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Your Guide to Nordic Skiing at the 2022 Winter Olympics

Published on 07/15/2022 · 11 min readWant to see cross-country athletes skate at shocking speeds? Follow along with Ski Expert Alex K. as she shares the nordic events to see and the athletes to watch.
By Ski Expert Alex K.

American Jessie Diggins crossing the finish line at the 2019 Nordic World Ski Championships in Seefeld, Austria. Photo by Granada, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Forget all of your preconceived notions about cross-country skiing, aka nordic. That sport you’re equating to grannies shuffling at snail speed? You couldn’t be more wrong.

At the Olympic level, nordic is an extremely fast-paced, highly technical, ski-racing sport that requires some of the fittest athletes in the world to push their bodies to their absolute limits while competing head to head. With skinny skis that are just 41-44mm wide, ultralight poles, and tons of strength and stamina, cross-country skiers race uphill, downhill, sprints, marathon distances, and everything in between at blistering speeds.

There’s a ton of strategizing involved, from race tactics to wax precision to produce the fastest skis possible on a given day. It’s a whole team effort, and for years, the U.S. Cross Country Team was hardly a threat to the Scandinavian powerhouses that have historically dominated the sport.

Underdogs No More, Diggins Leads U.S.

That all changed at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where Americans Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall teamed up to win the team sprint, ahead of Sweden and Norway. It was the first Olympic gold for the U.S. team in cross-country skiing, topping the previous best of silver, which Bill Koch earned in the 30-kilometer distance at the 1976 Olympics.

While Randall has since retired, Diggins, now 30, is back and one of the biggest medal favorites at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Last year, the Minnesota local became the first American woman and second-ever American to win the overall World Cup (Koch won it in 1982). She not only claimed the overall title, but she won the distance World Cup as well. In Beijing, she’s expected to compete in most of the six women’s events on the docket and has a medal chance in every single one, except maybe the 10k classic.

Diggins isn’t the only threat on the U.S. team. Another team veteran, Rosie Brennan, 33, finished fourth in both the overall and distance World Cup standings last year. She and Diggins will likely team up with Hailey Swirbul and Julia Kern for the women’s 4 x 5k relay, where even with two Olympic rookies, they have a very real shot at a medal.

American Rosie Brennan gets low during the women’s 10k classic race at the 2019 Nordic World Ski Championships in Seefeld, Austria. Photo by Granada, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On the men’s side, 21-year-old JC Schoonmaker has the potential to get some TV time in the skate (aka “freestyle”) sprint, with two top-10 individual (non-relay) finishes in World Cups this season. Then there’s team veteran Scott Patterson, 30, who placed 21st or better in Pyeongchang’s three distance races, including 11th in the ultimate distance event: the 50k classic.

So set your DVR, because there’s a 13- to 18-hour time difference to Beijing, depending on where you live in the U.S., or stay up to tune into races that start late at night or well after midnight at the upcoming Olympics which run for the next two weeks.

High Elevation, Little Snow, Cold Temps

The Zhangjiakou National Cross-Country Skiing Center on Feb. 4, 2022, the day before the first race of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Photo by Nat Herz

The nordic events will be held at the National Cross-Country Skiing Center in Zhangjiakou (where freestyle skiing and snowboarding will also be contested) about 140 miles northwest of downtown Beijing.

The cross-country course is a grueling one that was designed by John Aalberg, a Norwegian-born American skier and Olympian who designed a very similar racecourse at Soldier Hollow near Park City, Utah, for the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. The Zhangjiakou and Soldier Hollow courses are also situated at nearly identical elevations around 5,500 feet above sea level—which makes them even more gut-busting for athletes going all-out in this incredibly aerobic (and often anaerobic) sport.

There’s also an issue with the lack of snowfall in Zhangjiakou. The trails were built on an arid plateau nestled high in an open valley, which is known for frigid temperatures well below zero, high winds, and even sandstorms. The area only receives a few inches of natural snowfall each year, so machine-made snow is a must, but it’s extremely difficult to make due to the dryness of the climate and lack of water in the region. The area is so dry that snow actually evaporates or blows away as it’s made, requiring snowmakers to produce wet, sticky snow that is heavily compacted by grooming.

