After more than a decade of nurturing the participation of girls and women, the leaders of the Nordic Combined, one of the original Winter Olympic competitions, were fairly certain they had secured the future of their sport for years to come.
The sport, which requires excellence in both ski jumping and cross-country skiing, had established a women’s World Cup circuit and held a women’s competition at the world championships. Countries in North America, Europe and Asia all had participants.
Then came some disturbing news from the leadership of skiing’s world governing body. The people at the International Olympic Committee who are in charge of the program for the next Winter Games, scheduled for 2026 in Milan-Cortina, Italy, are skeptical that the sport has made enough progress to merit a women’s competition.
And that wasn’t the only bad news. There is concern that Nordic combined is not popular enough to merit any competition at all. As the only event without a women’s competition, Nordic combined could be a candidate for elimination, since gender equality is supposed to be a priority for the Olympics.
“Without the women, it could be a challenge for us to keep the boys,” said Lasse Ottesen, a former Norwegian ski jumper who is a race director for Nordic United. “We have a lot of history.”
A vote is scheduled for June 26.
“All of us are very frustrated,” Annika Malacinski, the top American woman in the Nordic Combined, said during an interview from Finland, where she is training. “Every athlete strikes at the elite level, which is at the Olympics. If this happens, all the training, the blood sweat and tears, is for nothing because we’re not being included in one of the most important competitions. “
Malacinski, 21, put on hold full-time college to pursue Nordic combined, hoping to compete in the first group of women to compete in the Olympics, much like the women who competed in the first women’s ski jumping competition in 2014. She trains roughly five hours a day, balancing jumping practice with endurance training and strength sessions in the gym as she tries to get strong enough to cross the cross country races but light enough to fly during the jump.
“It’s hard to believe that even in the 21st century we can experience this kind of inequality,” she said.
The potential loss of the sport is one of the major concerns in northern Europe, where Nordic combined is one of the most popular winter sports.
“Competing in the Olympics means the world to all of us,” said Marte Leinan Lund of Norway, who along with her sister, Mari, is one of the best in the world in the Nordic joint. The Leinan Lund sisters (Marte is 21 and Mari is 23), moved away from home and began attending a special school in their teens that allowed them to pursue the sport with the goal of making the Olympics. “It’s also important that men and women have the same opportunities, both in sports and in general,” Marte Leinan Lund added.
A spokeswoman for the IOC confirmed that the sports program for Milan-Cortina is on the agenda for the next executive board meeting, and that the program’s commission will make recommendations but “all the rest is speculation.”
Officials combined with Nordic and the leaders of FIS, skiing’s world governing body, have been told the issue for the IOC is not only equality but also relevance.
Organizers are trying to limit the size of the Games while also incorporating new sports that appeal to a younger generation. The breakout star of last winter’s Beijing Games was Eileen Gu, the freestyle skier who won gold medals in big air and halfpipe and a silver in slopestyle, events that didn’t exist a decade ago. Big air for skiing was added just this year.
Also, while IOC officials announce that Nordic combined has established major female competitions, officials with Nordic combined say there is concern that countries that make up and exclude the usual list of winter Olympic stalwarts, and that there is little potential for top competitors from the South. America, Africa or Asian countries besides Japan.
A century ago, when cross-country skiing and ski jumping were essentially the only types of skiing that existed, a combined event crowned the world’s greatest skier. The initial Olympics included just 16 events in nine sports. There are now more than 100 events in 15 sports. With the advent of Alpine skiing and freestyle, to say nothing of snowboarding, Nordic combined no longer defines a king (or queen) of the mountain.
Skiing officials and athletes say the criticisms of the sport are moving to the goal posts. IOC officials say the sport needs to strive for gender equality and establish a women’s competition. Its leaders did that, and they see the growing participation of girls and women as key to broadening the sport’s appeal.
They are promising to cut back on 15 slots for men and hold a women’s competition with 30 athletes, which will only add 15 people overall to the Games from their sport.
However, leaders of the sport worry that the IOC will keep its numbers down and the gender inequity problem by getting rid of the Nordic combined altogether.
“We are scared,” said Horst Huttel, director of Nordic events for Germany.
Nick Hendrickson, the team director for the US Nordic Combined Team, said he had seen this circumstance before, but with a far different outcome. His sister, Sarah, was the first group of women’s ski jumpers. She competed in the Olympics in 2014 and 2018.
Once women’s ski jumping got the green light for Olympic inclusion, increased funding for the sport and competition of the level took off, as 13-year-old girls looked at fulfilling their Olympic dreams.
“It’s a bit of the chicken or the egg,” Hendrickson said. “Women’s Nordic combined has come a very long way. The next step is to keep it going in the Olympics. That ‘s what is going to push the level of the sport. “
Without Olympic inclusion though, there may be no sport at all.