Cross-Country Skiing 101: Olympic history

Posted at 5:46 AM, Oct 12, 2021

PyeongChang 2018

Entering the Games as potential bronze medalists, American Kikkan Randall und Jessie Diggins dug deep and proved to the cross-country skiing world their true grit in a shocking victory. Randall kept the U.S. in position and Diggins broke away with Sweden and Norway in the latter part of the race, closing in the last of six 1.2km legs to beat Sweden's Stina Nilsson by .02.

The U.S. duo, winners of the 2013 world team sprint title, became the first non-European team to take the event at the Olympics. 

Norwegian legend Marit Bjoergen, already the most decorated female cross-country skier in Winter Olympic history and competing in her fifth Games, added an incredible five more – two golds, a silver and two bronzes – to bring her total to 15. Her nation won half of the sport's possible medals, including seven gold, taking both relays and sweeping the men's skiathlon. 

Sochi 2014

Norway’s Marit Bjorgen duplicated her triple-gold performance from Vancouver in Sochi, and in the process, set the record for most gold medals (6) and tied the record for most medals won (10 overall) by a woman at an Olympic Winter Games. 

Both Norway and Sweden would win eleven cross-country medals overall in Sochi. 

Switzerland’s “Super” Dario Cologna was the big winner of the men’s races, leaving Sochi with gold in the 15km and the Skiathlon. In the final lap of the Skiathlon, Sweden’s Marcus Hellner held a slight lead, with Cologna nipping at the back of the Swede’s skis. 

On the last climb, the physically imposing Cologna pulled ahead. Hellner, along with Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, would challenge Cologna for the top spot down the stretch, but Cologna held on for gold. 

Vancouver 2010

Marit Bjorgen and Petter Northug would lead Norway back to Olympic cross-country glory in Vancouver. After finishing with an uncharacteristic four medals overall in Torino, the Norwegians walked away with nine in 2010. Bjorgen was Norway’s biggest winner, taking home two individual gold medals, one silver and one bronze, in addition to a team gold in the 4x5km relay. Northug was the men’s standout, winning gold in the 50km classical and team sprint, while adding silver in the relay and a bronze in the sprint. 

Slovenia’s Petra Majdic became a crowd favorite in Vancouver after news broke that she had bruised her ribs in training when she lost control on the course and slammed into some rocks. Racing through the pain in the sprint, Majdic crossed the finish line in time to win bronze – Slovenia’s first cross-country Olympic medal.

Torino 2006

The cross-country program was tweaked again at the 2006 Torino Games to include the team sprint event, which came at the expense of the men’s 30km and women’s 15km races. 

In the women’s team sprint, the silver-winning duo from Canada, Beckie Scott and Sara Renner, benefited from an act of true sportsmanship on the course. When Renner’s ski pole snapped, a bystander rushed to hand her a replacement allowing the Canadian to catch the pack that was quickly pulling away. After the race, the identity of the man who handed her the pole was revealed to be Norwegian coach Bjornar Haakensmoen.   

Russia led the overall cross-country medal count in Torino, collecting seven, followed by Sweden with five. Sweden and Estonia tied for most gold medals by a team with three. On the flip side, Norway had its most disappointing performance in its national sport in nearly 20 years. Norway finished with four medals – none of which were gold – for the first time since the 1998 Nagano Games.

Salt Lake 2002

Officials added the individual sprint to the Olympic cross-country skiing program in Salt Lake City hoping the head-to-head, elimination-style race format would bring new excitement to the sport. In its Olympic debut, the men’s event did not disappoint. Norway’s Tor Arne Hetland won gold in a thrilling final, crossing the line one tenth of a second ahead of Peter Schlickenrieder of Germany. 

Two Russian athletes would be disqualified and stripped of eight medals in Salt Lake City after testing positive for the blood-boosting drug darbepoetin. Olga Danilova was stripped of two golds and two silvers, while Larisa Lazutina had a gold and three silver medals taken away in Salt Lake City. 

Nagano 1998

In another display of their cross-country skiing prowess, Russia’s women won all five cross-country gold medals in Nagano. At the end of the Games, Russia’s women had collected seven out of 12 individual medals. 

Norway’s cross-country stars Bjoern Daehlie and Thomas Alsgaard found themselves in trouble in the 30km classical after choosing the wrong skis for the event. Racing on 18 inches of fresh snow, in flurries which never let up, Alsgaard realized his errors and quit at the halfway point. Daehlie kept racing, finishing in 20th place. 

Daehlie returned to form, concluding his brilliant Olympic career by winning three gold medals and one silver in Nagano. It was the third time Daehlie had won four medals at an Olympic Winter Games. In a relay rematch of the Norway-Italy duel from ‘94, Daehlie and Norway edged the Italians to take gold. In the 50km, Daehlie crossed the finish line eight seconds ahead of Sweden’s Niklas Jonsson and collapsed on the snow, where he stayed for more than five minute. 

