Editor’s Note: There’s only one Olympic sport not open to women: nordic combined. In December, American Tara Geraghty-Moats won the inaugural women’s nordic combined World Cup. On Saturday, Geraghty-Moats is expected to be the favorite as women’s nordic combined makes its world championship debut at the 2021 World Nordic Skiing Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany (LIVE on Peacock; Ski Jumping: 4am ET, Cross-Country Skiing: 9:30am ET, also airing on Olympic Channel 9pm ET). A version of this story was published on December 17, 2020.
A brief history of women at the Olympic Games
When the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896, 241 athletes – all of them men – traveled in Athens to compete in 43 events. It was only four years later that the first women’s events were held; 22 women competed at the 1900 Paris Games in two events: tennis and golf.
In the 116 years since women first competed at the Games, the Olympic program has shifted and evolved to include more sports, though men’s events were almost always added before the corresponding women’s competition. Men’s gymnastics is one of the five original Olympic sports, while women’s gymnastics debuted in 1928. Men’s soccer was first played at the 1900 Games, but 96 years would pass before female soccer players first walked onto the Olympic pitch. Men’s boxers threw their first punches in 1904; 108 years later, women finally entered the Olympic ring. Thanks to the addition of women’s boxing, the 2012 London Olympics marked the first summer Games in which women competed in all of the same sports as men.
But these days, there is still one Olympic sport that is open to men, but not women: nordic combined, a winter sport that includes both ski jumping and cross-country skiing. It is one of six sports that has been contested at every Winter Olympics in history.
For most of the last 96 years, women’s nordic combined wasn’t part of the Olympic conversation because women’s ski jumping wasn’t part of the conversation. So when women’s ski jumping was added to the Olympic program for the 2014 Sochi Games, the path for women’s nordic combined finally seemed clear.
In the years since, women’s nordic combined has made notable progress. In October 2017, the U.S. held its first ever women’s nordic combined national championships, with Nina Lussi claiming the top spot on the podium. In 2018, FIS (the sport’s international governing body) introduced a women’s Continental Cup (a step below the World Cup). Last year, the 2020 Youth Olympic Games featured a women’s event. And in December, American Tara Geraghty-Moats won the first women’s nordic combined World Cup.
On Saturday, women’s nordic combined takes another big step forward with its first appearance on the world championship program.
Finding nordic combined
Geraghty-Moats was raised in West Fairlee, Vermont, a town of 600 that is just over the New Hampshire border. She grew up in an athletic family; her mom was a mountain biker and runner, while her dad was an alpine ski racer.
“I did pretty much all the outdoor sports I could,” she explains. Even still, “From a very early age, I wanted to do nordic combined.”
Because there was no nordic combined development pipeline for women, Geraghty-Moats originally focused on ski jumping. But after sustaining a knee injury at age 16, she decided to pursue biathlon instead. She was a member of the U.S. junior national team from 2011-14, at which point she returned to the ski jumping hill.
“Throughout my athletic career, I tried to take the opportunities open to me and make the most of them,” she explains. “But [nordic combined] was always in the back of my mind.”
When equal isn’t equitable
As Geraghty-Moats has progressed in nordic combined, she has dealt with her fair share of road blocks.
“Sexism in sports is endemic,” she explains. “I think it’s going to take all of us acknowledging that and taking steps against it in every single sport. It’s not an issue just in nordic combined. It affects pretty much every female athlete who competes at a high level.”
Some of the challenges she faced were easy enough to identify.
In 2016, she says she signed up to compete – and even paid the entry fee – for the U.S. national championships. The only problem? There was no women’s event. “I would have been perfectly happy to race in the men’s category or be the only person in my category, but I was just flatly told that there was no point,” she recalls. “Eventually they told me that I could race without a bib and not get a time.”
Other challenges were less blatant, but still systemic, a result of the sport’s male-only history.
At the conclusion of the 2020 season, Geraghty-Moats had competed in 18 Continental Cup competitions in her career, finishing on the podium 17 times (including 15 wins).
In the lead-up to the 2020-21 season, USA Nordic laid out its U.S. national team selection criteria, just as it always does. On paper, the criteria for the A-team was fairly standard: win an Olympic or world championship medal, or tally up enough strong results on the World Cup circuit.
But for Geraghty-Moats, A-team status and the funding that comes with it was – quite literally – unattainable.
“I didn’t have a World Cup last year. Even though I was ranked best in the world for two years in the world, there was no way that I could qualify for the A-team.”
Thanks to input from Geraghty-Moats and other athletes, USA Nordic revised its selection criteria so that athletes who finish in the top three of the Continental Cup rankings can also earn a spot on the A-team, thus allowing Geraghty-Moats to receive A-team funding for the first time in her career.
Jed Hinkley, who is currently in his first year as USA Nordic’s Sport Development Director, says the change helped address a situation in which equal treatment wasn’t leading to an equitable result, and praised Geraghty-Moats for her advocacy.
While Geraghty-Moats says she is thankful for the support of her national governing body, other financial challenges remain.
According to FIS guidelines, the winner of the inaugural women’s World Cup received 2800 CHF (approx. $3164 USD), while the winner of comparable men’s competition earned 8000 CHF ($9040 USD). This disparity is then compounded by number of competitive opportunities. When the original 2020-21 World Cup calendar was released, it included 31 events for men and five for women. While both the men’s and women’s schedules have, understandably, seen changes as a result of COVID-19, so far this season, men competed in 14 World Cup events while women had just the one.
While sponsors could help make up the difference, those aren’t exactly easy to come by when your sport isn’t contested on the world’s biggest stage.
“It is pretty tough to find sponsors and find financial support because it’s not an Olympic event,” Geraghty-Moats explains. “What really big corporations are looking for is that Olympic emblem.”
Geraghty-Moats has a clear legacy amid an uncertain future
In the last year, athletes across all sports dealt with uncertain competition schedules and postponed events. For Geraghty-Moats, this has long been the norm.
“I’ve wanted to compete internationally in nordic combined since I was about 11 years old. And now I’m 26. And [my sport] isn’t in the Olympics, and I don’t know when it will be in the Olympics.”
Originally, the 2022 Beijing Olympics seemed a likely target, but when the official program was revealed, there was no women’s event. “Nordic combined, and women’s in particular, still need to be developed further in terms of universality [the number of countries with Olympic-level athletes], in terms of the level of the athletes,” IOC sports director Kit McConnell said in 2018.
Now, the 2026 Milan-Cortina Games are the goal, but Geraghty-Moats is well aware of what that timeline might mean for her.
“I think there’s a real possibility that I may be able to compete in the 2026 Games, or maybe even the 2030 Games, but not necessarily be at my prime. And I think I will enjoy it just as much,” she says. “I try to focus on the fact that my legacy in nordic combined will have made winter sports more equitable, and hopefully a better place.”
How to watch Geraghty-Moats compete at the 2021 World Championships
Saturday, March 27, 2021: LIVE on Peacock; Ski Jumping: 4am ET, Cross-Country Skiing: 9:30am ET (Also airing on Olympic Channel 9pm ET)Follow @AlexAzziNBC