Friday, October 12, 2001 - Perspective
NSDT Update: The Rich History of Skiing

- By: Tasha Betcherman

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I stumbled across some intriguing early history of cross country skiing and was very surprised at its truly incredible ancient beginnings.  It gave me a bit of a better understanding of how and why cross country skiing is embedded in the cultural fabric of so many countries.  As you can imagine the history of skiing can be studied as a full time job so I thought to include just a few things that I found surprisingly interesting.

The history of skiing goes back several thousand years to post-glacial stone-age people who lived in the northern latitudes of Europe and Russia. Skis made it possible for them to survive the harsh winters by hunting game. In fact, the very name “Scandinavia” may have some reference to the Goddess of skiers, Skade. Found above the Arctic Circle in Norway, the Rodoya rock carvings which are at least 4500 years old, depict a man on long runners with a hunting implement in hand. Another carving depicts a hunter on skis wearing a rabbit mask. In Scandinavia, workers uncovered hundreds of ancient skis from peat bogs where the low oxygen content preserved them in excellent condition. They reportedly found skis of all sizes.  


Here are some more interesting facts I found at the ski museum site.

The first written account of skiing appears circa 1000 A.D. in the Viking "Sagas" where several kings are described as being superb skiers.

In 1206, during the Norwegian civil war, two scouts on skis carried the infant heir to the throne 35 miles to safety in the middle of winter.

A rock carving of a skier
Foto: Inge Ove Tysnes / Syv sostre forlag

Ancient skis found in Voss, Norway
Foto: Universitetets kulturhistoriske museer, Eirik Irgens Johnsen

The historic event is celebrated today by the "Birchleg Race" over the same route --so called because the scouts wrapped their legs in birch bark to keep them warm and dry.

Another traditional ski race takes place every year in Sweden. The Vasaloppet Cross Country race (53 miles) honors Gustav Vasa's ski trip in 1523 when he raised an army and beat the Danes who were then in control of the country.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the armies of Norway and Sweden used skis for winter warfare. A pair of skis consisted of one long runner and one shorter one called an andor. The long ski was used to glide; the shorter one to brake and climb. Skins could be applied to the latter.

By 1840 local cross-country ski races (with skis of equal length) were beginning to be held in Norway among military personnel. Soon, civilians were allowed to enter and the popularity of the ski contests spread rapidly among the peasants in the rural countryside. The races were nordic in concept--over rolling terrain and down short steeper slopes where jumping was necessary.

In 1868 Sondre Norheim, a young man from the Telemark region, broke all the jumping and cross-country records at a nordic tournament in Christiana (Oslo). Up to that time a single toe strap had been used to hold the ski on the foot. He revolutionized the ski-sport by adding a willow strap around the heel and contouring his skis so that they were slightly waisted in the middle. The new binding and refinement of the ski shape gave greater control and maneuverability which meant faster running and longer jumps. The words, "Christiana" and "Telemark" were given to the new ski technique he pioneered. He is considered the “Father of Modern Skiing.

This just touches on the rich and colourful early history surrounding skiing.  There are a lot of areas I haven’t mentioned such as the North American history of snow travel and skiing that have it’s own ingenious beginnings.  I’ll leave you with this very passionate quote, maybe something to ponder while you’re out training in the crisp winter air. 

This is the writing of Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian Arctic explorer who traveled across Greenland on cross country skis in 1890.  "Nothing hardens the muscles and makes the body so strong and elastic," "Nothing gives better presence of mind and nimbleness; nothing steels the will power and freshens the mind as cross country skiing. This is something that develops not only the body but also the soul -- it has a far deeper meaning for people than many are aware of."

(Tasha Betcherman is a new member of the National Development Team. She recently made the move to Canmore from Thunder Bay, where she was a member of the National Team Development Centre.)

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