Five Winter Olympians Who Forever Changed Their Sports- page 4 | Innovation | Smithsonian
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A ski jumper flashes a V. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user tpower1978.)

Five Winter Olympians Who Forever Changed Their Sports

Considered bizarre at first, these athletes' techniques ultimately became the gold standards for their sports

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Bill Koch: Who needs blades?

(Getty Images)

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, was the 30-kilometer cross-country race by a young American skier from Vermont named Bill Koch. Amazingly, he won the silver medal, the first time an American had ever earned an Olympic medal in a Nordic skiing event. 

Koch could not repeat that success four years later in Sarajevo. Later that year, though, while competing in a marathon skiing race in Sweden, he noticed competitors who used an unconventional way to propel themselves forward. Instead of alternately kicking and gliding, those skiers looked as if they were skating on their skis, leave one ski in the track while pushing off with the other.

And that made Koch wonder why he couldn’t try that technique in shorter races. It was a smart move. Using that style, known as “skate skiing” or “marathon skating,” Koch won the overall World Cup title in cross-country skiing in 1982, as unlikely an accomplishment for an American as his silver medal had been.

Not surprisingly, traditionalists reacted with disdain to Koch’s technique; some said it shouldn’t even be considered skiing. While they were unable to ban it outright, they did pass rules forbidding cross-country skiers from “skating” during the first and last 200 meters of a race.

Today, skate skiing is the style of choice for many cross-country racers, although there are still events in which only the classic gliding can be used. And, in the true spirit of compromise, there are now cross-country skiing events known as “double pursuit” races. For the first half, competitors use the classic technique; for the last half, they ski in the style that Bill Koch introduced to the world. 

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