History of Cross Country Skiing

History Of Crosscountry Skiing

Skiing is one of the oldest sports in the world. It is surprising how the sport has evolved over the years to become one of the most anticipated Olympic activities.

Many sports enthusiasts around the world have come into contact with the sport at a point in their life but, arguably very few have had the chance to experience cross-country skiing.

This is a form of skiing that is practiced around the world, not only as a recreational activity but as a mode of transport as well. People in snowy regions around the world have for centuries skied from one point to another- compared to walking; gliding through the snow is faster and less daunting.

When Did Cross Country Skiing Start?

Cross-country skiing is believed to have started in the 19th century as a mode of transport among people living in the snowy regions of what is today the Scandinavian region. It is the earliest skiing technique and was initially used by firewood gatherers who at the time had to travel long distances during the winter.

With the limited media attention, cross-country skiing is yet to gain as much acknowledgment on the global scene as other forms of skiing. Most people, probably our readers also included, know very little or nothing about this old-age recreational activity.

Well, in this article we’ll tell you how it came to be and how it has evolved over the years. By the end of this article, If you leave even with a slight view of cross country race, we feel we have done our bit…

cross country skiing origin

Cross Country Skiing Origin And Brief History

Cross-country skiing dates back a Millennia from when it evolved into the sport we know today. The transformation is so severe that experts believe the cross-country races we watch today are a complete flip of what the initial cross-country skiers in the Nordic countries enjoyed.

The Nordic people were among the first cross-country skiers in the world, hence the word ski which is a norwegian word.

It is believed that around 5000 years ago, the Chinese, Russians, and Sami (Scandinavians) developed the first skis for use in hunting activities and later as a mode of transport. There’s also a notion that they held the first traditional cross country race.

As early as the 1200s, the Swedes and Norwegians were employing skiing techniques in their military activities.

The Norwegian clan of Berkebeiner was so advanced in their skiing methods that when the war in 1206 got out of hand they managed to whisk away their infant monarch to safety despite the long distance and intensified attacks.

Compared to today’s skiing, early skiing was in multiple aspects different. For starters, the cross country skier of the time supported himself on a single long stick (pole) or spear for the soldiers. The two skis were also not equally sized as one was longer. The longer one served as the gliding tool while the shorter one provided traction and support.

Modern skiing owes its existence to Schack Rantzau, who used his General’s position to initiate military skiing contests in the Norwegian military. He organized the events into four classes where the soldiers covered different distances on each level.

The first military skiing contests under his watch happened in 1767 and laid the foundation for what modern cross-country skiers enjoy.

To promote endurance, the early skiers had to hold on to their rifles at all times and complete the skiing distances, some of which were pretty long. This form of long-distance cross country competitions in mountainous terrain is considered similar to modern cross-country skiing except for a few areas.

cross country skiing in olympics

History Of Cross Country Skiing In The Olympics

With the summer games in high gear in the 1920s, the International Olympic Committee spotted the need to come up with a winter sport as well. After extensive consultations, the committee settled on cross country skiing and the first Olympic cross country skiing competitions were held in 1924.

The races were part of 16 events that were staged in the first-ever Winter Olympics games in the French’s Chamonix. The list of Olympic skiing events that year included Nordic combined, military patrol which was later replaced by biathlon, and the much-hyped ski jumping.

Key Dates In The History Of Cross Country Skiing History

6000 BCE

The native inhabitants of modern-day Northern Russia make and use primitively designed skis. These artifacts are stored in museums up to date.

3500 BCE

The first chronicling of skiing activity among Nordic people takes place. Cave art portraying a skier using the single pole style was discovered in what is today Norway.

3000 BCE

Indigenous employment of skis is chronicled in caves in modern-day china.

225 BCE

The first written description of native skiing activity among the Dingling people is recorded by Chinese scholars. They are believed to have practiced skiing in their indigenous home, the Altay Mountains.

cross country historical dates


Historian Procopius records skiing among the Sami people. The Sami were the original inhabitants of modern-day Finland, Russia, Northern Sweden, and Norway. They are believed to have acquired skiing skills almost millennia before.


Warring clans in ancient Norway practice advanced skiing. The Berkebeiners for example are known to have saved their infant leader by skiing him to safety during intense warfare.


The first long skiing race happens under the stewardship of Schack Carl Rantzau.


The Norwegians hold the first public ski competition in Tromso.


