HISTORY OF CROSS COUNTRY
BY KAARE ASKILDT
The word “Ski” comes from the Old Norse “Skid,” meaning a board or a
piece of split wood. Archaeological finds show that skis have been used in large parts of Siberia and Northern Europe for 4-5000 years
A Viking Rune Stone carving discovered in 1930 in a cave at “Roedoey” in Northern Norway depicts a, skier and has been dated back to 5000 BC. Skis found in peat bogs in both Norway and Sweden is believed to be from the year 400. The Vikings were avid skiers; they had to be as it was one of the main modes of transportation in Scandinavia in the winter time. They used a long ski for gliding and a short ski for pushing (somewhat like the modern free style technique). They used animal pelts or bees wax for gliding
and grip. They only had one pole, which was used to push with. The pole was a multi tool as it could also be used as a lance, and the flared end that got pushed into the snow was detachable and was used as a drinking vessel.
Very little has been written in the Norwegian Sagas about skiing. However, Snorre Sturlason writes in his Saga about the Norse god “ULL” as the best skier and archer. In the Ragnadraapa Saga from the 9th century, the bard Brage Bodason writes about the goddess “Skade” who could ski and use a bow and arrow.
Norway’s King Olav I (better known as Olav Tryggvason ruled Norway 995 –
1000) was described as a fine sportsman both on land and at sea. “He skis faster than any other man,” it has been recorded in the “Kings Sagas.” The “Kings Sagas” tell us that skiing was also mastered by King Harald Hardraade (ruled Norway 1045 -1066). The Saga goes on to describe a famous competition where a young man named Heming challenged the King. The King found himself matched stride for stride by young Heming who won the race.
In 1206 the “Kings Sagas” tells of how the Birkebeiners saved the 2 year old infant prince Haakon Haakonsson from certain death by skiing him across two mountain ranges. The skiing feat was performed by two of the best skiers, Torstein Skjevla and Skjervald krukka. Haakon Haakonson (ruled Norway 1217 – 1263) is the longest reigning Norwegian monarch in the history of Norway. Magnus Lagaboete (ruled Norway 1263 -1280) enacted a law that forbade skiers to hunt moose.
A little bit of Norwegian history is necessary to put modern skiing history in the proper perspective. Norway came under Danish rule after the collapse of the Kalmar union. During the seven years’ war in 1564, the Swedish army skied to Trondheim and occupied the area until the Norwegian army arrived on foot. The first recorded history of skis being used by an army. By the way, the Norwegians sent the Swedes packing! Norway negotiated their independence from Denmark in 1814.
The Norwegian literary elite composed a new constitution in 1814, which was officially proclaimed at Eidsvoll on May 17th the same year. The constitution was based in part
on the French and American constitutions, but did call for a king as the supreme head of the country. A true blue blooded Norwegian of royal heritage could not be readily found, so the fathers of the constitution went to Sweden and asked the Swedish King Karl II to be a caretaker king until a suitable subject could be found. Of course King Karl II accepted this offer, but he made it conditional that he wanted a Norwegian troop as his king’s
guards along with his Swedish troop. The Norwegians brought along their skis, something that the Swedish king’s guards did not use. The Swedish guard equipped
themselves with skis as well, to be equal with the Norwegians. The very first recorded international skiing competition was held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1816, as a result of a challenge by the Swedish guard to the Norwegians. The Norwegians accepted the challenge on the condition that sharp shooting would be part of the event. So the very first international skiing competition was indeed a biathlon event, which of course was won by the Norwegians, or so the legend goes. The first official cross country ski competition was held in Tromsoe in Northern Norway in 1843.
The army skis were totally flat and with an even width from tip to tail. The bindings were kind of a big loop to fit the toe of the boot. The bindings were easy to get in and out of, but the skis had a tendency to fall off the boot. The skis were pine tarred to make them repel water, and animal pelts were usually used for both kick and glide. The Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen (1862 – 1930) increased the awareness of skiing with the publication of his book describing his 500 kilometer ski trek crossing the south of Greenland. Fridtjof Nansen was quoted in 1930 as saying: “Skiing is the most national of all our Norwegian sports.” The first official Nordic Combined (cross country skiing and ski jumping) competition was held at the Holmenkollen hill near the capital Christiania (now named Oslo) in 1893. It was to become the first of the annual Holmenkollen Ski Festival.
