After nearly a decade of nurturing the participation of girls and women, the leaders of 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 Milan-Cortina, Italy in 2026, 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, the former Norwegian ski jumper who is a race director for Nordic combined. “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 Nordic combined, said during an interview from Finland, where she is training. “Every athlete strives to be 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 full-time college on hold to pursue Nordic combined, hoping to be in the first group of women to compete in the event at 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 be strong enough to power through cross country races but light enough to fly far 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 a cause of major concern in northern Europe, where Nordic combined is among the most popular of 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 Nordic combined. 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 spokesman for the I.O.C. confirmed that the sports program for Milan-Cortina is on the agenda for the next executive board meeting, and that the program commission will make recommendations but “all the rest is speculation.”
Officials with Nordic combined and the leaders of FIS, skiing’s world governing body, have been told the issue for the I.O.C. 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 did not exist a decade ago. Big air for skiing was added just this year.
Also, while I.O.C. officials acknowledge that Nordic combined has established major women’s competitions, officials with Nordic combined say there is concern that the countries that participate and excel include the usual list of the Winter Olympic stalwarts, and there is little potential for top competitors from South America, Africa or Asian countries besides Japan.
A century ago, when cross-country skiing and ski jumping were essentially the only kinds 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 tantamount to moving the goal posts. I.O.C. officials told the sport it needed 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 to hold a women’s competition Olympic 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 I.O.C. will keep its numbers down and eliminate the gender inequity problem by getting rid of Nordic combined altogether.
“We are afraid,” said Horst Huttel, the director of Nordic events for Germany.
Nick Hendrickson, the team director for the U.S. Nordic combined team, said he has seen this circumstance before, but with a far different outcome. His sister, Sarah, was in 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, funding for the sport increased and the level of competition took off, as 13-year-old girls looked at it a viable route to 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 being allowed to keep it going by being 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.