Nordic Skiing and the Race to Defy Expectations in Beijing

It’s only on the cross-country trails that athletes face the quintessentially human track of slogging uphill.
Four male olympians ski uphill during the Men's CrossCountry Skiing 15km  15km Skiathlon.
Nordic skiing in a savage, windy cold requires many things, but grit above all.Photograph by Clive Rose / Getty

Many of the sports at the Winter Olympics take full advantage of physics. A bobsleigh, a luge, or a skeleton requires exceptional skill to pilot, but the basic plotline dates from that apple plummeting from a Lincolnshire tree, and the mechanics of gravity mean that it’s very hard for a lay observer to tell much difference between one run and the next. Clearly something gets one sled down the hill a few hundredths of a second faster than the next, but it’s hard to inject much story into the enterprise.

It’s more fun to watch the sports that grapple with gravity: the figure skaters trying to stay aloft long enough to land a quad; or the snowboarders who, having dispensed with the mysterious stair rails planted along the slope, go briefly and spectacularly airborne. But it’s only on the cross-country ski trails that athletes face the quintessentially human track of slogging uphill. Some (the biathletes) do this with a rifle on their backs for periodic target shooting, and others (the Nordic-combined stars) do it after flying off a ski jump. But in this Olympics the struggle is at its purest on the tracks of the National Cross-Country Skiing Center, in Zhangjiakou, about a hundred miles northwest of Beijing, where the cross-country races are being contested.