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Nordic Combined 101: Olympic history

Feb 22, 2018; Pyeongchang, South Korea; Akito Watabe (JPN) jumps in the nordic combined mens team large hill and 4x5km ski jumping competition round during the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games at Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre.
Feb 22, 2018; Pyeongchang, South Korea; Akito Watabe (JPN) jumps in the nordic combined mens team large hill and 4x5km ski jumping competition round during the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games at Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre.

Nordic combined was contested at the inaugural Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix, France, and has been a part of every Winter Olympics since then. It is one of six sports that has been on the program of every Winter Games in history.

An individual competition has been part of the Olympic program since 1924. A team event was added in 1988, and a sprint event debuted at the 2002 Salt Lake Games. In 2010, the cross-country skiing distance in both individual events was standardized to 10km, eliminating the sprint moniker.

Nordic combined contests were first held in Norway in the 1800s, and Norway has been the dominant nation in Olympic nordic combined competition. Norwegian skiers have won triple the amount of Olympic gold medals as any other country (13 of the 34 ever awarded). Additionally, Norway has won 30 of the 102 total Olympic medals awarded (29.4 percent). Finland is second with 14.

Athletes representing European nations have won 95 of 102 (or 93.1 percent) of all nordic combined medals awarded. The only non-European nations to have won medals are the United States, with four, and Japan, with three. The U.S. collected its first medals at 2010 Vancouver Games, claiming three individual medals and a silver in the team event.

Anecdotes

1924 Chamonix: Norwegian skiers swept the top four places at the inaugural Olympic nordic combined competition. Thorleif Haug, who had already won the 50km and the 15km events in cross-country skiing, captured his third gold medal of the Games when he placed first in the nordic combined competition. The same trio that won the gold, silver and bronze in the 50km cross-country event also won gold, silver and bronze (in the same order) in the nordic combined. Haug collected a fourth medal, a bronze, in the 1924 ski jumping competition. But 50 years later (and 40 years after Haug’s death) a computation error was discovered, and Haug was dropped to fourth place in the rankings.

1928 St. Moritz: Norway’s Johan Grottumsbraaten, a bronze medalist from 1924, won the nordic combined event for the first of two consecutive Games. Grottumsbraaten also won a gold medal in cross-country skiing (in the 15km event) at the 1928 Games. He won three nordic combined medals and three cross-country skiing medals in his Olympic career, which spanned three Games.

1932 Lake Placid: Norwegian athletes swept the top four places and Grottumsbraaten won his second consecutive nordic combined gold. He finished his two-sport (nordic combined and cross-country) career with six Olympic medals: three golds, one silver and two bronzes. He is one of only two men who have won the individual nordic combined competition (now known as the individual normal hill) more than once. (East Germany’s Ulrich Wehling is the other, from 1972 to 1980.)

1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen: Norway swept the medals for the fourth-straight time. By the conclusion of the 1936 Games, the 12 nordic combined medals that had been awarded in Olympic history all belonged to Norwegians.

1948 St. Moritz: At the fifth Winter Games, 24 years after the first nordic combined medals were awarded, a non-Norwegian athlete finally won a medal in the sport. In fact, Norway was shut out of the medals, as Finns Heikki Hasu and Martti Huhtala won gold and silver, respectively, and Sweden’s Sven Israelsson won bronze. The top Norwegian performer placed sixth. 

1952 Oslo: For the first time in Olympic competition, the jumping portion of the nordic combined event was held before the cross-country skiing portion. Simon Slattvik’s victory marked the first time that an athlete from the host nation won the gold medal in nordic combined. On February 18, the streets of Oslo were reportedly full of Norwegians celebrating the same-day victories of Slattvik, speed skater Hjalmar Andersen and cross-country skier Hallgeir Brenden. Slattvik is the oldest Olympic medalist (in an individual event) in the history of the sport.

1956 Cortina D’Ampezzo: Sverre Stenersen became the sixth Norwegian champion in seven Winter Games. For the first time, the cross-country race was contested over distance of 15km.

1960 Squaw Valley: Germany’s Georg Thoma, a postman from the Black Forest, became the first champion from a country other than Norway or Finland.

