Downhill skiing is like going to a Kiss concert. It's big, flashy, you're on the edge of your seat, and there's a chance of serious injury. Cross-Country Skiing, on the other hand, is like going to the symphony. There is technical precision, grace, and about halfway through, you realize the seats are a lot less comfortable than you thought they'd be. While a typical downhill run lasts somewhere in the 2-3 minute range, it may take upwards of 2 hours to win a Cross-Country race.
Just because Cross-Country Skiing might sound boring to the typical American sports fan does not mean it isn't a sport that can draw huge crowds. According to an article in Sports Illustrated, about 250,000 people showed up to watch the 50K race at the Lillehammer games in Norway in 1994. In a country of only 4 million people, that's roughly 1/16th of their population. In America, this would roughly compare to the entire state of New York (about 20 million people) showing up to watch an event. That's almost incomprehensible. For another comparison, roughly the same amount of people showed up to watch that race that show up for the Daytona 500. Wow.
Men's 30 km Pursuit (15 Classic+15 Free)
Ladies' 15 km Pursuit (7.5 Classic+7.5 Free)
Men's Individual Sprint Classic
Ladies' Individual Sprint Classic
Men's Team Sprint Free
Ladies' Team Sprint Free
Men's 4x10 km Relay Classic/Free
Ladies' 4x5 km Relay Classic/Free
Men's 15 km Individual Free
Ladies' 10 km Individual Free
Men's 50 km, Mass Start Classic
Ladies' 30 km, Mass Start Classic
For many people in frigid countries, cross-country skiing is the equivalent of running in some African nations (such as Kenya). On the men's side the sport has been dominated by Norway, Finland, and Russia.
There are six different types of events in the Cross-Country category, and both men and women compete in all six. There are two different "techniques" of skiing that are used. The traditional "Classic" technique where the skis are parallel. For the Olympics, "Classic" events feature machine-carved tracks in the snow so as not to force any skier to have to plow their way through fresh snow. The "Free" technique is more akin to ice skating in it's movements.
For the Individual events, competitors start 30 seconds apart and are timed from start to finish. The skier with the shortest time wins. The "Mass Start" event is essentially like a marathon. Skiers all start at the same point and race to the finish line. The first one to cross the finish line wins. The "Pursuit" is a combination of styles. For the first half of the race, skiers ski in the classic technique. At the halfway mark, they make a pit stop to change skis and take off in the free technique for the finish line. Like the "Mass Start" event, skiers in Pursuit all start at the same time. The "Individual Sprint" event features a staggered start where skiers cover a short distance (a little over a kilometer). After the first round, the top 30 skiers advance to a bracketed tournament with 6 skiers in each heat. The top 2 from each heat advance to the next round. After the semi-finals the top 4 skiers go to "Final A" where they compete for medals and the next 4 go to "Final B."
Finally, there are two team events. We don't really know how to describe them, so we're going to be lazy and copy-paste from the Olympics web site.
Team Sprint - "Teams consist of two athletes who alternate skiing the sprint course, three times each, for a total of six laps. After an initial semi-final round, consisting of 10-15 teams in each heat, the best five teams from two semi-finals qualify for the final round. Athletes must perform a correct exchange between laps by physically touching their teammate without interfering or obstructing other teams. The winning team is the first team to cross the finish line after the completion of all six laps."
Relay - "Teams of four ski the first two legs of the relay using the classic technique, and the last two legs using free technique. The relay begins in a mass start format with teams lined up in rows; the exchange between skiers is similar to that in the team sprint competition. The winning team is the first to cross the finish line after the fourth leg of the relay has been completed."
This one has way too many events to try to pick out individual favorites. Chances are, they'll come from Norway, Finland, or Russia.
The US doesn't have much in the way of Cross-Country tradition or culture the way Norway, Sweden, Finland, or Russia do. However Alaskan Kikkan Randall won a World Cup Sprint race in Russia in 2007. She followed that up by coming in second at the World Championships in the Sprint.
The Steelers n'at Picks: Someone from Norway or Finland. Why? Because they're not Russian.
Three Rivers Burgh Blog Picks: Screw Russia. U.S.A