Lillehammer 1994

Cross-country crazed fans packed the Birkebeiner Ski Stadium stands at the Lillehammer Olympic Games. To the delight of the home crowd, Norway’s Bjoern Daehlie won four medals. It was Daehlie second straight four-medal Olympics.  

Charging through a sea of Norwegian flags surrounding the course, Italy’s Silvio Fauner outsprinted Daehlie in the final 100 meters to win the relay by just four-tenths of a second, in what is considered the most exciting race in Olympic Winter Games history. 

Russia’s Lyubov Yegorova won three gold medals to bring her career total to six, but her legacy was tarnished when she tested positive for a banned substance at the 1997 World Championships. After getting caught, Yegorova admitted to taking the stimulant Bromantan over the past three years. Italy’s Manuela Di Centa won medals in all five events in Lillehammer: two golds, two silvers and a bronze. 

Albertville 1992

The removal of one race from the men’s program resulted in the addition two new events in Albertville. The 15km race cut and replaced a 10km classical race and a 15km freestyle pursuit.  

Norway swept the men’s gold medals. Soon-to-be Norwegian legend Bjoern Daehlie made his Olympic debut in 1992. Daehlie and his teammate Vegard Ulvang would finish the Games with three gold medals apiece.  

The women’s program also grew to five events. Skiing for the Unified Team, Russians Lyubov Yegorova and Yelena Valbe won medals in every event, five for each, to be exact. Yegorova left Albertville with three golds and two silvers and Valbe had four bronze and a gold.  

Calgary 1988

In a first for cross-country skiing at an Olympics, skiing techniques – classical and freestyle – were assigned to specific events. U.S. cross-country skier and Olympic silver medalist, Bill Koch first used his skating style, now known as freestyle, in an Olympic distance event in 1976. Classical events had to be skied using the kick-and-glide or diagonal stride, but in freestyle events, athletes had the option to choose. Everyone chose freestyle.  

The Soviet women won seven of nine individual medals and gold in the 4x5km relay in Calgary. Finland’s Marjo Matikainen was the only non-Soviet medal winner, having overcome childhood polio, she won the 5km classical and three medals overall. 

Sweden’s Gunde Svan returned to match his gold medal take from Sarajevo, this time winning the 50km while helping successfully defend Sweden’s relay win from four years earlier.  

Sarajevo 1984

The women’s cross-country program grew to four events with the addition of the 20km race in Sarajevo. Finland’s Marja-Liisa Hamalainen won medals in all four races, gold in every individual event and bronze in the relay. 

Swedish teammates Gunde Svan and Thomas Wassberg racked up the medals in the men’s events. Svan won gold in the 15km, bronze in the 30km, and finished second to Wassberg in the 50km. Both men also raced to gold in the relay. Soviet Nikolai Zimyatov defended his 30km title, having to ski through a blizzard to win his fourth career Olympic gold medal. 

Lake Placid 1980

The Soviet Union’s Nikolai Zimyatov won three gold medals, becoming the first skier to win both the 30km and 50km at the same Olympic Games. Zimyatov was also part of the gold medal-winning relay team. 

Since the 1972 Olympics, cross-country races were timed down to the hundredth of a second. In 1980, Finland’s Juha Mieto missed gold by one one-hundredth of a second, losing to Sweden’s Thomas Wassberg in the 15km race. It was the second time Mieto dropped a spot due to the clock. In 1972, he finished fourth in the same event, missing out on bronze by six-hundredths of a second. After the 15km in Lake Placid, officials would declare all future cross-country races would be rounded to the nearest tenth of a second. 

East Germany’s Barbara Petzold was the surprise winner of the 10km race; she also anchored East Germany’s victorious 4x5km relay. The Soviet Union’s Galina Kulakova returned for her fourth Olympics, winning career medal number eight, a silver, in the relay. 

Innsbruck 1976

Bill Koch of Guilford, Vermont, won the U.S.’s first and, to date, only Olympic cross-country skiing medal when he finished second in the 30km race. No U.S. reporter was present to witness Koch’s silver medal-winning performance. It was Koch, who in 1982, revolutionized cross-country skiing by introducing the skating, or freestyle, technique to Olympic-distance races. Koch is also known for his waxing technique he called “going harries,” or scuffing the bottom of the ski for better traction. 

Three-time gold medalist, the Soviet Union’s Galina Kulakova finished third in the 5km, only to be disqualified for using a nasal spray that contained the banned substance ephedrine. Despite the DQ, Kulakova was allowed to race in the 10km where she won bronze, and the relay where the Soviets won gold. For the first time, the women’s relay event consisted of teams of four women, instead of the previous three, skiing five kilometers each. 

Sapporo 1972

Galina Kulakova won gold in each of the three women’s Olympic events, replicating Klavdija Bojarskikh’s 1964 performance, for the Soviet Union. 

Men’s 30km winner Vyacheslav Vedenin became the first Soviet man to win an individual Olympic gold medal in cross-country. Vedenin also won gold in the relay and an individual bronze.

