Cross-Country 101: Rules and event breakdown


Cross-country events are broken down into six competition formats: Individual, Sprint, Team Sprint, Skiathlon, Relay and Mass Start. Each competition includes a men’s and women’s event, with the women racing on a slightly shorter course.

Classical cross-country skiing (aka kick-and-glide or diagonal) and freestyle (aka skating style) are the most basic forms of two skiing techniques used in cross-country races. Skiing techniques are not exclusive to any event or distance, and the FIS designates which technique will be used for each event. For example, at the 2014 Sochi Olympics the men’s 50km mass start was raced using freestyle, but in PyeongChang the 50km will be raced using the classical technique..

Two types of race starts are used in cross-country skiing – interval and mass start. In an interval start, racers leave the start gate one after another every 30 seconds and ski against the clock. The second type of start, the mass start, is the traditional “first to the finish wins” race style.

Listed below are the six competition formats set to be contended at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games, plus a quick primer on what is and isn’t allowed by athletes while racing in a classical race.

Men’s distance: 15km

Women’s distance: 10km

Skiing Technique: Freestyle

Race start format: Interval

Skiers begin the individual events by departing the starting gate one at a time, every 30 seconds. On the course, slower skiers are expected to yield to their faster competitors as they are overtaken, but no matter when a skier crosses the finish line, it’s the time they clock that will determine who leaves with the hardware. 

Men’s distance: 1.8km

Women’s distance: 1.3km

Skiing Technique: Classical

Race start format: Heats

It’s cross-country ski racing, with the twist of a playoff format. A qualification race opens this event with skiers attacking the course one at a time, and the top 30 advancing on to the quarterfinals. Things get interesting in the quarterfinals when the field is divided into groups of six across five heats.

A total of ten skiers, the first and second place finishers in the quarterfinal heats, plus two lucky losers, will automatically advance to the semifinals. Lucky losers are those skiers with the two best times from the quarterfinal heats, but did not finish in the top two in their races. In two semifinal hets the top two finishers automatically advance to the final, with a shot at winning a medal. Two more lucky losers, those skiers with the fifth and sixth fastest semifinal times, also advance to the final.

Ask any European cross-country fan and they’ll probably describe the atmosphere at a cross-country sprint event as electric. The addition of the event in 2002 during the Salt Lake City Olympic Games brought an exciting race to the uninitiated spectators of the West.

Team Sprint 
Men’s distance: 1.8km

Women’s distance: 1.3km

Skiing Technique: Freestyle

Race start format: Mass start

Teams of two race nearly seven miles for the men and five miles for the women, alternating laps for a total of six laps, in the team sprint. The team sprint has a short Olympic history having debuted at the 2006 Torino Olympic Games. The event begins with two semifinal races. The top two finishing teams advance to the final, along with six more lucky losers.

In Sochi, NBC Olympics’ Chad Salmela described the team sprint as “organized torture,” with a start-and-stop format requiring skiers to repeatedly grind it out on the course while their teammate attempts to stay loose for their next go-round until the finish.

Men’s distance: 15km + 15km

Women’s distance: 7.5km + 7.5km

Skiing technique: Both Classical and Freestyle

Race start format: Mass start

Skiathlon is a test for athletes in both cross-country skiing techniques, classical and freestyle. It folds these two racing styles into one brutal, contiguous event. The men race back-to-back 15km, back-to-back 7.5km for the women, skiing the first half in classical technique and the second using freestyle.

Something you’ll only see in Skiathlon, athletes quickly swap the tackier-waxed classical skis for slipperier freestyle skis midway through the race. Different blends of wax are used for classical racing and freestyle racing, leading to athletes clicking out of one pair of skis and into another before beginning the freestyle stage of the Skiathlon. 

Men’s distance: 4x10km

Women’s distance: 4x5km

Skiing Technique: Legs 1 & 2 (Classical), Legs 3 & 4 (Freestyle)

Race start format: Mass start

In the relay, athletes click into their skis as a team and face off for one of the most sought after cross-country medals at the Olympic Games. The first two legs of the relay are skied using classical technique while the final two are raced using freestyle, requiring teams to carefully set their team lineup. With no way to carry or even pass a baton to the next skier up while holding ski poles, cross-country athletes tag their teammates inside an exchange zone, to make the switch between legs of the race. 

Watch Sweden’s men in PyeongChang as they attempt to win their third straight Olympic gold medal in the relay. 

Mass Start
Men’s distance: 50km

Women’s distance: 30km

Skiing Technique: Classical

Race start format: You guessed it, a mass start!

Officially known as the Men’s 50km and Women’s 30km Classical race, the start lists for these two events include as many as 50 athletes. The mass start event at the Olympics truly lives up to its name. It is often called the marathon of the winter Olympic Games, but in reality, the men’s race eclipses a marathon’s 26.2 mile span by nearly five miles. Like the marathon at the summer Olympics, the mass starts are held on the final day of the Olympic Games, serving as an exhaustive showcase of endurance after 16 days of Nordic competition.

Classical Technique Violations

In order to preserve the integrity of a classical cross-country ski race, officials are spread across the race course looking for technique violations. Violations commonly occur in the following situations:

On the corners

If tracks exist on a corner, racers must stay within those tracks by using classical technique. If no track exists on a corner, racers are allowed to use a turning technique by pushing off the inside of one ski to complete the turn. Sections of the course where a turning technique is allowed are marked for the racers.

Switching tracks

Changing tracks in the middle of the race is legal. A cross-country racer will step from one set of tracks to another in attempt to improve their position. If a racer changes tracks repeatedly, especially on hills where the steps can give them more power to ski the incline, they will be assessed a violation.

Herringbone technique

Stomping up hills with skis in a V-pattern, known as herringbone technique, is legal until the skis begin to slide out from under the racer. Once a ski begins to slip, a racer has a tendency to push off from the inside edges. This is considered skating or freestyle technique, and the racer will be assessed a violation.


If a racer is assessed two violations in a single race, referred to as yellow cards, that skier will be disqualified from the event.

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