PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — High fives. Champagne. Maybe a conga line.
On Sunday afternoon, these and other signs of glee might have been expected in a room filled with Norway’s cross-country ski technicians. Their athletes had just nabbed all three medals in the men’s 30-kilometer skiathlon, a glory-cornering performance that almost seemed piggy.
But the mood in what is called the wax cabin — a metal structure half a mile from the finish line, where skis are a science project that never ends — was subdued. Men sat on chairs, looking more relieved than happy. They sipped espresso. They scribbled in notebooks. They would exult, albeit grudgingly, if prodded.
“It’s good,” said Knut Nystad, standing in one corner of the room by a wall with dozens of skis. “On the other hand, it’s what Norwegians have come to expect. Tough crowd to please.”
Nystad, 47, oversees a group of 30 wax techs, as they’re known. Their job is to divine the right combination of wax, skis and snow at a given race — a puzzle with thousands of possible solutions. Get it right and a carbon fiber ski becomes a killer mode of nonmotorized, alpine transportation. Athletes glide faster down hills and cover ground more efficiently through the rest of the course. Get it wrong and the same athletes will feel like they are trekking through mud.
The failure will not go unnoticed.
“If we screw up we’re on the front page of every newspaper in Norway,” he said. “We become idiots, overnight.”
In most countries, few people know that wax techs are a thing. In Norway, home to the world’s most zealous cross-country skiing fans, Nystad is occasionally a national figure. Unfortunately, notoriety comes only when the country wants to jeer him as a bumbling fool.
This happened most memorably at the 2014 Sochi Olympics when Norway did not medal in either the men’s or women’s relay. Never mind that the country fared exceptionally well before and after those races, winning more cross-country medals than any other nation. The relay teams were favored, and their poor showing was treated as a howling fiasco.
“I had reporters telling me that nine out of 10 stories were about me,” Nystad said.
Nystad’s wife and children were watching on television back in Norway. She turned the volume off so the children did not have to listen to a real-time lambasting of their father. What they missed on television, the children heard about at school.
“Luckily, I have strong kids,” he said, “so they didn’t care.”
Now Nystad is in South Korea, trying to avoid a repeat of the unpleasantness four years ago. He has been here since Jan. 26, testing the elements. They are dramatically different than the comparatively balmy weather of Sochi, but the underlying dynamics of his job remain the same.
Nystad gets none of the credit when things go right and all of the blame when things go wrong. Which makes his job a workforce archetype found in every imaginable field. Invisibility is a best-case scenario. To be noticed is to be criticized. Nobody ever compliments a dishwasher for scrubbing clean a whole night’s worth of plates.
A tall man with a gray-flecked beard and a dry sense of humor, Nystad is not bothered that he turns up in Norway’s headlines exclusively as an object of derision. It is an unavoidable feature of a career he loves. Also, when he is dragooned before the news media, he knows how to keep face time to a minimum.
He accepts full responsibility and tells everyone: “I’m stupid. It will happen again, we just don’t know where or when.” He does not give explanations, because those can take hours and make it seem like he is trying to dodge responsibility.
“Just take the blame, and you’re a free man,” he said.
The truth is sometimes more complicated. Nystad believes that he and his team did, in fact, blow it at those Sochi relay races. And doping revelations about the Russians, whose men’s team took silver, has not altered that opinion. He does not feel vindicated. That said, all wax men know they are often easy scapegoats.
“If an athlete is in bad shape it’s easy to complain about the skis,” said Svein Moen, who worked on Norway’s wax team for 20 years.
Any failures by Nystad and his team are magnified because of the largess the Norwegians bring to the sport. Norway’s wax cabin is actually seven cabins, and a small part of what could be called Wax Cabin Village. Other countries have their operations here, too, all of them identical metal boxes stacked in two-story rows — like a modern trailer park out of Dwell magazine. Tiny national flags are taped to each front door.
Most of these men — there is not a woman in sight — toil in obscurity, with far less space than the Norwegians and a fraction of the equipment.
“You’re looking at the whole staff,” said Paul Moore, a wax tech in Australia’s sole cabin, gesturing to three co-workers in the room. “Nobody in the media is hounding us.”
There is an element of hide-the-recipe to this work. Some teams clearly want privacy. Slovenia’s cabin has a sign beneath its flag that reads “Do not enter! Restricted area.” In others, plastic sheets have been draped across the windows so it is impossible to see in.
Anyone spying on Norway would need more than a powerful camera. They would also need ready access to a machine called a stone grinder, which weighs 2,000 pounds.
These make faint etchings on the underside of skis; a groove in a vinyl album is a gouge by comparison. Part of Nystad’s job is overseeing the creation and testing of a huge variety of etching patterns, which he calls grinds.
It is a mystery to a neophyte how grinds could possibly make any difference, but many teams have stone grinding machines. Most left them at home. Norway brought two, often whirring away in the basement of a nearby hotel.
Nystad explained that the snow parameters in Korea are unique, so they flew in the grinders to figure out which patterns are optimal. Each day of the last few weeks, they have created new grinds, which they may never use again.
The grind is just one of many variables. The team has a few dozen waxes, most of them manufactured by Nordic companies, with names like Swix and Toko, that specialize in ski products. Then there are powders, which are sprinkled on top of wax to further reduce friction. In Norway’s cabins, powders are stacked on green shelving in white plastic containers, each with a hand-marked label that suggests a scrupulous alchemist at work. One says “516,” another says “516.9.”
The tech team has a database with test results of 7,000 combinations of grinds, waxes and powders along with scads of information about the weather in which tests were conducted. On race day, weather conditions are typed into the database, which spits out options.
The catch is that weather conditions are never the same. Plus, the composition of snow is in a constant state of flux, even during the race. Mixtures that work at the beginning of a staggered start might be a disaster an hour later if the humidity rises or the temperature drops.
As complicated as all this sounds, the summary above is like a haiku version of “War and Peace.” And there is never one answer. Every athlete’s skis and wax must be tailored to his or her preferences and style.
It’s art, science and luck. For the sake of sanity, Nystad tries to focus on the science.
While he was talking, Johannes Klaebo entered the cabin. At 21, Klaebo is the youngest member of Norway’s team, and he came in 10th in the race that had just finished. He was too stoical to seem either pleased or upset. On the question of whether wax techs make a difference, he was emphatic.
“Sometimes when you are double poling, it’s like you’re stuck,” he said, clutching a fistful of pink ski poles as he headed back out the door. “Sometimes it doesn’t work. But the skis were quite good today. Quite good grip.”
Klaebo’s grip seemed especially good two days later. Beaming as he crossed the finish line, he took first in the sprint classic, becoming the youngest gold medalist in men’s cross-country history.
There are experts who consider Norway’s wax techs an underappreciated treasure. In a text, the Norwegian sports commentator, Ole Stoltenberg, called Nystad “the man behind Bjorndalen’s success,” a reference to Ole Bjorndalen, a biathlete with a record 13 Olympic medals.
Nystad says he is delighted to see Norway’s athletes soaking up all the praise. Norway has won 11 medals so far, seven in cross country and biathlon. When they triumph, the athletes are vocally grateful to him and his colleagues, even if Norwegians are not.
“I’ll sit on a box and drink a beer,” he said, when asked about his plans for the rest of another triumphant evening. “There’s always a new opportunity to screw up in a few days.”