The Holmenkollen Ski Festival is the largest ski event in the world. Close to Oslo, the Holmenkollen has been part of skiing history since it hosted its first competition in 1892. The jumping hill, the Holmenkollbakken, has been artificially enlarged and heightened every generation or so. It is so high in fact, that the jumpers now seem to descend straight from the heavens, their gravity-defying jumps mesmerising the crowds. The fans come from across Europe and the Holmenkollen galleries are a colourful tapestry of nationalities, sporting a usually crazy assortment of hats and wild wigs. Every few seconds, all heads turn to one direction and the eyes are fixed on the speeding jumper, in the hope to lift him or her a few metres higher by sheer will power. It is a spectacular, lively celebration of an ancient tradition which started thousands of years ago, when the prehistoric Norwegians scratched images of themselves in the rock face, hunting on skis through the vast wilderness.
Skiing is to Norwegians what water is to fish. You cannot imagine one without the other and a few times a year the country comes to a complete stop as the families disappear to the slopes for their annual skiing outings. They have been doing it longer than anyone else in the world.
In many parts of the country, putting a flat piece of wood under your feet was the easiest way to get around in winter. In early spring it was the fastest way to reach the summer farms, high on the hills. The hunter and the farmer would track through the snow-covered forests, returning with game and firewood. One long ski for gliding and balance and one short ski for kicking. For most Norwegians skiing was a practical solution for a transportation challenge, but to some it became clear that skiing could be much more than that. It could be a sporty endeavour. It might even be fun! In the Edda, the 13th century Icelandic saga, we find that King Harald Sigurdsson (1046-66) was famous for being able to ski really fast. And in the 18th century already military races were organised. It would however take until the 19th century before skiing would become a national sensation of speed and grace.
On March 21, 1843, the world’s first public competition was held in Tromsø, in Northern Norway. It would however be the Telemark area (in the middle of Norway) that would boost the popularity of the sport beyond Norway. Folk hero and potato farmer Sondre Norheim innovated the bindings, the ski form and the technique, dazzling the crowds with his incredible quick turns, high jumps and maneuverability in 1868. Skiing became something intrinsically Norwegian, even something patriotic. Schools and ski factories opened their doors and Norwegians started to fan out across the world as missionaries of slalom and ski-jumping. It is safe to say that it were the Norwegians who taught the world to ski. Norheim ended up in North-Dakota in the US and taught the Americans how to slide and jump. Others travelled to Austria, Switzerland and the Balkans.
Skiing is truly Norway’s lasting legacy and biggest export success, a cultural heritage tradition to be proud of.