By Teemu Virtanen
As we are now in the middle of the summer training and our Pro Teams with their athletes are or have been spending some valuable training time at their summer camps, it’s good to remind us what our beloved skiing is really about. More precisely how did this wonderful sport come about? A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about the history of Nordic skiing, and let’s go back to that and refresh our memories (naturally, I used various sources, including Wikipedia, for my research).
Cross-country skiing is a form of skiing where skiers rely on their own locomotion to move across snow-covered terrain, rather than using ski lifts or other forms of assistance. Cross-country skiing is widely practiced as a sport and recreational activity; however, some still use it as a means of transportation. Variants of cross-country skiing are adapted to a range of terrain which spans unimproved, sometimes mountainous terrain to groomed courses that are specifically designed for the sport.
This sounds very familiar to all of us who love this unique form of winter sports. But its history goes way back to the ancient times. The word ski comes from the Old Norse word skíð which means a stick of wood. Skiing started as a technique for traveling cross-country over snow on skis, starting almost five millennia ago in Scandinavia, but it may have been practised as early as 600 BCE in China. Additionally, the Sami people have practiced skiing for more than 6000 years.
Early skiers used one long pole or spear in addition to the skis. The first depiction of a skier with two ski poles dates to 1741. Traditional skis, used for snow travel in Norway and elsewhere into the 1800s, often comprised one short ski with a natural fur traction surface, the andor, and one long for gliding, the langski—one being up to 100 cm longer than the other—allowing skiers to propel themselves with a scooter motion.
Then over the centuries, cross-country skiing evolved from a utilitarian means of transportation to being a worldwide recreational activity and sport, which branched out into other forms of skiing starting in the mid-1800s. Norwegian skiing regiments organized military skiing contests as early as in the 18th century. An early record of a public ski competition occurred in Tromsø in 1843.
In Norwegian, langrenn refers to "competitive skiing where the goal is to complete a specific distance in groomed tracks in the shortest possible time". Using this definition as the backbone of its further development, skiing evolved into a competitive form of winter sports. The first FIS Nordic World Ski Championships took place in 1925 for men and in 1954 for women, and the first Winter Olympic Games were held in Chamonix, France, in 1924. After World War II, the World Championships were held every four years from 1950 to 1982. Since 1985, the World Championships have been held in odd-numbered years.
A new technique, skating, was experimented in the early 20th Century, but was not widely adopted until the 1980s. Johan Grøttumsbråten used the skating technique at the 1931 World Championships in Oberhof, one of the earliest recorded use of skating in competitive cross-country skiing. This technique was later used in ski orienteering in the 1960s on roads and other firm surfaces. Skiers such as Bill Koch from America, Ove Aunli from Norway and Pauli Siitonen from Finland brought the technique to public attention in the late 70s and early 80s, and it was widely adopted since the 1985 World Championships in Seefeld, Austria. It has since become the fastest technique in skiing and extremely popular among elite and recreational skiers. Naturally, classic technique remained, and due to the popularity of long distance skiing, double-poling has recently become the “third technique” in cross-country skiing.
Long distance skiing, or marathon skiing, has been around ever since the latter part of the 19th century. Vasaloppet in Sweden, since 1922, and Oulun Tervahiihto, since 1889, in Finland are the oldest public ski races in the world. These classic events paved the way for other international long distance ski organizers, and in 2011 Ski Classics, now Visma Ski Classics, solidified the sport form, which has become a spectacle in its own right followed by over a million TV viewers and participated by thousands of skiers, Pro and recreational ones alike.