February 1, 2006
X-country a sport for the ages
GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

One of the oldest activities in the Winter Olympics, cross-country skiing dates back to prehistoric times in Scandinavian countries.

While some theorists believe the activity may have also been practised by Native Americans at the same time, most believe Norwegian emigrants Snowshoes Thompson and Jackrabbit Johannsen introduced the sport to North America.

This winter skill was used as a means of transport by explorers as well as by the Scandinavian armies.

Early equipment was made from natural materials: Wood for skis and bamboo for poles with leather hand straps.

Cross-country skiing is one of seven winter sports that have been contested at every Winter Games. The first women's cross-country event, however, was not added until the 1952 Games in Oslo, Norway.

For 2006, the men and women compete in the same six events (although not at the same distance).

They include:

* Men's events: 1.5-km sprint; 15-km classical; 50-km freestyle; team sprint; combined pursuit; and 4 x 10-km relay.

* Women's events: 1.5-km sprint; 10-km classical; 30-km freestyle; team sprint; combined pursuit; 4 x 5-km relay.

There are two styles of cross-country skiing at the Olympics:

1) Classical. Similar to ski-exercise machines, skiers use a straight stride and must stay within predetermined parallel tracks. This was the only style allowed at the Olympics until 1988.

2) Freestyle. Reminiscent of speed skaters, skiers push off with each ski on each stride. This method of skiing is much faster than classical.

The sprint competition is a single-elimination tournament that begins with 16 skiers grouped into four heats. The top two finishers in each heat advance. The process is repeated until there are four semifinalists competing for the three medals.

The combined pursuit is a classical race followed by a freestyle race. The skiers' classical time determines the staggered start for the freestyle race. Thus, the gold medal goes to the first skier to cross the freestyle-race finish line.

The relay is similar to those run in track and field. Instead of passing a baton, skiers must simply touch their teammate with their hand to initiate the next leg.

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THE EQUIPMENT

Cross-country skis are long and thin, which distributes the weight of the skier and allows him to move quickly.

Typical skis are two metres in length, about five cm wide and one to four cm thick.

The two poles are made of lightweight material, such as graphite, and differ with the skiing technique. Skating or freestyle poles are usually longer than those used for the classic technique.

Skating poles usually reach the skier's chin or eyebrows, depending on his preference.

In contrast, classic ski poles only reach the skier's armpits.

Perhaps the greatest variable to a skier's potential success is the wax used on the skis.

There are three main categories: Glide waxes, kick waxes and klisters.

Glide waxes help make the skis glide faster and are ironed on outside the kick zone of classic skis, or to the full length of skate skis. They are the only type of wax used on skating skis.

Kick wax provides grip on the snow when weight is transferred on a ski and is only used on classic skis, applied in the kick zone. Kick waxes are classified according to their hardness: Harder waxes are for colder and newer snow.

As the snow becomes older and snow flakes lose their sharpness, in case of re-freezing or water, one must resort to klister, which is basically a glue-like paste. Klister is discouraging for amateurs as it's very sticky -- easy to apply but very hard to remove.

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TRAINING

Cross-country skiing is generally acknowledged to be the best overall conditioning activity for the general public since it requires the continual use of both legs and both arms.

Exercise machines in fitness clubs have been developed to mimic the cross-country activity.

Olympic-level cross-country skiing is another matter entirely. However, one would be surprised at some of the training philosophies that have been adapted by the Olympic powerhouse Norwegians.

The first philosophical direction is to build the workout week around the high-intensity workouts.

Cross-country skiing races are won by athletes with very high maximal aerobic capacity. This capacity requires both genetics and hard training.

The athletes build their programs around two hard interval sessions per week.

In general, the emphasis is on long intervals in the three- to eight-minute range. This two hard session/week rule of thumb is a consistent feature from the junior level all the way up to the international class.

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2002 GOLD MEDALLISTS

MEN

- Combined 10km+10km Pursuit -- Thomas Alsgaard, Norway

- 15-km Classical -- Andrus Veerpalu, Estonia

- 50-km Classical -- Mikhail Ivanov, Russia

- 30-km Freestyle Mass Start -- Christian Hoffmann, Austria

- 1.5-km Sprint -- Tor Arne Hetland, Norway

- 4 x 10-km Relay -- Norway

WOMEN

- Combined 5km+5km Pursuit -- BECKIE SCOTT, Canada

- 10-km Classical -- Bente Skari, Norway

- 30-km Classical -- Gabriella Paruzzi, Italy

- 15-km Freestyle Mass Start -- Stefania Belmondo, Italy

- 1.5-km Sprint -- Julija Tchepalova, Russia

- 4 x 5-km Relay -- Germany