News of Norway, issue 1, 1996
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 skið, 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 Nor-wegians 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 HistorySkis 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 re-search, 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.The author is cultural attache at the Norwegian Embassy in Washington.