Skiing and the Creation of a Norwegian Identity

by Odd Mølster

In many countries, national landmarks tower above the landscape, symbolizing the nation's skills, power or greatness. Big Ben in London, New York's Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower in Paris are such symbols. In the capital of Norway, such a national landmark is a ski jump. This is no accident, as Norwegian history, culture and identity are all closely linked to skiing. In fact, the history of skiing is the history of Norway during certain historical periods. How could two wooden planks come to play such an important role in the building of a nation?

The Origins of Skiing

The word ski (pronounced 'shee' in Norwegian) is one of the very few Norwegian words to enter languages worldwide. It is derived from the Old Norse skith, which meant a split piece of firewood. Rock carvings show that skis have been used on the Scandinavian peninsula since the Stone Age, 4000 years ago. Skis and skiing are also mentioned several times in the Norse Sagas. However, until 1850 skiing was a means of transportation in wintertime, not a sport.

The use of skis started to change when the Norwegian army mobilized companies of ski troops in the 17th century. Ski soldiers played a major role in several wars, and probably saved Norway from a Swedish invasion in 1808. Skiing was then on the verge of becoming a military sport.

The real ski revolution, however, took place in Telemark, a district in southern Norway with a hilly terrain, well suited for skiing. In the 1850s, outstanding craftsmen and skiers in Telemark began to change the design of the ski drastically. The sides of the split wood were curved inwards, and skis were made shorter, broader and with new bindings around the heel. This ski became the forerunner for all later developments in skiing, and the Telemark region earned its place as the cradle of modern skiing.

In Oslo, skiing competitions took place as early as 1862. It might seem strange that skiing was born as an urban sport, but profound changes in society during the 19th century explain this. Industrialization led to the development of a middle class which had leisure time. This was a new concept to Norwegians who quickly realized they could spend this free time on sports. A parallel development of organized sports was seen all over Europe and resulted in the first Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. The first winter Olympics were held in Chamonix 28 years later.

Around the turn of the century, Norwegians introduced skis all over the planet (they like to think) - at least in Europe and the United States.

Skiing through Norwegian History

Skis played a crucial role many times in Norwegian history all the way up to World War II. In 1206, for example, two heroic Birkebeinere (Birchlegs) brought the two-year-old Prince Håkon to safety, skiing 60 kilometers across the mountains from Lillehammer to Østerdalen.

In 1814, Norway was freed from Danish rule and thrown into a political union with Sweden. The whole period from 1814 to the dissolution of the union in 1905 is characterized by the quest for something purely Norwegian - something with which the people of Norway could identify in order to legitimize an independent Norway. Skiing, combined with sportsmanship and polar research, became springboards for the liberation of Norway.

Four achievements easily emerge in this context: Fridtjof Nansen's crossing of the Greenland continental ice shelf in 1888, his attempt to reach the North Pole in 1895, Amundsen's South Pole expedition 15 years later, and the Vemork sabotage in 1943.

The Exploits of Fridtjof Nansen

The Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen's crossing of Greenland in 1888 caused a sensation in Europe and the United States. Several international expeditions had tried to explore the interior of Greenland before him, but failed. Nansen's expedition was a success, mainly because he and his men used skis. This was something completely new to the world, and skiing now became internationally known for the first time.

The scientific purposes of the crossing were of course important, but it was the achievement itself, along with imperialistic undercurrents, that meant something in Norway. After all, Greenland was ancient Viking land.

A book about the expedition, På ski over Grønland (Skiing Across Greenland), sold several thousand copies in Norway. It was quickly translated into many languages, and spread the story "...about the tiny nation that with its 'snow shoes' succeeded in doing what the Great Powers had tried to do in vain, namely to reveal the Earth's last geographical secrets. The world was about to discover Norway, and Norway was about to discover itself," as Tor Bomann-Larsen wrote in Den evige sne (The Permanent Snow) in 1993. Skis were part and parcel of Norway's new capabilities, and skis would be part of the movement for independence. The struggle against the union had only begun.

When Nansen returned to Norway one year later, a crowd of 60,000 met him on the pier, and 50,000 followed him to the hotel. The Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, at the time one of Nansen's most vociferous critics, wrote that Nansen achieved little by his Greenland crossing beyond measuring temperatures at 40 degrees below zero. So why this immense popularity? Hamsun probably did not understand that Nansen had touched the nation. In a country with no embassies and no diplomacy, a skiing hero became the first Norwegian conqueror since the Vikings, the first true Norwegian abroad in 800 years. Fridtjof Nansen had no sponsors and did not earn a single krone crossing Greenland. But three years after his crossing, the Storting (Parliament) granted him 200,000 kroner (equivalent of 20 million kroner, worth $3.1 million today) to sail across the North Pole in a specially built ship, "Fram" (Forward). Constructed to conduct scientific research, it was also a floating state enterprise with national freedom as its goal.

