laps each of the course.

For the pursuit races, competitors must complete one course in the classical skiing style (steps with the skis remaining parallel and double pushes with the ski poles) followed by another course in the freestyle technique (steps with more of a skating motion). A mass start is employed on the first course; the starting times for the second course are determined by the finishing order of the first. The first skier to finish the second course is the winner.

In the individual races, or interval races, skiers either start at an interval of 15 seconds or 30 seconds, or in the "pack" style, depending on the event. The skier with the fastest time is deemed the winner. Any style of skiing is allowed.

The relays begin with a mass start. The first two team members ski in the classical style, the last two ski freestyle.

What makes it hard

Long distance cross-country skiing is the Winter Olympics' equivalent of the marathon. The distances are foreboding, the courses are challenging and the conditions are demanding. The sport rewards endurance and stamina, with some sections of the course running uphill in what are known as "verticals".

But competitors also need to ski as fast as possible, regardless of whether they are racing the clock or each other. Tactics, therefore, are important: skiers must be able to conserve energy for bursts of speed at those places in the course that allow them.

Freestyle skiing is more exhausting than the classical style, in which skiers can follow grooves in the snow to reduce the effort required. But it can be faster, too. In the pursuit event, skiers must use the freestyle technique after having already completed a grueling course in the classical style.

Decoding the Jargon

You may hear some unfamiliar terms in the expert commentary at the cross-country skiing during the Games. Here is what some of them mean:

Wax: Skiers use one type of wax, known as glide wax, on the undersides of the entire skis by freestyle racers and to the ends of skis by classical racers to reduce friction between the ski and the snow. Another type of wax, the grip wax, is used on the middle of the undersides of the skis by classical racers to increase friction.

Harries: A technique used by classical racers when the conditions are not amenable to the use of wax. The undersides of the skis are roughed up with a wire brush.

Scramble leg: The first leg of a relay race, so named because of the scramble that ensues at the mass start when all competitors are crowded together.

Which means you can sound like an expert by saying: "That's a nasty fall in the scramble. Bet he's wishing he'd harried instead of waxed."

Did you know? Bill Koch was the first American to win a medal in cross-country skiing when he claimed silver in 1976. He remains the only one to do so.

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