However, sandy, old, artificial snow and brutally cold temperatures aren’t a new problem: Olympians experienced the same issues in Pyeongchang four years ago. At least for the next week, temperatures are expected to be tolerable, in the teens and mid-20s (not factoring in wind chill), before dipping down to the single digits and below zero during the second week of the Games.

Schedule and Events

(Note: All times EST)

Saturday, Feb. 5

  • Event: Women’s 15k Skiathlon
  • Time: 2:45 a.m.
  • Description: Skiathlons are a long-distance combination of cross-country skiing’s two disciplines: classic and skate/freestyle. Classic skiing is diagonal striding in groomed tracks, which most people are familiar with. It’s how the sport started until Koch played a pivotal role in popularizing skate skiing, which is faster and a motion similar to inline skating. In a skiathlon, racers begin all together in a mass start, completing 7.5k in the classic style before switching skis in a designated pit zone halfway through the race to skate ski the final 7.5k.
  • Thrill Factor: Definitely an interesting race format and test of all-around strength, endurance, and technique. If you’re not a good classic skier AND skate skier (not every Olympic athlete truly excels at both), it’s going to be a long race.

Sunday, Feb. 6

  • Event: Men’s 30k Skiathlon
  • Time: 2 a.m.
  • Description: Same as the women, but twice as long.
  • Thrill Factor: Men’s skiathlons tend to be more riveting as the race leaders usually stay nested within a pack (playing mind games and jockeying back and forth) for most of the race before busting out a sprint finish, as opposed to the women, who often break apart earlier in mass-start distance races.

Tuesday, Feb. 8

  • Event: Women’s & Men’s Freestyle Sprint
  • Time: Qualification starts at 3 a.m.; quarterfinals start at 5:30 a.m.
  • Description: Sprint races begin with a qualification round in which athletes start individually to race around the 1.5k course for a qualifying time in order to advance to the heats. The top 30 advance to the quarterfinals, which are head-to-head races around the same 1.5k course with six skiers in each heat. Twelve skiers advance to the semifinals, and the top four in the semifinals (along with the two skiers with the fifth- and sixth-fastest semifinal times) advance to the six-person final.
  • Thrill Factor: Sprints are some of the most fun races to watch—seriously. Tune in for the quarterfinals and you’ll be blown away by how much goes down in about an hour, and how fast the top athletes recover to race all out, over and over again.

Thursday, Feb. 10

  • Event: Women’s 10k Classic
  • Time: 2 a.m.
  • Description: Racers start every 30 seconds in time-trial format to race the clock for the fastest time.
  • Thrill Factor: TBH, if you have to skip ONE cross-country race, this would be it. This or the men’s 15k classic. It’s a little stale to watch skiers race one at a time, rather than head to head, but it is a test of mental toughness and intrinsic motivation.

Friday, Feb. 11

  • Event: Men’s 15k Classic
  • Time: 2 a.m.
  • Description: Same as the women’s 10k classic but 5 kilometers longer (still unsure why they’re not the same distances).
  • Thrill Factor: See above.

Saturday, Feb. 12

  • Event: Women’s 4 x 5k Relay
  • Time: 2:30 a.m.
  • Description: Each team has four skiers that each complete one lap, one at a time. The first two skiers race classic, then the last two skate. Teammates tag off in designated zones at the completion of each lap.
  • Thrill Factor: This is one of the most thrilling events of the Olympics, or any World Championships, as any single skier can be a game-changer on their “leg” of the race. Diggins has been known to make up HUGE deficits as the anchor (last skier). She’s one heck of a skate skier, and the rest of the team is really strong. If the stars align, these women could bring home gold for Team USA.

Sunday, Feb. 13

  • Event: Men’s 4 x 10k Relay
  • Time: 2 a.m.
  • Description: Same as women’s relay, but the men race 10 k laps.
  • Thrill Factor: The U.S. men’s team doesn’t really have a fighting chance at a medal, but it’ll still be fun to watch the Norwegians try to defend their Olympic title against other European teams and Russia.

Wednesday, Feb. 16

  • Event: Women’s & Men’s Classic Team Sprint
  • Time: 4 a.m. semifinals; 6 a.m. finals
  • Description: Each team has two skiers that complete a total of six laps of the 1.5k sprint course, tagging off and alternating with their teammate after each lap. The event starts with two semifinals, and the top-10 teams advance to the final.
  • Thrill Factor: Considering this is the race Diggins and Randall won in thrilling fashion in 2018, this should be a fun one to watch (there is A LOT of tagging off and very little time for the athletes to rest before they race again), although other teams—like Sweden for the women and Norway for the men—are favored to win this one.

