I've been watching Olympic skiing with more fascination than usual, since I've recently started skiing again.
They collapse for basically the reason you'd expect: They're exhausted. This Slate article explains it more eloquently, and in more detail.
"Cross-country skiing is one of the most physically demanding sports known to man. Unlike their downhill colleagues, cross-country skiers don't get much help from gravity. Unlike figure skating, cross-country skiing involves neither costumes nor choreography. Whereas running is primarily a lower-body activity, cross-country skiers use use all the major muscle groups to propel themselves across flat surfaces and inclines, with little opportunity for coasting, while the world yawns and changes the channel. You'd collapse, too — about 30 seconds after you started the race."
For a look at the collapse, and skiers describing what it's like, check out this video.
And if you can't get enough, here's an impassioned argument for why cross-country skiing is the best Olympic sport.
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