Thursday, 1 April 2010


So who was she?

We don’t know her name of course, and it’s true, she could have been a man, but there’s a fifty-fifty chance, I’d say, she was a woman. Still, the oldest evidence of a skier is known as ‘The Rodøy Man’, a 4000 year old rock carving of a human skiing. So, the first skier was probably a Norwegian of one sex or the other. Prior to this earth-bound person, we have to resort to Norse mythology where there was both a God of skiing, Ull, and a Goddess of skiing, Skade. Skade, being female, was obviously a multi-tasker so covered hunting as well.

The second famous human skier, a kind of pioneer of the sport , was indeed a man, Sondre Norheim. In the middle of the 19th century, Sondre was an eccentric young farmer from the remote hamlet of Morgedal in the Telemark region of Norway. Until relatively recently, some areas of Telemark were impenetrable except on skis, so naturally, anyone who lived around there needed planks attached to their feet to go about their daily business. Sondre thought he might as well liven things up by making the pedestrian irritations of Telemark farming into a fun-filled sport. He invented a ski binding firm enough to give the foot some control over the ski, and then he got out his Swiss Army knife and experimented with the shape of the ski itself.

Being a young lad, he wanted to ‘take air’ and generally ponce about in the manner of present-day snow-boarders. He and his mates came up with new ways of turning, stopping, and landing from airborne flights off rooftops. (You can just imagine all their Mums, up to their waists in snow having rushed out from cooking an elk’s leg over the fire, going, ‘I’ve told you before, it’ll all end in tears. Can’t you do something useful around here? I don’t know...these boys....when will they ever grow up?) By 1868, Sondre and his pals had grown up and skied the 112 miles to Christiania (Oslo) just to show off.

It was a triumph. Crowds of posh folk in Christiania turned out to watch the ‘peasant’ skiers and applaud their skill. The city-dwellers had never seen anything like it, and instantly appreciated how much fun could be derived from this crazy-mad-peasant behaviour. Before long the Telemark skiers had established the world’s first ski school in Oslo, and a huge ski-jumping competition at Husaby on the edge of the city.

If Sondre Norheim had been a farmer back in the Middle Ages, he would probably have used one ski that was almost 3 metres long, while the other was a shorter one covered with animal skins to allow him to go uphill. Not that cool. By 1700 he’d be on skis that were the same length, but he’d have been way too busy avoiding starvation to bother making all this gear into anything resembling a sport. Luckily he was born at the right time, just when the population was in need of a bit of a laugh. He ended up moving to America and living very quietly on a farm where nobody knew anything about his importance in the history of skiing.

There’s been a revival of interest in Telemark skiing in recent years. Originally just one pole was used and occasionally I have seen purists skiing like this. I cannot begin to express my admiration....apart from the fact they wear great clothes, Telemark is exceptionally difficult and even harder on the old knees than normal skiing.

But it is quite the most elegant sport I ever saw.

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