By David Ljunggren
WHISTLER (Reuters) - The United States swept almost half of the Olympic medals in the Nordic combined event, a breakthrough that officials and athletes said was crucial to boosting the popularity of what is a niche sport.
Nordic combined -- which involves a single ski jump in the morning and a 10 km cross country race in the afternoon -- is most common in Europe but lags behind cross-country, biathlon, and ski jumping.
The International Ski Federation (FIS) simplified the sport two years ago in a bid to boost television audiences and is now looking to the United States.
"For the global growth of the sport, having these huge successes of the Americans here, it's vital," said Egon Theiner, spokesman for the FIS Nordic Combined programme.
The United States won a gold and two silvers in the individual events and a silver in the team race -- its first ever Nordic combined medals.
There are no World Cup events in North America but that could change if the sport starts to attract more attention from the media, sponsors and fans.
"It's an exciting sport and I hear more and more people -- not just because we're doing well -- coming out to watch and saying 'Holy crap, this thing is awesome, I love this sport'," said gold medalist Bill Demong.
The U.S. medals were the culmination of a two-decade effort to overhaul the nation's Nordic team set-up.
"What's really going to continue this kind of success and keep it exciting for Americans is continuing with the same development programmes," said Demong.
Yet despite the encouraging developments, no one is forecasting an immediate explosion of interest.
"I think we've got a niche sport and there's nothing wrong with that as long as we figure out what's working for us," said John Farra, overall leader of the U.S. team.
Theiner said that in the next five years, the FIS wanted Nordic combined to become as popular as ski jumping.
(Editing by Miles Evans)