The ski binding is invented by Sondre Norheim. He was among the pioneer skiers in history.


The two-pole skiing style is introduced to replace the one-pole technique.


The French hold the first winter Olympic games. The skiing pioneers, the Norwegians win in the cross-country skiing races. It is also this year that the FIS is established-it replaced the previous body, the international ski congress.


Bill Koch, an American skier dominates the cross country skiing world cup competitions. It is the first public display of the skating technique in world championships.


Olympic cross-country skiing events are categorized for the first time in the classic and free technique groups.


The Winter Olympic games experience the first ever cross-country pursuit race.

Transformation Of Cross Country Ski Equipment

The Transformation Of Cross Country Ski Equipment And Techniques Over The Years

Much of what today’s cross-country skiing equipment entails came into the scene in the mid-to-late 20th century- it is from here that today’s cross country skiing evolved. Almost every part of the initial equipment set has been replaced by lighter and stronger pieces. The ski and pole lengths were the first to evolve with the introduction of new designs which held onto the feet much better and reduced the risks of injury.

The boots and propulsion poles have changed over the years as well with the modern ones featuring firmer grips and better contact with the ground.

At the apex of this revolution sits the skate skiing style which strengthened cross-country skiing’s penetration into the world championships . This technique which entails increased use of the back ski was initially designed for use in ski marathons and ski travel although you can now spot it among recreational skiers.

Not much was known about this new technique until 1982 when cross-country skiing legend Bill Koch skate-skied himself to the world championships . Like most style developments, the skate skiing technique faced massive acceptance from fellow skiers and the international ski federation-there were sanctions on skate skiing races among skiing events.

It was only in 1988 that the restrictions on skate skiing were lifted and the Olympic organizer allowed participants in the 1988 winter Olympic games to skate in the winter sports and other world championships.

The skating technique is different from the conventional cross-country gliding motion technique.

The traditional style involves parallel placement of skis and constant backward kicking to effect forward movement.

In the skate skiing style, on the other hand, the skier only needs to push the ski outwards and backward simultaneously. With the skier pushing this way, they gain speed much faster and more easily- it can be likened to ice skating although not entirely.

The equipment used in the two styles is also different with the older option utilizing more extensive skis and shorter poles. The boots used in classic style skiing were also made flexible to allow ankle movement and gliding.

The recent style is a little different. The skis have been shortened and the poles lengthened. The boots too have been modified to incorporate ankle supporters which offer easier and more stable gliding on the snow covered terrain.

change in historic ski designs

Ski Designs

As mentioned earlier, ski designs and pole lengths for the two skiing styles are worlds apart. The traditional skis came with a grip zone right under the binding.

A cross-country ski’s bottom is designed primarily to offer a gliding surface although the previous designs accommodated a traction zone too.

You will notice that most ski bases are made out of plastic-this material glides better over the snow beneath . Plastic is also easier to wax, ski waxing dates back to the first skiing Olympic years.

For skate skis, the glide wax is spread along the entire length while for the classic style skis, the waxing is limited to the tips and tails.

The difference in lengths between the skis is mainly due to the effects ski lengths have on usability. Skiing experts are witnesses to how a ski’s length can determine its maneuverability while the camber determines the pressure exerted under the skier’s feet.

The type of side cuts and width will determine how easy to turn the ski will be and the amount of friction you will be up against.

The snow affects bearing capacity in competitive skiing. This is also an important aspect that you can control by selecting the ski with just the right overall area. Other aspects of the ski you can look at include the tip geometry; it affects the ski’s penetration power and direction.

Initial Ski Designs

These are designed for use on tracks and the sizes depend on the skier’s height. Since most skiers are adults, the lengths range from 180 to 210 centimeters. For custom designs, the recommended length is anything not more than 115% of the user’s height.

The skis come in two types, waxable and waxless. The former is built to withstand intensive use and can deliver better performance in competitive cross country skiing. The latter on the other hand is built for recreational cross country skiing.

Skate Ski Designs

The modern and much more advanced skate ski is designed with the glide zone spanning the entire length-this offers a better skiing experience.

To gain traction, the skier must push towards the forward ski and away from the previous one simultaneously. The standard lengths range from 170 to 200 centimeters although you can always get a custom-made one, it should however not exceed 110% of your total height.

cross country skiing rules

Important Cross Country Skiing Rules

Skiing as a sport runs under rules which every skier must meet if they are to be declared winners. These rules are mainly there to maintain coexistence among racers on the track and promote sportsmanship.

