Olympic Ski Mountaineering Could Drive Interest in Winter Events
12 Aug, 2021By: Mary Helen Sprecher
2026 is five years off but in Milan/Cortina, they’re already celebrating the addition of a new showcase sport to the Winter Olympics program, ski mountaineering (SkiMo in winter sports parlance).
First, a quick backgrounder on the subject. SkiMo (which is backcountry action at its finest and includes ascending steep inclines, as well as skiing downhill) will be presented in five medal events: men’s and women’s individual races, men’s and women’s sprint, and one mixed-gender relay race (the IOC is in favor of mixed-gender events; they were seen in increasing numbers in the Tokyo Games, in fact).
Ski Magazine breaks down the events as follows: In the individual event, there is a mass start and athletes race up an established track, passing through a series of checkpoints before reaching the summit of the course and transitioning to downhill mode. Then the racers must navigate down challenging terrain and contend with backcountry snow conditions. (Keep in mind, they do this on lightweight touring skis featuring pin bindings, equipment that shaves weight for the uphill but does not perform the same as traditional downhill equipment on the descent). In this event, athletes ascend between 4,300 to 6,200 vertical feet, depending on the category, and each event typically lasts around 1.5-2 hours in duration.
The sprint race is a shorter and faster-paced event that consists of an uphill section, a booting section where athletes carry their skis and hike on foot to navigate rougher terrain, and a ski descent around race gates. In these races, athletes ascend as much as 262 vertical feet; the race itself typically lasts around three minutes.
Olympic SkiMo will include 48 total athletes (24 men and 24 women); it has been noted that the addition of the sport will not increase the overall Olympic athlete quota of 2,900 athletes.
With that background, it’s essential to study the next factor: does SkiMo have the potential for echo events in the USA, once the SkiMo ripples start spreading? It’s uncertain at this point. At the moment, it’s a European (and specifically Italian) sport, with its roots deep in the Italian Alps. The U.S. has not won a medal in SkiMo; in fact, when it was featured at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, three Italians won individual medals and Switzerland won gold in the mixed-gender relay. While the U.S. entered four total athletes in SkiMo at the Lausanne Youth Games, it did not medal.
The USA has already started its training with an eye to the podium in 2026.
Ram Mikulas, president of the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association, told reporters at Ski Magazine he is hopeful Americans will have a shot at the medal stand.
“We are currently working on high performance development plans, expanded national team opportunities, funding, as well as recruitment and widening of the athlete pipeline,” Mikulas said.
And while it’s easy to say something is a sport that is largely unknown in the USA, you can’t discount it, either. After all, curling started in Scotland and it’s an enormous phenomenon in the USA these days – and the U.S. men’s team won gold in PyeongChang in the last Olympic cycle. Pretty good for a sport that had been dominated by the Scandanavian population for so many years. Now, not only are there more curling clubs than ever in the USA, but after the Olympics, open houses at such clubs get record attendance.
Drew Saunders, country manager, Oberalp Group, whose brands include backcountry gear maker Dynafit, spoke to reporters at SGB Media and was very optimistic about the potential for SkiMo’s growth. His Exhibit A: mountain biking. When mountain biking hit the Olympics in 1996, the popularity of the sport exploded. Saunders added that he expects similar growth to come to the climbing and surfing categories after their debut at this year’s Tokyo Games.
“Mountain biking was relatively small in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and now it’s booming. Everyone has one or two in their garage,” he said. “The Olympics helped that. We’ll likely see the same thing happen in rock climbing and surfing, and it will probably boost the backcountry category the same way. It’s a mainstreaming of the sport that gets it in front of a broader pool of users.”
SkiMo is already offered in the U.S, with a number of popular races being offered. The coming winter sports season could offer ample opportunity for demos, clinics and other events.
Jed Duke, director of product marketing for Blizzard/Tecnica, a winter sports apparel and equipment brand, believes the inclusion of the sport will serve to remind people there’s more to skiing than downhill.
“The backcountry touring market is firing on all cylinders. It’s partially related to COVID, but it’s been rapidly growing for several years,” Duke told SGB. “Touring has moved out of the niche market and into the more mainstream winter outdoor business, and the inclusion of Skimo in the 2026 Olympics is further evidence of this. The Olympic exposure should make touring even more mainstream in the winter outdoor market.”