1964 Innsbruck: Norway’s Tormod Knutsen, sixth in 1956 and the silver medalist from the 1960 Games, won gold. Thoma, the defending champion, won the jumping portion of the competition but was only the 10th-fastest skier. He won the bronze.

1968 Grenoble: Franz Keller of Germany led after the jumping part of the event but then finished only 13th in the skiing portion; even still, the performance was just enough for the gold medal. Switzerland’s Alois Kaelin, the eventual silver medalist, placed a dismal 24th in the jumping, but still almost won the gold medal. His event-leading 15km time was almost three-and-a-half minutes faster than Keller’s; had he finished his cross-country race 2.3 seconds faster, he would have won the gold.

1972 Sapporo: At 19 years of age, East Germany’s Ulrich Wehling won the first of what would be three consecutive gold medals in nordic combined. He remains the youngest Olympic gold medalist in the history of the sport. 

1976 Innsbruck: Wehling became only the second person to win the individual nordic combined competition twice (now known as the individual normal hill). (Norway’s Johan Grottumsbraaten was the other, in 1928 and 1932.)

1980 Lake Placid: Wehling, who like in 1976 was the competition’s top jumper, became the first man to win three Olympic gold medals in nordic combined.

1984 Sarajevo: Norway’s Tom Sandberg won the gold, finishing ahead of a trio of Finns.

1988 Calgary: For the first time in Olympic competition, the start of the cross-country skiing race was ordered and timed according to the result of the ski jumping. In the new system, known as the “Gundersen Method,” the leader after the ski jumping would be the first to start skiing. The subsequent competitors would start to ski according to how their ski jumping performance compared with the leader’s. Under this system, the first athlete to cross the finish line is the winner of the gold medal. Switzerland’s Hippolyt Kempf started the cross-country race in third place, 70 seconds behind the leader, but ended up winning the gold medal by 19 seconds.

A second nordic combined event, the team jumping competition, was added in 1988. West Germany won the inaugural team competition. Kempf, who added team silver to his individual gold, and Austria’s Klaus Sulzenbacher, who won silver in individual and bronze in team, became the first nordic combined athletes to win two medals at one Games. The Swiss team, sixth after the jumping competition, started the relay four minutes and 52 seconds after the leaders and finished only three-and-a-half seconds behind the gold medal-winning Germans.

1992 Albertville: France had never before won an Olympic medal in nordic combined, an obscure sport in that country. But in front of a thrilled home crowd, Fabrice Guy, who had been enjoying a breakthrough season in 1991-92, won easily. His supporters were so thrilled with the Frenchman’s victory that they gathered outside the doping control room and sang “La Marseillaise” while Guy tried to produce a urine sample. Surprisingly, Guy’s teammate Sylvain Guillaume improved from 13th in the jumping to win silver. Klaus Sulzenbacher, the 1988 silver medalist, earned bronze. In the team event, the Japanese athletes jumped extremely well en route to winning Japan’s first Olympic nordic combined medal, a gold. Norway claimed silver with the fastest skiing performance. Austria earned bronze, giving Sulzenbacher his fourth career medal (and third bronze).

1994 Lillehammer: Japan’s Kenji Ogiwara, the overwhelming favorite in the individual competition entering the Games, had an uncharacteristically poor jumping performance (sixth-best among competitors) and ultimately finished out of the medals in fourth. Norway’s Fred Boerre Lundberg thrilled the nordic-crazed home fans with his unexpected victory; fans sang the Norwegian national anthem as skied his final lap.

Ogiwara got a small measure of revenge a few days later in the team competition. Japan built an insurmountable lead after a superior jumping performance and coasted to a second consecutive team gold medal. Norway, led by Lundberg and individual bronze medalist Bjarte Engen Vik, won silver. In what was the U.S.’s best-ever result in Olympic nordic combined at the time, Dave Jarrett, Todd Lodwick and Ryan Heckman finished seventh in the team competition.