Event Formats

Competitive cross country skiing races are divided into two main groups; sprints which are described as short races and distance competitions which feature long races like marathons.

Races are also divided in genders with the females racing shorter distances in most cases.

In the sprint races, the skiers only need to complete a short quick burst prologue from where they qualify for the quarter-finals. It can be a short sprint or a team sprint. Sprints are usually shorter than 1.8 kilometers although the distance can be altered depending on the administrative body.

Skiers in Distance competitions on the other hand have to cover longer distances. The moderate race for distance competitions is roughly 10-15 kilometers long while the skiathlon race distance spans between 30-50 kilometers.

There’s also a short relay that spans around 5 kilometers although some tracks can push skiers to the 7.5 kilometers mark.

Finally, the longest cross-country skiing race, the ski marathon is the longest. Here, skiers must cover up to 40 kilometers. The marathon race is mostly open to the public; it can feature as many as a thousand skiers.

Technique Guidelines

Here, the main techniques you can expect are; classic skiing and free. Classical style skiers, also called diagonal skiers, have to maintain their skis within the prepared tracks throughout the race.

Classic skiers prepare their skis by grip waxing-this allows them to employ downward and outward force during propulsion.

The second technique; the free or skating method constitutes outward pushing of the ski edges to effect forward movement. Unlike their classic counterparts, the free technique skiers are allowed to lift their skis out of the tracks when pushing.

All sanctioned cross-country skiing competitions employ one of these techniques except in the case of skiathlon races. In skiathlon skiing, racers are allowed to employ each technique partially to improve performance and maybe tap into either side’s benefits.

track rules

Track Rules

For a track to host a cross-country skiing event, it must be sanctioned by the governing body-the FIS. The inspection and approval process is called homologation.

The most common requirement is a track width spanning not less than 4 meters and no more than 9 meters.

Classic tracks must meet the two-parallel grooves rule; the snow covered terrain must be divided into two.

Courses are expected to offer all the competitors equal opportunities; equal lengths of snow travel, occasional climbs and downhill runs among other forms of technical challenges.

The course distance can range from 1.8 Kilometers to 10 Kilometers depending on the amount of snow covered terrain- in most courses, the skiers go around the same area more than once in a single race.

Equipment Guidelines

In skiing competitions especially in the Olympics, all the equipment on the track must be sanctioned to promote fairness. That includes the poles, boots, skis, and even binding.

The regulatory body might require the skiers to wear identification numbers and GPS devices among other tracking tools.

Ski shapes must be conventional and of normal length and weight. The longest recorded ski should not be anything below the skier’s height minus 100mm while the weight is not expected to fall below 750g.

For classic competitions, the maximum pole length is set at 83% of the skier’s height and 100% for skating competitions.

Other support items like boots must be conventional and without any form of mechanical propulsion like springs.

starting rules for cross country skiing

Starting Procedures

Cross-country skiing as an event in the winter sports employs 4 main starting methods which employ completely different rules. These are interval, pursuit, heat, and mass.

In the first method; interval, the skiers depart at specific intervals and the skier with the shortest time on the track wins. The intervals are usually 15-30 seconds apart depending on the administrators’ judgment.

The pursuit method is in some way similar to the interval system only that the interval period is determined by the outcome of a previous race.

The heat procedure is a little different. The skiers are grouped into small fractions and each unit starts the race together and under the same conditions.

The last method, mass, is the easiest. All the skiers position themselves on the track at the same time and start together – the first racer to hit the finish line wins.

Bottom Line

Cross-country skiing is closely linked to the Nordic people- from the article above, it’s pretty clear why, even “ski” is a norwegian word.. This rather demanding sport was a pioneer in the winter Olympic games and continues to dominate the winter games until today.

From the indigenous logs and sticks used in the nordic countries in the early years, the sport and recreational activity has evolved over the years to incorporate more advanced equipment like firmer skis, boots, bindings, and personalised sized poles.

Aside from the equipment, other notably developed aspects include the adoption of safer skiing techniques and the recognition of cross-country skiing as an Olympic sport.

Thanks for sticking by and we hope the article has provided you enough insight into the fascinating world of cross-country skiing


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Picture of Lisa Hayden-Matthews

Lisa Hayden-Matthews

An avid Skier, bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.
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