Skiing, the practice of sliding over snow on runners attached to each foot, has evolved into a sport with two distinct but overlapping branches. Nordic skiing consists of cross-country travel, with the skier providing propulsion over moderately undulating terrain and jumping off prepared jumping hills. Alpine skiing, an adaptation of Nordic skiing to the relatively steep and frequently bumpy slopes of the European Alps, is primarily downhill skiing, with the skier usually returning to the top of the mountain by lift.

The fundamentals of the two branches are similar, and skill in one is readily transferable to the other. Their physical and technical demands differ, however, and each has its own specialized equipment. Alpine skis, boots, bindings, and poles are designed to give the skier stability and quick, precise control over the almost-continuous turns that must be made to keep speed in check. For cross-country, the equipment is made to allow the skier to stride without straining and is as light as possible in order to reduce fatigue over long distances. For jumping, the skis are wide and long in order to provide strength and aerodynamic lift.

Recreational and Competitive Skiing
A recreational skier is limited only by ability, the terrain, and snow conditions. In competitive Alpine skiing, the racers are required to follow a course marked by a series of gates that are made of two tall poles set at varying distances apart, depending on which of the three Alpine events is involved. Downhill is an all-out speed event — average speeds of more than 130 km/h (81 mph) are common — with only enough gates to keep racers on the designated course and away from dangerous obstacles. Slalom is a test of turning ability in which a racer moves through a series of narrow, closely spaced gates at speeds up to 40 km/h (25 mph). Giant slalom involves elements of both downhill and slalom; the gates are wider and farther apart than in the latter, and speeds average about 80 km/h (50 mph). Super G is a hybrid of downhill and giant slalom, with some portions skiied at downhill speed and others more like giant slalom. Freestyle, or mogul, skiing combines elements of downhill skiing with "hotdogging" tricks.

In cross-country competition, the standard distances for men are 10 km (6.2 mi), 15 km (9.3 mi), 30 km (18.6 mi), and 50 km (31 mi) in the individual events and a 4 x 10-km relay; women ski 5 km (3.1 mi), 10 km, 15 km, and 30 km distances, and a 4 5-km relay. The Olympic Games includes three different style races: classical, the traditional striding method of moving across the snow; freestyle, in which any style can be used, although most competitors use the skating technique; and pursuit, a two-part race in which the skiers start the second part in the order of their finish in the first part, with the fastest skier leading the competition.

In ski jumping there are three competitions, all for men only: the 90 m (98.4 yd) normal hill, with an average jump distance of over 70 m (76.6 yd); and the 120 m (131.3 yd) large hill, with an average distance of over 90 m; and a team competition on the large hill. An additional sport is ski flying, which is conducted under slightly different rules, in which jumps of 176 m (192.5 yd) have been recorded. Other Nordic competitions are Nordic Combined, in which points earned in 70-m jumping and a 15-km cross-country race are added to determine the results, and the biathlon, which combines cross-country and shooting from both the standing and prone positions, with time penalties for missing targets along the course.

Competitive skiing opportunities are available at all levels of ability and age. For serious racers and jumpers, state, regional, and national events exist for three major age groups — junior, senior, and veteran — under the auspices of the U.S. Ski Association. The best racers are selected for the U.S. Ski Team, which competes annually in an international series called the World Cup circuit and, every two years, in either the Olympic Winter Games or the World Championships. A professional tour is also held in the United States.

Remnants of skis found in Norway and Sweden date from more than 4,000 years ago. Skiing began to assume its modern form in the mid-19th century, when the Norwegians developed bindings that greatly improved control over the skis and made it possible to jump and turn. The Nordic events as they are known today date from this period. Reports of the use of skis in late-19th-century Norwegian Arctic expeditions spread word of the sport and inspired mountaineers to introduce it into the Alps. Because of the steep slopes and deep snow there, the emphasis was increasingly put on the downhill run. This led to the development of competitive skiing.

Although Norwegian immigrants brought skiing to the United States about 1850, the sport did not gain popularity until the 1930s, following the installation of the first rope tow, in Woodstock, Vt., in 1934. The rope tow made it possible to learn to ski relatively rapidly and inexpensively. About 1,000 U.S. ski areas are now in operation, and millions of Americans ski. In recent years many of these areas have begun to feature cross-country as well.

Skiing has been an Olympic Games event since 1924.

John Henry Auran

Bibliography: Cazeneuve, Brian, Cross-Country Skiing: A Complete Guide (1996); Gallwey, W. T., Inner Skiing, rev. ed. (1997); Leach, R. E., ed., Alpine Skiing (1994); McCallum, P. and C. L., The Downhill Skiing Handbook (1992); Petrick, T., Sports Illustrated Skiing (1989); Poster, C., The Basic Essentials of Alpine Skiing (1993); Schwartz, G. H., The Art of Skiing 1856–1936 (1989).