What is cross-country skiing

Cross-country skiing has featured at every edition of the Winter Olympics. Sprint, team sprint, classic, skiathlon, relay and mass start events will be held at Beijing 2022.

By Aarish Ansari
Picture by 2019 Dustin Satloff

Cross-country skiing has been an integral part of the Winter Olympics, having featured at every edition since the inaugural Winter Games in 1924.

The sport tests the endurance of athletes as they race over long distances on skis, using different techniques to move forward.

Although India made their Winter Olympics debut in 1964, it wasn’t until 2006 that an Indian cross-country skier qualified for the big-ticket event.

Army man Bahadur Gupta became the first Indian to compete in a cross-country event at the Winter Games, taking part in the men’s 15km freestyle at Turin 2006.

Since then, India have sent at least one cross-country skier to the Winter Games.

Tashi Lundup qualified for the men’s 15km freestyle event at Vancouver 2010, followed by Nadeem Iqbal in the men’s 15km classical at Sochi 2014. Then Jagdish Singh represented India at Pyeongchang 2018 in the men’s 15km freestyle.

Cross-country skiing has undergone plenty of changes since debuting at the 1924 Winter Olympics.

From just two events - men’s 18km and 50km - at the 1924 Chamonix Winter Games, the list has now grown to 12 events at Beijing 2022, six each for men and women. The women’s events were added to the Olympic programme in 1952.

Styles and starts

Moreover, there are two distinct techniques of skiing that are practiced at the Winter Olympics - classical and freestyle.

The classical technique requires athletes to move both their skis forward parallelly while the freestyle technique, which is faster, needs skiers to move their feet in a side-to-side motion, much like speed skating or rollerblading. 

Also, the skis in freestyle are shorter than classical. Athletes use ski poles in both techniques to aid movement. Different techniques are designated for every event.

There are two types of starts in cross-country skiing – interval and mass start.

In interval, athletes begin their race one at a time while mass start requires all racers to start simultaneously, just like a normal sprint race.

Beijing 2022 cross-country skiing events

Sprint free

Sprint free requires competitors to finish the race using the freestyle technique. It is the shortest cross-country event at the Winter Games, being only 1.4km long for men and 1.2km for women.

Like sprint events at Summer Olympics, the individual sprint free is also held through multiple stages, starting with the qualification round. However, starts here are done at intervals.

The top 30 athletes from the qualifiers advance to the quarter-final, where they are divided into five groups of six. The list is narrowed down after every round and the final race features six athletes.

Team sprint classic

Two athletes from one country join forces in the team sprint event, which will be held using the classical technique at Beijing 2022.

Each team completes the six-lap race, with both members doing alternate laps (three for each skier). While one member races, the other rests. The total length of the race is 8.4km for men and 7.5km for women.

Team sprint begins with two semi-finals, from which 10 teams move ahead to the final.



In this individual race, competitors use the classic stroke to complete the course, which is 15km for men and 10km for women.

Each skier begins the race at an interval of 30 seconds and the skier with the fastest time wins.

There are no qualifiers or heats in this event as all skiers compete in only one race.


Skiathlon combines both skiing techniques in one event. Skiers begin the race using the classical technique and switch to freestyle at the halfway mark.

The men’s race is 30km long, meaning athletes will use classical in the first 15km and freestyle in the last 15km. Similarly, the women’s race in Beijing will be for 15km (7.5 + 7.5).

Athletes also change their skis at the mid-point to adapt to the freestyle technique.

Only one race is held for men and women each to determine the final ranking.


The relay event features four members in one team, who complete the four-legged race using both techniques. The first two legs of the relay require skiers to use the classical technique while the next two need to be done using freestyle.

The race begins in the mass start format and athletes tag their team-mates in an exchange zone to make the switch. The first team to finish all four legs is declared the winner.

The women’s relay is 4 x 5km while the men's is 4 x 10km.

Mass start

The mass start is equivalent to the marathon in the Summer Olympics, with all athletes starting the extremely demanding race together.

It is the longest cross-country skiing event – 50km for men and 30km for women. The race is held in a loop instead of one long route.

Mass start was held using the classical technique at PyeongChang 2018 but will use freestyle at Beijing 2022.

The event is usually held on the final day of the Winter Olympics.


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