Cross Country Skiing History

In the following article we intend to provide some information about XC skiing history, such as important terminology, background on cross country skiing and skiing used in wars, skiing as a sport and as a means of transportation.

Terminology Within the History of Skiing

The word ski is derived from the Old Norse word skíð, meaning “cleft wood”, “stick of wood” or “ski”.

In modern Norwegian, there are different terminologies to define XC skiing, such as:

  • gå på ski (“walk on skis”) – a general term used to define self-propelled skiing
  • turgåing på ski (“hiking on skis”) – a reference to ski touring as a recreational activity
  • langrenn (“long competition”) – referring to cross country ski racing
  • stå på ski (“stand on skis”) – alpine skiing

Fridtjov Nansen (a Norwegian explorer, scientist, diplomat, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who was also a champion skier and ice skater). Described the crossing of Greenland as På ski over Grønland, literally meaning “On skis across Greenland”, or ‘The first crossing of Greenland’ as per the English edition of the report.

Nansen observed that ski jumping is not meant for amateurs and is a proper competitive sport.

He also noted that certain competitions require the skier to display skill in maneuvering his cross country ski to one side or another by staying within the confined markings, on a steep snow covered hill, and at great speed. He referred to these forms of jumping and slalom as “special arts”. However, he firmly believed that traveling was by far the most prominent part of skiing. By traveling, he meant “in an ordinary way across the country”.

The Norwegian sports encyclopedia also adopts the term, skiløping, (literally meaning “ski running”) for all formats of skiing. Around the year 1900, the term Skilaufen gained traction in the German language and used in the same sense as Norwegians did, i.e. skiløping.

Background & Wars

Cross Country Skiing History
Martin Matsbo, Swedish cross-country skier

Cross-country skiing originated as a means of travel and sports in Scandinavian countries and has remained popular since then. It is also referred to as ski touring, in its non-competitive and purely recreational form.

The skis used for XC skiing are designed to be longer, lightweight, and narrower as compared to the mountainous Alpine terrain. Similarly, the bindings facilitate the movement between the ski and heel of skier’s boot along with longer ski poles than Alpine skiing.

The two renowned XC skiing techniques include the classical and older method (traveling with skis parallel and kicking backward to create a gliding motion over the snow) or the skating or freestyle technique (that evolved relatively recently in the 1970s and is more akin to ice skating, and hence the name given to it).

In the classic style, the skier will keep the skis in parallel and drag it back to glide over the snow surface.

In freestyle skiing method, the inside edge of the ski is pushed back and forth at the same time at around 45° angle, and this generates much more speed than you would get from the classical style.

The cross-country skiing stories dates back to 1206 A.D. when a civil war erupted between the clans of Birkebeiner and Bagler. During this unrest, the peace-loving king called the Birkebeiner Haakon III passed away, and left a baby son behind, as the next in the throne. The Baglers made strategies to kill the son too. It is during testing times like these that the king’s supporters and palace guards made a plan to escort the young king to Trondheim to save his life. The fierce snowstorm severely halted their mission only after a few days of traveling. But the brave guards didn’t give up and bravely decided to push on by strapping their skis and carrying the young Haakon IV for a difficult 55 kilometers stretch through the blizzard and snow and eventually to safety.

In memory of their heroics, there are annual Birkebeiner races or loppets conducted in Norway to this day, to commemorate those tough times. The competitors can be seen with backpacks weighing 5.5 kilograms that is symbolic of the little king’s weight that the palace guards carried around on their skis.

Sports

Nordic ski or cross-country ski races (also referred to as langlauf in German and langrenn in a lot of Scandinavian languages) are conducted in circular courses. The distance of these international races is measured to be 10, 15, 30, and 50 km for men and 5, 10, 15, and 30 km for women.

ancient Cross Country skier

A lot of traditional contests are for a longer duration such as the Vasaloppet in Sweden that is 90 km (56 miles). The race event organizers will specify the required techniques that are allowed in a particular event. The XC skiers will begin at intervals and those who reach the finish line in the shortest time are declared winners.

Norwegian military were the first ones to organize an official ski competition back in 1767. There were multiple cash prizes for skiing (that we today know as biathlon event), downhill skiing, and racing in full military gear, amongst other sporting activities.

When the Norwegian ski troops stopped functioning in 1826, it was local civilian ski clubs who re-started this sport by organizing the races and events again.

With Norwegians traveling and immigrating over the world in large numbers, they also introduced their unique methods of skiing to the respective indigenous population. It is at this point that cross country skiing was seen developing or evolving into a healthy and sociable sport from what it once used to be – a military practice or necessity.

