2018 Winter Olympics

What the Times Got Wrong About Cross-Country Skiing

There were a lot of mistakes in that recent story. Let’s set the record straight.

People find plenty of value in the sport beyond the solitary masochism that happens on the trail. (GibsonPictures/iStock)
nordic skiing

Earlier this month, the New York Times Magazine published a piece by Sam Anderson titled “What Cross-Country Skiing Reveals About the Human Condition.” By the second paragraph, it became clear that Mr. Anderson isn’t a cross country skier himself. Unsurprisingly, the story didn’t go over well with actual participants of the sport.

Among the most reviled lines of the piece is when Anderson describes cross-country skiing as an unwatchable hassle “where the elegant majesty of winter sport goes to die an excruciatingly drawn-out death.” Cross-country skiers responded with an outpouring of reactions, mostly on social media. (Sam Evans-Brown, the host of NHPR’s Outside/In podcast and a high school nordic coach, also wrote a response on Slate on Thursday). 

A favorite gripe was about Anderson’s description of cross-country skiers as “existential heroes in goggles and tights” who “strap on a helmet and slog right in.” I'm a skier myself, and while we do like to think of ourselves as heroes, we don’t wear helmets or goggles. When Anderson finished his treatise by stating that he hadn’t skied since he was a little kid, no one was all that surprised.  

Though I did fire off a few of my own angry tweets, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this might seem like we’re taking things a little too personally. And I’ll admit that Anderson doesn’t get everything wrong. Cross-country skiing is really damn hard. Arguably the toughest outdoor sport in the world, it requires a unique combination of  strength, speed, and endurance. The lateral movements of skate skiing are at once unnatural and exhausting, while the technique for proper classic skiing leaves most untrained participants feeling like they’re just shuffling around. To succeed at racing uphill, athletes have to have ridiculous VO2 maxes, and put in 800 to 1000-plus hours a year of endurance and strength training. It’s understandable that someone might give up after an uncomfortable first try and never go back. But when you keep going and actually learn the sport, it’s really fun—and Americans are just beginning to discover it. (Bragging that your sport is harder than everyone else’s is pretty fun, too.)

nordic skiing
Team USA's Jessie Diggins competes in the 2012 FIS Cross-Country World Cup. (Cephas/Wikimedia Commons)

And while it may seem alluring to describe cross-country skiing as an exercise in solitary masochism, in both culture and practice, it’s truly a team sport. That’s not just fluff talking, it’s just too damn hard to do alone. According to Snow Industries of America, over four million Americans participated in cross-country skiing in 2013, I don’t suspect those folks are hammering alone in the forest contemplating the meaning of their pain. Rather, there is a vibrant, spandex-clad community that bands together to celebrate “the sanctity of the goddamn grind,” as Anderson put it. Even the U.S. Women’s Team attributes their success to working together, wearing glitter, and having a good time. 
 
Last week, I compared cross-country skiing to watching a Tour de France stage in 20 minutes. Both cycling and skiing share group race tactics, treacherous climbs, whipping descents, and sprint finishes. Add icy snow, the grit of Olympic athletes, and a couple dance videos, and let me know if it still looks like “a brutally sustained non-thrill.” This season, the U.S. cross-country contingent is crushing it. They’ve landed 11 World Cup podiums, including two wins to add to their three World Championships medals from last season. Do you know what’s pretty thrilling to watch? Your country winning the Olympics.
 
Yes, there is an existentialist element to cross-country skiing. I’ve certainly done my fair share of philosophizing and meditating on steep climbs in dense woods. Participating in one of the hardest sports in the world in bitter cold will do that to you. But if your takeaway is that this sport is boring, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re still not convinced, let me know. I will gladly take you for a ski. 

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