Saturday, Feb. 19

  • Event: Men’s 50k Freestyle Mass Start
  • Time: 1 a.m.
  • Description: The ultimate distance event, racers start together and go head to head for 50 kilometers (31 miles), completing multiple laps before the finish (which often comes down to a sprint for the men).
  • Thrill Factor: Some consider this to be the signature event of the Olympics or any World Championships, and while it takes a little over two hours from start to finish, it’s pretty cool watching the tactics (drafting, pacing, teamwork, etc.) play out.

Sunday, Feb. 20

  • Event: Women’s 30k Freestyle Mass Start
  • Time: 1:30 a.m.
  • Description: Just like the men’s mass start except 20k (12 miles) shorter.
  • Thrill Factor: For whatever reason, this women’s mass-start distance race tends to get more strung out than the men’s version. Usually, one woman tends to get a gap on the field and win by a sizable (minute or more) margin. Where she breaks away and who gets the gold is the interesting part, along with how the race for silver and bronze play out.

Medal Favorites

A skate-sprint finish between Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (L) and Italy’s Federico Pellegrino (second from R) at a 2018 World Cup in Dresden, Germany. Photo by Sandro Halank

Aside from rooting for Diggins (duh!), there are several other world-leading skiers worth keeping a close eye on. Norway’s Therese Johaug, who missed the 2018 Olympics due to a suspension, has been gunning for these Olympics ever since. She’s the gold-medal favorite in all of the women’s distance events and is a particularly exceptional classic skier. It’s the Norwegian way!

Just like the rest of the athletes, she’ll be fighting to stay healthy and Covid-19 free. The virus recently infiltrated the Norwegian team, taking out two distance favorites, Heidi Weng, for most, if not all, of the Olympics, and Simen Hegstad Krüger, a double gold medalist in Pyeongchang (skiathlon and men’s 4 x 10k relay), who hopes to be able to race the Beijing 50k.

For now, Norway’s leading man, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, coming off three golds in PyeongChang (classic sprint, team sprint, and relay), is reportedly healthy. As the men’s overall World Cup leader, he’ll have a target on his back. His teammate Hans Christer Holund will be hunting medals in the distance races, particularly the skiathlon.

Russia’s Natalya Nepryayeva is currently leading the women’s overall World Cup after winning the six-stage Tour de Ski in Switzerland, Germany, and Italy in late December/early January. Alexander Bolshunov is the top Russian on the men’s side and a favorite in the classic distance events.

Sweden’s Frida Karlsson is leading the women’s distance World Cup at the moment, ahead of Johaug and Weng, and her teammate Ebba Andersson isn’t far behind in fourth. Both are top contenders for the distance races, along with fellow Swedes Maja Dahlqvist—who’s won every World Cup sprint she’s entered this season—and Jonna Sundling in the sprint races.

Finland has a couple of standout racers as well: Iivo Niskanen, the defending 50k classic Olympic champion who also won gold in the classic team sprint at the 2014 Olympics, and Krista Pärmäkoski, a threat in any classic distance race, including the skiathlon.

But Wait, There’s More…

For more specifics, FasterSkier does a fantastic job covering the Olympics and all things nordic related, including nordic combined (ski jumping + cross-country ski racing) and biathlon (skate skiing + target shooting). They’ve outlined how to watch the races, live or on-demand, as well as medal predictions for each event.

And if you’re feeling totally inspired after watching these athletes kick, glide, and stride with incredible grace and power, be sure to chat with one of our Winter Sports Experts who can help you find the right gear for channeling your inner Olympian on the trails!

Alex K., Ski Expert
Alex K.
Ski Expert
Born and raised in NH's White Mountains and later NY's Adirondacks, skiing has been my go-to winter pastime since I was little, and I'm eager to share this lifelong sport with you!.Let me be your personal ski shopper! I love getting people set up for snow!
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Written by:
Alex K., Ski Expert
Alex K.
Ski Expert
Born and raised in NH's White Mountains and later NY's Adirondacks, skiing has been my go-to winter pastime since I was little, and I'm eager to share this lifelong sport with you!.Let me be your personal ski shopper! I love getting people set up for snow!

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