The pioneer of modern skiing is considered to be a young man from the fylke (province) of Telemark in Norway, Sondre Norheim (1825 – 1897). He had developed a new type of ski with a toe binding and a leather strap around the heel of the boot. The ski was equally as wide at the tip and the tail, but narrower in the middle where the binding was mounted. The ski was cambered as to glide only on the shovel behind the tip and on the tail behind the binding. His skis were much more manoeuvrable on the downhill than the skis in use at that time. From then on all skis would be made with a camber and side cut.
Today’s Telemark Ski is very similar in construction. Sondre Norheim wanted to show the rest of Norway his new skis and his new skiing technique. The Swedish King Oscar I (the king on the sardine can, ruled Norway 1844 – 1859) was going to visit Christiania in January of 1845, and Sondre asked Christiania’s city council for permission to make a public demonstration and requested the King’s presence. Sondre dazzled everyone with
his new skis and the technique he used to demonstrate them with. He made many turns down the hill, and these turns are still being used in downhill skiing today. The Telemark Turn is named after his home “fylke (province), and the Stem Chrisite is named after Christiania then the name of the capital of Norway
Sondre also pioneered skiing in the US where he lived in his old age. Downhill Telemarking is now a discipline by itself, and is practised all over the world.
Scandinavia and especially Norway were the leading nations in all cross country skiing competitions up to the late 1960’s, when Fischer developed a wood ski with a synthetic base. All the ski manufacturers in Norway “poo pooed” the synthetic base, and had a small victory when a Norwegian skier won the prestigious Holmenkollen 50km race on
wooden skis with a wood base, beating all the Middle European skiers on synthetic base skis. Fischer and other German, Austrian and French ski manufacturers continued to improve on their synthetic bases, and also developed the fiberglass skis with a synthetic
base. Before long the Scandinavians were out skied by their Middle European ompetitors.
The cost to switch to fiberglass ski manufacturing put many of the Norwegian ski manufacturers out of business. Today there is only one Norwegian ski manufacturer in Norway, Madshus Ski Fabrikk A/S.
Cross country skiing really took off in Canada in the 50’s and 60’s when the “Father of Canadian Cross Country Skiing,: Hermann Johannsen, also known as “Jackrabbit Johannsen,” started promoting skiing wherever he went in Canada. “Jackrabbit Johannsen” an engineer by trade, immigrated to Canada in 1928.
Cross country skiing for the visually impaired was introduced in British Columbia by Annar Jakobsen in 1979, and Alberta the same year by Lillian Ofstad in Calgary and Kaare Askildt in Edmonton. “Ski For Light Canada” was incorporated in 1981 with Kaare Askildt as President.
There is a strong and growing core of cross country skiers in Canada today, and we have produced a number of Olympians:
Irvin Servold, Devon, AB
Clarence Servold, Fort Saskatchewan, AB
The Firth Sisters, NWT (Sharon and Shirley)
Joan Groothuysen, Edmonton, AB
Susan Holloway, Halifax, NS
Angela Schmidt-Foster, Midland, ON
Esther Miller, Burns Lake, BC
Pierre Harvey, Rimouski, QUE
Carol Gibson, Camrose, AB
The Fortier Sisters, Edmonton, AB (Amanda and Jamie)
Becky Scott, Vermillion, AB
Sara Renner, Canmore, AB
Chandra Crawford, Canmore, AB
Devon Kershaw, Ontario
Alex Harvey, Rimouski, QUE (Pierre’s son)
George Grey, Canmore, AB
Mark Arendz, Springton, PEI
Jody Barber, Smithers, BC
Colette Bourgonje, Saskatoon. SK
Lou Gibson, Vancouver, BC
Brian McKeever, Canmore, AB (also competed in the Paralympics – Visually
Robbie Weldon, Thunder Bay, ON
Shauna Maria Whyte, Hinton. AB