Ski mountaineering at the Olympics: The hardest climb is done

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Ski touring is a trend sport. With ski mountaineering, the hype will also get a stage at the Olympics starting with the 2026 Winter Olympics. With tough ascents and breakneck descents, ski mountaineering - also known as skimo - could become the new supreme discipline. We explain how the Olympic premiere will go.

The participant at the carrying passage of the Pierra Menta.
The carrying passage at the Pierra Menta.

Ski mountaineering has been booming for years. Sales figures for touring skis are rising continuously. Even before the pandemic, the German Alpine Association (DAV) estimated the number of ski tourers at around 500,000. Suppliers such as Dynafit are continuing their ski touring offensive and investing in ski touring parks.

The popularity, especially in the Alpine region, may have played a part in the sport being part of the 2026 Winter Olympics for the first time in 78 years as Skimo (for ski mountaineering).

Ski mountaineering and the Olympics: love at second sight?

In the summer of 2021, the IOC announced that ski mountaineering would be included in the competition calendar at the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan and Cortina d'Ampezzo. It is not the first Olympic attempt for the sport.

Ski mountaineering was already an Olympic event between 1924 and 1948. Now, ski mountaineering benefits from the IOC rule that Olympic host countries can apply for the inclusion of locally particularly popular sports since 2020. Ski mountaineering last had its first dress rehearsal in 2020 at the Youth Games in Lausanne.

What should the ski mountaineering competitions at the 2026 Olympics look like?

Originally, five ski mountaineering competitions were to be held. At an IOC meeting in June 2022, the number of competitions was reduced to three. There will be a men's and women's sprint and a mixed relay.

The first part of the race will be on skis and on foot up the 80-meter incline next to the ski slope. Once at the top, the skins required for the ascent must be removed from the skis as quickly as possible before the downhill run on the piste towards the finish.

In each of the individual competitions, 24 athletes will start.

The reaction of the scene: jubilation, but also critical tones

For ski mountaineering, the Olympic comeback after 78 years of abstinence is a stroke of luck. "Ski mountaineering at the Winter Olympics - a milestone for the sport, a huge opportunity for the athletes," says Martin Veith, Sports Director of the German Alpine Association DAV. "At the Youth Olympic Games we showed how attractive the sport is and apparently the IOC has also recognized that."

As mountain sports icon Kilian Jornet, himself a two-time overall World Cup winner in ski mountaineering, cheered on Facebook, "As an athlete, everyone has dreamed of winning a gold medal as a child. As someone who has been around for almost 20 years, I can see how being in the Olympics can help the development of the discipline in different countries and provide national teams with more financial support from their respective authorities."

But the Spaniard, himself a passionate ski mountaineer, fears for the sport's core values and an alienation of the grassroots from what is on offer on TV screens: I have seen many times how a sport has changed its format until it has lost its core values. I see that the Olympic disciplines will be sprint, mixed relay and individual races, and I hope that the mountaineering aspect, which is at the heart of the sport, doesn't disappear on the way to becoming more spectator-friendly and creating a separation between the amateurs of the sport and the professionals."

With the decision to go for the shorter sprints in the individual decisions, Jornet may find his fears confirmed. In any case, the Olympic competitions will have little to do with the sometimes adventurous off-piste ascents with aids such as climbing harnesses, ropes or crampons.

When and where will the ski mountaineering competitions take place at the 2026 Olympics?

The ski mountaineering competitions are to be held at the notorious Pista Stelvio alpine slope in Bormio, where the 2026 Olympic races of the men's alpine skiing will also be held.

An exact date for the ski mountaineering competitions has not yet been set.

Who are the stars of ski mountaineering?

The men's ski mountaineering World Cup has been firmly in Italian hands since 2014. Damiano Lenzi, Michele Boscacci and Robert Antoniolo have since been overall World Cup winners, all of them Italians. But the decision to make the sprint competition an Olympic discipline could benefit one Swiss in particular. The 2021 and 2022 Sprint World Cups were won by Arno Lietha, a Swiss athlete who, at 27, would be in his prime at the 2026 Olympics.

In the women's singles, on the other hand, the French have dominated since 2012. In 2022, Emily Harrop was the overall World Cup winner and sprint champion.

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