Wednesday, 31 March 2010
There seems to be some discussion in the mountains of the European Continent right now as to whom it was that first introduced the fabulous sport of Alpine skiing to the Alps. The Norwegians (born with skis on their feet, remember) think they did, but the Brits might have, while the French probably think they did. A spot of digging has been required.
In the latter part of the 19th century the British middle classes were about the wealthiest in Europe. Their comfortable life-style caused them to travel, to seek adventure and thrill, and they soon discovered the clear air of the Alps was enormously invigorating. As time went on, Chamonix was a particular favourite amongst British climbers and from the endeavours of these guys, a favourite haunt became a desirable spot for other tourists.
Meanwhile, the Norwegians had discovered Chamonix too, and thoroughly enjoyed the bountiful snow it provided for their cross-country skiing and ski jumping.
But two Brits arrived in Chamonix who rather put the downhill cat amongst the cross-country pigeons. Two public school boys with a thirst for speed and adventure showed up and instead of going horizontal, they pointed their skis down the Alp instead. Considering the remarkable shape of an Alp, it seems like a ‘no-brainer’ these days, but in the 1920s this was considered flippant foolery.
Sir Arnold Lunn (as in the travel firm Lunn Poly) was the main ‘inventor’ and promoter of this downhill lark, and his accomplice in trying to make the world see this was a proper sport was Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (yes, the writer himself). A Scot, Sir Arthur had been born in Edinburgh into an Irish-Catholic family. By the time he went skiing with Lunn, he had made his name, which was rather handy for Lunn.
At first the Norwegians were rather cross about these ignorant Brits tinkering with their sport. They used to suggest that downhill was for people too cowardly to jump, and too feeble to do cross-country. One Norwegian was said to have remarked, ‘how would you like it if an Eskimo changed the rules of cricket?’ Since he was not a huge fan of cricket, Lunn’s answer implied that it might be an improvement.
However, very soon the Norwegians and everyone else in Chamonix at the time, realised downhill did, after all, require a certain amount of skill and was not just a soft option. Immediately the Norwegians became mind-blowingly good. By 1936 Lunn had succeeded in introducing Alpine skiing to the Winter Olympics.
Somehow it seems a rather typically British story...invent a sport, make sure it’s accepted by the rest of the world, and then never win it. Rugby, football, golf, cricket, curling and bob-sleigh.....I could go on, but the list is too irritatingly long.
Posted by Returning Scot at 14:04