In 1888, Nansen skied across the southern end of Greenland that remained unexplored and published his experiences and findings in a book. This rekindled a massive interest in Nordic skiing throughout Europe (in particular the elite classes). And in no time, by 1900, cross country skiing became a renowned name in winter sports and touring.

Norwegian expatriates started taking positions of organizers and club mentors and ski clubs became a much more common sight all over Europe. Norwegians were ecstatic about the popularity of their national sport, however, they were also insecure about the fact that they will lose control over it. This led to the formation of an International Ski Congress in 1910.

Federation Internationale du Ski

This Congress was replaced by the Federation Internationale du Ski (FIS) in 1924, but Norwegians ensured that had at least one Norwegian at the top position of FIS. This was to ensure that any national-level XC skiing event taking place in either Europe or the USA will have to be compliant with Norwegian rules – that included physical fitness as well as moral uprightness!

Since 1988, the classical and freestyle skiing techniques were allocated for specific events starting at the Calgary Olympic Games and the pursuit race also started later in 1992 at Albertville Winter Olympics.

Some aspects of cross country skiing have remained unchanged, such as the continued prominence and success of Scandinavian skiers. Soviet and Russian skiers also emerged strongly in the 1960s. Retired Norwegian ski champion Bjorn Daehlie has been the most successful Winter Olympian in history so far. He won 8 gold medals for Norway in 3 Winter Olympics within the period 1992 – 1998.

A renowned Canadian called Pierre Harvey has also won 3 World Cup gold medals from 1988 – 1989. Another notable Canadian ski champion called Angela Schmidt-Foster was also 4 time Olympian.

winter-olympics

The 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games was a bad one for Canada as their Olga Danilova and Larissa Lazutina failed out-of-competition doping tests (darbepoetin), and were stripped off their medals.

Skate skiing started on an experimental basis in the 20th century, but only got the attention in the 1980s. Johan Grøttumsbråten was the one who adopted the skating technique during the 1931 World Championship in Oberhof – signifying a very early use of the technique in competitive cross-country skiing. Later on in the 1960s, the skating technique was adopted in ski orienteering on roads and other stable surfaces. It wasn’t until the 1980s when Bill Koch of USA took it up during cross-country ski championships. Norwegian Ove Aunli also found this technique to be quicker than the classic style and adopted it in 1984. Another development for skate skiing was introduced by the Finnish ski expert Pauli Siitonen in the 1970s, as he used a one-sided variant, by leaving one ski in the track and skating to the side with another ski, as part of endurance events. This became popular as the “marathon skate”.

Transportation

Cross country skiing has been used for traveling for almost 5000 years or so, with its beginnings found in the Scandinavian region.

As per the historians, it may well have been practiced by Chinese, as early as 600 CE in Daxing’anling.

Some historical evidence (around CE 550) also suggests Procopius’s observations of its usage by Sami people known as skrithiphinoi, meaning “ski running samis”.

Birkley asserts that these Sami people have been skiing for over 6000 years, as per the usage of the very old word čuoigat for skiing.

Egil Skallagrimsson’s 950 CE adventure stories narrate the practices of King Haakon when he used to send his tax collectors out on skis.

There was also a Gulating law in Norway (dating back to 1274) that provided: “No moose shall be disturbed by skiers on private land.”

At the beginning of the mid-1800s, cross-country skiing evolved from a transport-related activity to being a global recreational activity and winter sport in the world.

Early cross-country skiers relied on one long pole or spear as well as skis, as part of their gear. It was not until 1741 that we first saw a skier with two ski poles. Skis ranging up to 280 cm in length have been manufactured in Finland, with the longest one being recorded in Norway, at 373 cm!

Cross country skiing was also commonly employed by troops during wars to carry warfare. This was recorded for the first time by a Danish historian called Saxo Grammaticus in the 13th century. The transportation efforts of these troops using the skis were no efficient than those used through light cavalry.

The military in Trondheim has used skis from as early as 1675. The Danish-Norwegian garrison had specialized ski battalions since 1747, as per the records of military ski exercises in the year 1767. These military ski exercises have been noted since 1747. In 1799, Jacques de la Tocnaye (a French traveler) noted down the details of his visit to Norway in the form of a diary. In his notings, he also mentioned Norwegian immigrants who were using skis in the US mid-west from 1836.

A Norwegian immigrant by the name “Snowshoe Thompson” used to deliver mail by skiing all across the Sierra Nevada (in between California and Nevada) as early as 1856.

Norwegian workers also introduced skiing in South America, during their working days in the Buenos Aires – Valparaiso railway line in the 1890s.