2014 Winter Olympics Preview: Cross-Country Skiing

( - Cross-country skiing has been part of the Winter Olympics since the inaugural games at Chamonix in 1924, although the women did not have the opportunity to participate until Oslo in 1952.

It's a discipline that has been traditionally dominated by Scandinavians, specifically the Norwegians, who won three gold medals and nine overall medals four years ago at the Vancouver Games.

It could be more of the same in Sochi, which features eight days of competition at the Laura Cross-Country Ski & Biathlon Center, culminating in the men's 50-kilometer mass start on the final Saturday and the women's 30- kilometer mass start on the last day of the Games. There will also be pursuit, sprint and relay events -- a total of six for men and six for women -- throughout the fortnight.

The sprint competition will consist of 30 skiers competing in elimination heats with the top-six finishers advancing to the medal round. In the team sprint, two skiers combine for a total of six, 1.5-kilometer legs, with the top-10 teams qualifying for the final.

The pursuit is an exciting mass start race where skiers ski the first half using the classic technique before switching to the free technique for the second half inside the stadium. The skiers are required to change skis at the halfway point, during which time the clock continues to run.

The individual mass start races are the longest cross-country events at the Games, and include large groups of athletes using strategy and tactics to gain an advantage during the course of the race, and then demonstrating their sprinting abilities at the finish. Short loops allow spectators in the stadium to see the contestants every 10-12 minutes.

The relay format features teams of four skiers, with the first two legs using the classic technique and the last two using the free technique. Skiers take turns competing, and tag their teammate in an exchange zone at the end of each leg.

Norway's Petter Northug Jr. remains the man to be beat in these games after winning four medals four years ago, including golds in both the 50-kilometer and men's team sprint.

Northug, 27, further cemented his standing as the best cross country skier on the planet recently with his second World Cup overall cross-country title in 2013. Northug also led his team to a first place finish in the 4x10km relay at the 2013 World Championships.

Dario Cologna from Sweden will likely give Northug a run for his money. Cologna won a gold medal in the men's 15km freestyle at the Vancouver Games and has followed that up with a third place finish in the 2013 cross-country World Cup standings, as well as a gold in the skiathlon at the 2013 World Championships.

Americans, meanwhile, have never fared well at the Olympics in cross country, winning just one medal -- Bill Koch's bronze in the 30-k at the 1976 Innsbruck Games. Simeon Hamilton and Andy Newell hope to change that, but veteran Kikkan Randall gives the U.S. the best shot at ending that drought on the women's side.

Over the last decade, Randall has slowly and methodically built a career as the best U.S. women's cross-country skier in history. She parlayed five world cup podiums - including two wins - into the world cup sprint title in 2012. This marked a first for an American woman. Her winning ways continued into 2013, with multiple podium appearances.

She and teammate Jessie Diggins actually became the first Americans ever to win gold at a World Championship, as they finished first in the team sprint.

Randall, who made her Olympic debut at the Salt Lake Games in 2002, will be racing in her fourth Olympics and was essentially guaranteed a slot based on her success over the past year, which included winning a world title in the sprint racing discipline.

The American, though, will have her hands full trying to unseat Norway's Marit Bjorgen, who has won a total of seven Olympic medals, including three golds among her five total in 2010.

With three more medals here she would tie the all-time Olympic Winter Games women's record of 10 medals.

Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk is also a favorite to medal in Sochi after capturing three medals in Vancouver, including the gold in the 30km mass start.

The 33-year-old Bjorjen has won the cross-country World Cup three times (2005, 2006, 2012), while Kowalczyk, 30, has also won four overall World Cup titles (2009, 2010, 2011, 2013).