In 1895, a divided Storting was brought to its knees by Sweden on the question whether Norway should have its own consular service. After all, Norway was still a colony under the House of Bernadotte. Who could save the nation after this humiliating defeat? Norway pinned its hope on Nansen, now in the middle of nowhere, locked in ice. In March 1895, Nansen and captain Hjalmar Johansen left "Fram" in the ice to ski to the North Pole. They never made it, though they got farther north than any other human being. The real exploit, however, lasted over the next six months as they managed to ski back and save their lives. After a year and a half on the ice, they returned to Norway to save the national honor.

Skis have often been crucial in Norwegian history. In 1206, two skiers brought the two-year-old prince Håkon to safety when they skied 38 miles across the mountains from Lillehammer to Østerdalen. In 1814, when Norway was freed from Danish rule and thrown into a union with Sweden, Norwegians sought something purely their own and found it in skiing, which provided a vehicle for liberation. In this context four achievements emerge: Fridtjof Nansen's crossing of the Greenland ice shelf in 1888 and his attempt to reach the North Pole in 1895 were both in last month's issue; now consider Roald Amundsen's South Pole expedition and the Vemork sabotage.

Roald Amundsen's Trek

In 1905, Norwegian independence was finally gained, but had to be defended. By whom? Who could fill the shoes of the polar explorer Nansen whose feats galvanized the nation? The answer was Roald Amundsen. Not as versatile as his predecessor, Amundsen transformed polar research into exploration and replaced Nansen's heroic motto "forward" with the more chauvinistic "first."

In the years following Norwegian independence, the North Pole still had not been reached. Amundsen planned an expedition in 1909/10, but only weeks after he set out it became known that an American, Robert Peary, had set foot on the Pole. Amundsen then decided to head south, and sent a telegram to inform Robert Falcon Scott, an Englishman who had already announced to the world that he would be the first man on the South Pole. The struggle for the South Pole then developed into a race between Scott and Amundsen, and between Britain and Norway. The South Pole was called "the last place on earth," and few adventures of this kind appeared to remain (at least until Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind 58 years later).

Roald Amundsen's expedition, equipped with skis and dogs, used a combination of traditional Norwegian and Eskimo winter techniques. Scott was more innovative, employing Russian ponies and motorized sleds called weasels. But the ponies froze to death, and most of the weasels collapsed or fell into crevasses. Scott and his men went on foot, pulling 100-kilo sleds after them. Amundsen reached the pole first.

He arrived at the South Pole on December 14, 1911. To recognize the crucial contribution that the Telemark skiing tradition made to the expedition, Amundsen gave the honor of being the first man to touch his foot (i.e. ski) on 90 degrees south to a fellow villager of Sondre Nordheim, "the father of modern skiing."

For Scott and his men, the quest for the Pole became a tragedy. They froze to death on their way back, only kilometers away from a food depot. Despite Scott's tragic fate, the discovery of the South Pole became an important national symbol to young Norway. The tiny kingdom had beaten the British empire, and was about to gain the self-confidence and pride required for free nations. Once and for all, the merit of Norwegian skis was proven. Scott's men had skis, but they were no skiers. While the five Norwegians, born with skis on their feet, reached their goal and even gained weight during their trek, the five British men met their end walking on planks.

Heroes of Telemark

The success of Norwegian skiing peaked in the first winter Olympics in Chamonix in 1924, where Norway won all the skiing competitions. The time that followed, however, was not good for skiing. Nationalism, unemployment, Fascism and fear of Communism split the Norwegian people during the 1920s and 1930s, and skis were no longer a uniting symbol.

In 1940, Norway was occupied by Germany, despite its proclaimed neutrality. But as history had demonstrated, the national sport could become a fine weapon in time of war. In 1943, Norway's resistance movement won an epochal victory - on skis, of course - in one of the most celebrated resistance acts of World War II, the sabotage of the German heavy water plant at Rjukan, Telemark.

Heavy water was crucial for the invention of atomic weapons and a supply of heavy water could have put an atomic bomb in the hands of Nazi Germany. Thus the heavy water plant at Rjukan was considered a critical target. When the Allies' attempts to destroy it in air attacks failed, Norway's skiing spirit came to the rescue.

In January 1943, six men, all of them excellent skiers, parachuted into the mountain plains of Hardangervidda. After waiting for two months in the mountains, the demolition team managed to blow up vital parts of the plant. Five members of the team escaped on skis to Sweden, while the sixth, Claus Heiberg, was chased by a German and managed to ski away.

After one hundred years of development, Norway found its strength through skiing and was ready for new challenges. The 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics proved that Norway is still one giant ski trail. Notwithstanding our world champion status in oil production, social welfare and economic stability, Norwegians relish being champions of the snow.

The author Odd Mølster works for the Department of Foreign Affairs


Reproduced with permission from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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