Skiing is the most popular of all winter sports. It is believed that skiing comes from northern Europe and Siberia, where it was a vital means of transportation during the long, snowbound months of winter. The pre-historic people of these regions used skis to keep hunters on top of the snow. Wooden planks were strapped to feet, to prevent sinking and making it possible to glide over the snow and travel faster. Skiing was such an important way of life in Scandinavia that the Vikings worshipped Ull and Skade, the god and goddess of winter/skiing. The first written account of skiing appears circa 1000 A. D. in the Viking “Sagas” where several kings are described as being superb skiers.
The word “ski” is a Norwegian word which comes from the Old Norse word “skid”, a board or a piece of split wood. The first hints to the existence of skis are on 4,500 to 5,000 years old rock carving at the Norwegian Island of Rodoy, showing a man on long runners with a hunting implement in hand. The oldest ski on record, being 1.10 m. long and 20 cm. broad was found in a peat bog in Hoting, Sweden and it is estimated to be about 4,500 years old. Several other skis have been found all throughout Scandinavia and Lapland. These ancient skis show regional differences in length and width, indicating a gradual refinement in technology.
The findings of old skis and its role in literature show that skiing is deeply engrained in Nordic history. As skis became quicker and more versatile, their application shifted from hunting gear towards military purposes. Skis were first used in warfare in AD 1200 in the battle of Oslo, in Norway when Norwegian scouts used skis to spy on Swedish enemies. 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. 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 illustrative example is found in Sweden history. In 1521 the Danes overran Sweden and massacred all the Swedish nobles but one, Gustav Vasa, who was able to escape. The Swedes were left without a leader, so two desparate peasants set out on skis to find Gustav. He came back, drove the Danes out of Sweden, and set up the kingdom that survives to this day. During the 1700s, the people of Telemark, Southern Norway developed skiing into a sport. They invented the Telemark and the Christiana (now known as the Christie) turns as methods of artfully controlling speeds on downhill descents. The ideas of these early pioneers helped pave the way for the disciplines of both downhill (Alpine) and cross-country (Nordic) skiing.
The first evolution of skiing came in 1868 for downhill skis. Sondre Nordheim from the Telemark region, an outstanding craftsman and skier, developed the first binding that went around the heel, stabilizing the boot on the ski. He also contouring his skis so that they were slightly waisted in the middle. The new binding and refinement of the ski shape gave the skier more control, allowing for sharper turns, faster speeds and the ability to negotiate steeper slopes. Sondre Norheim is often called the “father of modern skiing”.
When Europeans became aware of their Norwegian neighbors’ amusement with skiing, the sport’s popularity grew. By 1870, the skiing had spread to central Europe but soon became apparent that the techniques used by the Scandinavians were unsuitable for mountainous terrain, especially in the Alps of south central Europe. Nordic techniques were therefore adapted for the steeper slopes, and Alpine skiing was born. Alpine skiing became a popular European pastime in the 1930s, as ski lifts were invented and that eliminated the labor of climbing a mountain before experiencing an exhilarating descent. The invention of the ski lift is credited to a young German engineer, Gerhard Mueller, who used parts of a motorbike and some rope to create the world’s first rope tow.
The ski industry emerged and began in earnest after the Second World War, when Austria and Switzerland came out with the first Alpine Ski Resorts. The rapid advance of materials and technology further popularized the sport all over the world. Ski manufacturers developed faster and safer equipment which combined with the improving skills of the skiers to make the sport of skiing more intense, and easier to learn.
Nowadays, skiing has about 45 million fans worldwide. There are over 6,000 ski resorts around the world in more than 70 different countries. Most of these are in Europe, with 1,000 or so each in North America and Asia (Russia/Japan). Great ski resorts also exist in Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand; they are found in hot countries such as Iran, Morocco, Lebanon, Greece, Turkey, Spain and Portugal; and since the end of the Cold War, East European countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, with their upgraded winter resorts provide excellent opportunities for ski enthusiasts of all levels.