1998 Nagano: Starting at these Games, teams consisted of four athletes instead of three. The cross-country skiing relay was changed to a 4x5km race and each team member jumped only twice, with both jumps counting. Norway won the team event for the first time, and Bjarte Engen Vik became the first athlete to win both the individual and team competitions at the same Games. Eighteen-year-old Samppa Lajunen of Finland won a pair of silver medals.

2002 Salt Lake: A second individual event, then known as the sprint, was introduced at the Salt Lake Games. The U.S. had its best performance at the time, when Todd Lodwick finished fifth in the sprint event and the Americans were fourth in the team event. Finland’s Samppa Lajunen won gold in both individual events and powered the Finns to team gold as well as Finland swept all three gold medals.

2006 Torino: Nordic combined was principally dominated by three men at the 2006 Torino Games: Austra’s Felix Gottwald, Germany’s Georg Hettich and Norway’s Magnus Moan. All three men reached the podium in both individual events, while Moan was the only one not to reach the podium in the team event. Gottwald won the sprint, capturing his first individual gold medal, and added another medal with his silver in the individual. Prior to Vancouver, Hettich had never won an individual World Cup event, but in Torino he earned gold in the individual and bronze in the sprint. After Norway was shut out of the medals in 2002, Moan collected silver in the sprint and bronze in the individual. In the team event, Austria improved upon its bronze from Salt Lake by winning the event, while Germany took silver for the second straight Games. Finland won its third consecutive medal claiming bronze, as 17-year-old Anssi Koivuranta became the youngest nordic combined medalist in Olympic history.

2010 Vancouver: Prior to 2010, American athletes had never won an Olympic medal in nordic combined, a drought that lasted 86 years and a spanned of 20 Winter Games. But that streak ended in Vancouver when the U.S. collecting its first-ever Olympic medal in the sport -- followed by three more. It all began with Johnny Spillane’s silver in the normal hill event. Nine days later, the U.S. entered the record books again when it earned silver behind Austria in the team event. In the ski jumping portion, the U.S. posted one of the highest scores, 505.8, finishing second behind Finland by 1.2 points. In the cross-country portion of the competition, the chase pack quickly caught the U.S. and Finland by the end of the first leg. Finland fell well off the pace in the second leg, while Austria and the U.S. separated themselves from the group around the halfway point. With a time of 48:55.6, 5.2 seconds ahead of the Americans, Austria claimed its second consecutive Olympic gold medal.

In the third and final nordic combined event of the Vancouver Games, Bill Demong and Johnny Spillane capped an incredible Olympics by going 1-2 in the individual large hill event. In the cross-country skiing portion of the competition, Demong entered the stadium with a considerable lead over his teammate and coasted the final few meters to become the first American to win gold in nordic combined. “To hear the national anthem play and to be able to turn and see your best friend that you’ve been down this journey with for half of a lifetime is kind of indescribable really,” Demong later said. Demong’s gold medal was just the start to a memorable day. A few hours later, the 29-year-old native of Vermontville, New York, learned that he was chosen as the U.S. flagbearer for the Closing Ceremony. Then to cap it all off at his victory ceremony that night, he proposed (successfully) to his then-girlfriend Katie.

2014 Sochi: Despite the United States being hugely successful in Vancouver, that success didn't follow the Americans to Sochi. American Nordic combined athletes left Sochi without any medals while Norway reestablished itself as one of the sport's powerhouses. Norway's Joergen Graabak won a pair of medals in Sochi — one in the individual large hill/10 km event and another in the team large hill/4 x 5 km event. Overall, the Norwegians took home four medals in Nordic combined competition. Magnus Moan and Magnus Krog earned a silver and bronze medal, respectively.

2018 PyeongChang: After earning only one Nordic combined gold medal in Sochi, the Germans completed the hat trick in PyeongChang to win gold in all three Nordic combined events. Johannes Rydzek took gold in the individual large hill/10 km, Eric Frenzel won the normal hill/10 km title and the quartet of Frenzel, Rydzek, Vinzenz Geiger and Fabian Riessle earned gold in the team large hill/4 x 5 km event. And for good measure, the Germans also won silver and bronze in the individual large hill/10 km event. Germany was flat out dominant in PyeongChang, handily leading the medal count with five total medals.