Grenoble 1968

To kick off the Olympic cross-country competition in Grenoble, Italy’s Franco Nones became the first non-Soviet, non-Scandinavian Olympic champion in cross-country skiing when he won gold in the men’s 30km.  

Three-time silver medalist Harald Gronningen of Norway finally beat his friend Finland’s Eero Mantyranta to win the 15km. Gronningen won a second gold medal in the men’s relay, as Norway won that event for the first time in history.  

Sweden’s Toini Gustafsson won two individual gold medals and a silver in the relay of the women's competition.

Innsbruck 1964

Finland’s Eero Mantyranta, a border patrol officer, and Norway’s Harald Gronningen, a salmon fisher and strawberry farmer, finished first and second, respectively, in both the 15km and 30km races. Sweden beat Finland in another closely-contested men’s relay.  

Mantyranta became an early example of an athlete suspected of using performance enhancement measures at an Olympic Games when he was accused of blood doping. Tests revealed his red blood count was significantly higher than his competitors. Further tests on Mantyranta’s family members confirmed the Finn, and his family, had an invaluable genetic mutation – especially for a cross-country skier – which increased his production of red blood cells, providing superior oxygen delivery throughout the skier’s body.   

A 5km race became the women’s third event in the Olympic program. Klavdija Bojarskikh, a teacher from Siberia, won gold in every event, as she won the 5km, 10km and anchored the Soviet Union’s relay team.

Squaw Valley 1960

Favoring younger athletes, the Norwegian cross-country team initially left 1956 Olympian Haakon Brusveen off the roster. A public campaign pressured Norwegian officials to add Brusveen to the team, and at the Olympic Games, he won gold in the 15km race. Brusveen’s good luck ran out when Finland’s Veikko Hakulinen caught him in the final two kilometers of the relay, beating Norway’s people’s champion by no more than three feet. 

Soviet cross-country skier and a working seamstress, Maria Gusakova, led a Soviet sweep of the top four places in the women’s 10km. However, in the relay, an event they were expected to win, the Soviet team took home silver for the second straight Olympic Games.

Cortina D’Ampezzo 1956

Athletes from the Soviet Union first competed at the Olympic Winter Games in 1956, and they made an immediate impact in the sport of cross-country skiing. The Soviets won the men’s relay after building what proved to be an insurmountable lead in the first two legs. It was the first time a non-Scandinavian athlete won an Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing. 

The women’s cross-country program was expanded to two events, when the new 3x5km relay was added for the Games. Athletes from the Soviet Union won gold and silver in the 10km event but were upset by the Finns in the relay. The Finnish women benefited from “waxing genius” coach, Veli Saarinen. 

Oslo 1952

The Olympic Nordic events were held at Holmenkollen, a mountain near Oslo where cross-country competitions had been held since 1900. Women’s cross-country skiing debuted in Oslo and Lydia Wideman led a Finnish sweep in the 10km race. In the men’s competition, Finland won four of six men’s individual medals, in addition to winning gold in the relay.  

Finland’s first cross-country Olympic medalist, turned coach, Veli Saarinen, no doubt helped his Finnish team when he decided to do something out of the ordinary – rewax his skiers’ skis based on the weather conditions on the mountain. 

St. Moritz 1948

Sweden swept all three cross-country gold medals when the Olympic Games returned to St. Moritz in 1948. Sweden won five of six individual medals in addition to gold in the relay by a nine minute margin. The 1948 St. Moritz Olympics were the first Olympic Winter Games since the end of World War II.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1936

In 1936, the addition of the men’s 4x10km relay brought the Olympic cross-country program up to three events. The 50km and 18km individual events were both won by Swedes, but Kalle Jalkanen led Finland to the gold medal in the first Olympic cross-country skiing relay. Skiing the final leg, Jalkanen was more than a minute behind Norway’s Bjarne Iversen, but overtook the Norwegian, beating him to the line by six seconds.

Lake Placid 1932

Finland’s Veli Saarinen won Finland’s first Olympic medals in cross-country in 1932. After taking bronze in the 18km race, Saarinen battled an Adirondack blizzard, as well as his fellow competitors, to win gold in the 50km event.

St. Moritz 1928

The same two events were held in cross-country at the 1929 St. Moritz Olympic Games as they had four years earlier – a 50km race and an 18km race, both for men. In the 50km, Sweden’s Per-Erik Hedlund won the gold medal by more than 13 minutes, the largest margin of victory in the history of Olympic cross-country skiing.  

The race started with an air temperature near zero, but the mercury would rise to 77 degrees by the end of competition. This led to times being more than 70 minutes slower than the previous Olympic times from Chamonix. Norway swept the podium in the 18km race.

Chamonix 1924

Thorleif Haug led a Norwegian sweep of the top four spots in the 50km race, crossing the finish line with a time of 3 hours, 44 minutes and 32 seconds. Haug won the only other cross-country event in 1924, the 18km race. Not content with winning two golds, Haug entered and won his third gold medal in the individual event in Nordic combined. The same three athletes that topped the podium in the 50km cross-country event also won gold, silver and bronze (in the same order) in the Nordic combined competition.