Major decision to add women’s Nordic combined to Winter Olympics approaches

Excluding the women in 2026 could have serious consequences — even for the men

Shelby Reardon
Steamboat Pilot & Today
Steamboat Springs Nordic combined skier Annika Malacinski takes flight at Howelsen Hill at the 2021 USA Nordic Ski Championships. The International Olympic Committee will soon decide if women’s Nordic combined will be added to the Olympic Games.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In three weeks, the fate of gender equality at the Olympics will be decided.

Sometime during its executive board meeting on the weekend of June 24, the International Olympic Committee will decide if women’s Nordic combined will be an Olympic sport. Nordic combined, which features ski jumping and cross-country skiing, is the only sport in both the summer and winter Olympics in which women do not compete.

The decision, expected to come on June 26, is almost a decade in the making and will have serious consequences no matter which way the board sways.

Best-case scenario, the sport is included in the 2026 Winter Olympic Games in Italy.

For a while, the worst-case scenario would be pushing that goal back yet another four years, but lately, there have been rumors circulating that there could be an even more drastic outcome.

In the aim for gender equality, adding women is one option and nixing the men is another.

Blake Hughes, the interim chief operating officer at USA Nordic, the governing body of Nordic combined and ski jumping in the United States, said even having the conversation about removing men is “surreal” and “extreme.”

“That rumor started circling the last couple weeks,” said Hughes. “It’s an even more frustrating way to just put a Band-Aid on something so they can fix inequality by taking men’s Nordic combined out. I think it’s a quick and easy way for the older generation of men and women who are running the Olympic committee to force their hand and say, ‘This is how we’re going to make it equal by taking men’s Nordic combined out,’ which I don’t think is appropriate at all.”

“I don’t want to think about it,” said USA Nordic women’s Nordic combined head coach Tomas Matura.

Annika Malacinski’s future is in the fate of the IOC executive board. The Steamboat Springs skier and women’s national team member joined a large portion of the international women’s Nordic combined community earlier this week with a collaborative social media post calling for the inclusion of the sport.

Malacinski said she hopes the posts inform more people of the upcoming decision and puts some pressure on the board by showing a lot of people have their eyes and ears on them. People can also express their opinions by reaching out to an IOC member.

“I feel like everyone’s had very high hopes of it being in ’26, and now that the decision is coming closer, I think it’s kind of scaring everyone,” Malacinski said. “It will be the end of women’s Nordic combined if they do not put it in the Olympics.”

National team members Tess Arnone and Alexa Brabec also hail from Steamboat Springs.

The men are set to compete in the 2026 Olympics, but the exclusion of women, or even the men, could start a domino effect that could add up to the end of Nordic combined.

Of course, there are many options in between the best- and worst-case scenarios, including the men competing in the Olympics, but perhaps the popularity of the sport declining due to inequality or the newfound insecurity of the sport. Women could leave the sport of Nordic combined for hopes of making an Olympic debut in ski jumping or another discipline, knocking back the sport’s progression and potentially dashing future hopes of Olympic inclusion.

Without the option to compete in the Olympics, athletes may no longer have sponsors and may question the purpose of spending so much time, effort and money to compete at the World Cup level.

Checking all the boxes

On paper, the decision to include women’s Nordic combined in the Olympics appears obvious.

The International Ski Federation published a women’s Nordic combined strategy in November 2016, which included a structured pathway for growth and a calendar marking anticipated milestones.

The strategy document says Nordic combined is the smallest of the Nordic disciplines, but it’s also an original sport, having appeared in every Winter Olympics, the first of which took place in 1924.

Five of the six milestones established in the strategy were met. In 2018, Rena, Norway, hosted the first-ever women’s Continental Cup. Steamboat Springs hosted the second in December of that year. In early 2019, Lahti, Finland, hosted the Junior World Ski Championships in which young women competed in Nordic combined for the first time.

The next winter marked the first appearance of women’s Nordic combined in the Youth Olympic Winter Games and the World Cup, and in 2021, women’s Nordic combined was added to the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships docket.

However, the sport did not debut in the 2022 Olympics as initially hoped. The IOC denied the inclusion of the sport in 2018, due to a lack of athletes and not yet having a World Cup circuit, knocking the sport off its original trajectory. Nevertheless, the sport continued to grow and prove that it was worthy of inclusion on the biggest stage.

“The IOC is pushing to equal participation: the same amount of women and men athletes,” Matura said. “I can’t see why they wouldn’t add women’s Nordic combined.”

Since 2015, the sport has grown from 77 registered athletes to 190, according to the 2022 progress report. While the decision has to be made now whether the women will compete in 2026, Hughes said the board should consider how the sport will continue to grow.

The sport of women's Nordic combined has more than doubled in seven years according to this sport progress report published by the International Ski Federation in May 2022. The International Olympic Committee will decide if its grown enough to become an Olympic sport in late June.

“By the time we get to ’26 in Italy, it’ll be ready to be in the Olympics,” Hughes said. “I believe it’s ready to be in the Olympics now, but for sure in four years.”

Malacinski, who is the top American women’s Nordic combined athlete and a consistent top-15 finisher at World Cups, may have to reconsider her career path if the decision does not allow women to compete in the Olympics.

“It’s going to be taking a lot of girls’ dreams away and show younger girls to not get into the sport, which would be even worse,” she said. “There would be no future for women’s Nordic combined.”

“I don’t want to send the message to say, ‘If you don’t get your way, just quit,'” she added. “But at this point in time, I invest so much of my time and energy and money into the sport that if we are not getting recognized for what we are … I don’t know if I would continue Nordic combined.”