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Steamboat Magazine

A Future in Jeopardy: The State of Nordic Combined

12/08/2022 08:00AM ● By Suzi Magill
(Photo: Nordic combined skier Annika Malacinski competes in the 2021 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany. COURTESY OF NORDICFOCUS) 

Steamboat Springs, CO - Nordic Combined, a grueling combination of cross-country skiing and ski jumping, was one of the 14 events at the original 1924 Winter Olympic Games. Now, almost 100 years later, the sport’s competitive future is in question.   

On June 24, the International Olympic Committee denied women’s Nordic combined entry into the 2026 Milano-Cortina Games. Dropping the men’s event was judged unfair to athletes only three and a half years before the games, but the IOC made no guarantee that Nordic combined – men’s or women’s – would have a spot in the 2030 Olympic lineup. 

The IOC cited a lack of popularity, diversity and relevance in the sport. As more events are added to the Olympics, time and money constraints force elimination, and the IOC trends toward sports that bring the largest audiences and most athletes. 

“Now we’re going to play a game of popularity instead of legacy and tradition?” asks Todd Wilson, ski jumping and Nordic combined program director. “Nordic combined was never meant to be popular and raise money. That’s not the point. It’s not the point in any of these events.”

The IOC claimed that women’s Nordic combined needs more athletes and a bigger audience to warrant Olympic inclusion, echoing the same argument from 2018 when they denied women’s Nordic combined entry into the 2022 Beijing Olympics. 

After its first denial, women’s Nordic combined skiers and coaches worked tirelessly to grow the sport. In 2018, Norway hosted the first-ever Continental Cup for Women’s Nordic Combined. In 2019, the Junior World Ski Championships included Women’s Nordic Combined, and in 2020, girls competed in Nordic combined at the Youth Olympic Games. The next step for girls in the sport seems to be the Olympics, but the IOC claims the sport still has not grown enough. 

“They basically tied our hands and feet together, threw us into the water, and then told us to swim,” says Annika Malacinski, the top-ranked American women’s Nordic combined athlete, and a Steamboat local. 

Without the Olympics, women’s Nordic combined could lose steam. Mani Cooper, Great Britain’s first female Nordic combined athlete, was forced to quit her sport after the decision of the Olympic Committee. Team Great Britain only supports Olympic athletes. 

Wilson sees this decision as a part of a larger trend in skiing towards specialization. Skimeister events, where athletes compete in downhill, slalom, ski jumping and cross-country skiing, continue to decline steadily. Nordic combined and  Alpine combined are what’s left, but Alpine combined is also  on the verge of elimination. Many athletes and officials argue that a skier cannot compete at the highest level in both downhill and slalom. 

“It forces youth to specialize at an earlier age,” Wilson explains. “I think it’s really important that we stay connected to legacy and history, and I just think it’s very good for development.” 

Wilson remains optimistic about the sport as a whole. The NCAA dropped ski jumping in 1980, and Nordic Combined lost funding from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association in 2014. Still, the sport remained. 

“We’re resilient, and we’re used to hard knocks, and it’s another bump in the road,” Wilson says. “One opportunity out of many is gone, but I don’t think that means we take our ball and go home. If there’s an interest and a passion to do this sport, then we will continue. We’re still able to do what we do, using this vehicle to teach life skills.”

Malacinski has worked since she was 16 with the end goal of the Olympics. The IOC’s decision forced her to reevaluate her path. “I think that’s everyone’s childhood dream, and that was ripped away from me. In the moment, I thought for sure I was going to finish the season strong and maybe think about going into ski jumping or focusing on school,” Malacinski says. “I was almost forgetting that I’m doing this sport because I love it, and that’s the most important thing.”

Malacinski recently competed in the summer Grand Prix competitions in Germany and Austria and seeing girls from all over the world sharing her passion inspired her. 

“We were all together as a community. All the girls, all the guys, everyone that’s just so interested in Nordic combined,  even all the fans that came out in Germany,” Malacinski says. “It showed that there’s more than just the Olympics.”