Five-ring Circus

Cross-Country Skiing Is Not a Boring Exercise in Martyrdom. It’s Actually Fun.

A cross-country skiier.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Last Friday, when the New York Times Magazine put its Olympics issue online, all of my social media accounts lit up in unison. I’ve been deeply obsessed with cross-country ski racing since I was 16, so everyone forwarded me the same article: Sam Anderson’s acidic ode to the sport, which simultaneously mocked and exalted the “purity and sanctity of the goddamn slog.” The last time I’d had so many people forward me the same story was when a drunken Norwegian tried to ski home but was stopped for bad technique.

I read the piece out loud to my wife, and we laughed, and then I excused myself to go “mush my way across this gigantic flat hostile landscape using only the power of my huge, beleaguered thighs.”

But as much as I wish I was able to simply admire the writing of this formidable piece, I cannot let it go. Nordies (an actual label we give ourselves) are used to being the butt of America’s jokes and are very easily offended. We carry an inflamed feeling of grievance and are always waiting for some perceived slight to rant about. (NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me was the latest to discover how humorless we can be, after Paula Poundstone made an ill-advised joke about the U.S. women’s squad.) And like my fellow Nordic NPR listeners, I am committed to curmudgeonhood, so let me tell you what this piece misses.

The problem is not the silly, obviously wrong bits, even though cross-country skiers don’t wear helmets and don’t really wear goggles either. (It’s much worse than that—we wear visors.) These are excusable errors. The problem is that the piece is like a standing dead white birch: Its beautiful waterproof bark hides a rotten core. And the joke at the heart of the essay is not only bad; it’s also boring. It’s the same joke the soccer players used to make in gym class when they learned I cross-country ski raced. “Isn’t that just running on skis?” This was code for: Isn’t skiing slow? And dumb? And tiring? Isn’t it all the worst parts of endurance exercise without any of the thrill of a real sport?

No. It’s not. Nordic skiing is not drudgery. It’s not the winter equivalent of dragging a tire up a hill. It is not (just) a showcase for humans’ remarkable capacity for self-torture (though it can be that too, if we’re honest). Instead, I would ask you to at least consider the possibility that for many of us, Nordic skiing is actually fun.

To make his point about the sport’s dreariness, Anderson writes about how slow the skiing is. “Even the sport’s greatest champions … average speeds that would be legal in a school zone,” he writes. He also notes that in “the racer’s slowest patches … schoolchildren could probably outrun them.”

For starters, racers average between 12 and 15 miles per hour, meaning they are going at least as fast if not faster than the world’s fastest marathon runners. But instead of pointing that out, or pointing out that they can hit 35 miles per hour on the downhills, he compares them to cars, which have motors. Sure. The second assertion, that they could be outrun by schoolchildren, is another eye-roll. It’s possible that on steep hills, for a few seconds, running at a flat-out sprint, an athletic child of undetermined age could hold the pace these athletes hold for miles and miles. The same could be said about a child versus a Tour de France cyclist, and as far as I know cycling is a well-respected sport.

These bizarre speed comparisons convince Anderson that cross-country skiing is mainly slow and boring, which he first laments and then celebrates. But I don’t “accept bursts of speed reluctantly” on the downhills. I charge into them in order to enhance the thrill of the descent. It’s false that “the only thrill a cross-country skier will accept is the masochistic one of pushing her heart to the bursting.” Just watch what happens when high school skiers come across a jump in the trail they can launch off. The thrilling reality of cross-country skiing makes Anderson’s ultimate admiration just as frustrating as his criticism.

Why does this piece get it so wrong? It is primarily an error of projection. The author found skiing to be slow and boring and joyless when he was a child, so he assumes it is for racers as well. But equating your frigid shuffle-about-in-the-woods with your dad to the modern sport of Nordic skiing is like comparing a peewee soccer game to the Premier League. It’s not even the same activity.

Of all the sports I have tried, Nordic skiing is the one in which the sensation of your locomotion is most free, most joyful, most ecstatic. Over the years I’ve gotten pretty darn good at running races of all sorts, including triathlons as well as road and mountain bike events. I’ve also achieved a certain mediocrity in other sports: rock climbing, white-water kayaking, windsurfing, pond hockey. None of them come anywhere close to the sensation of being out skiing on perfect snow on a sunny “blue extra” day. I remember going to Junior Nationals, which is in March, during what had been a low-snow year in Vermont. When we got out of the vans in Michigan and got onto beautiful fresh snow for the first time in weeks, all I could hear was New England skiers whooping with the pure glory of skiing.

Anderson doesn’t understand this, largely because when he tried to ski he found he was so bad at it that having fun would be an impossibility. This, too, is one of the pleasures of watching the Olympics: You get to see athletes who make the impossible look routine.

Yes, Nordic skiing is a difficult sport, and if you’re out of shape, it is less fun. Yes, it sometimes takes years to master the technique that makes this joyous, exuberant freedom possible. But as someone who’s now just a schlub who jumps into races despite having nowhere near the level of fitness I once had, I’m devastated by the fact that a sport that was my first true love will struggle to exist in a world that keeps getting warmer. And I’m not sad because without skiing, I’ll struggle to find a way to get as good of a workout. I will miss the sport simply because it is such a goddamn delight.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Get to Know a New Olympic Event: Mixed Doubles Curling

Everything You Need to Know About the Figure Skaters at the Pyeongchang Olympics

How to Watch the Winter Olympics If You Don’t Have Cable