Sowing the seeds for the Winter Olympics

The journalist Arthur Spender takes to his skis in Norway circa 1900
The journalist Arthur Spender takes to his skis in Norway circa 1900

When the Winter Olympics get underway in Sochi on February 7, there will be in the region of 2,800 accredited journalists from all around the world. One hundred and fourteen years ago, when the Holmenkollen Ski Festival took place on the outskirts of Christiania, as Oslo was then known, there was just one from outside Norway. At least only one that I know of.

He was not a grandee of Fleet Street, like his far more famous cousin JA; instead he was a successful provincial editor and managing director of the Western Morning News in Plymouth and, briefly before his untimely death at the age of 51 in 1923, the Shrewsbury Chronicle.  His name was Arthur Edmund Spender, my paternal grandfather.

Just four years after the Baron de Coubertin had successfully launched the Summer Olympics in Athens in 1896, Spender took himself off to Norway to chronicle the daily life of people in the country – he even has a fleeting encounter with the playwright Henrik Ibsen, of whom he is a great fan – and to witness what would become, some 24 years later, the Winter Olympics. He went again the following winter, hence giving rise to the title of his book Two Winters in Norway which was published in 1902. It is long out of print but remains a valuable record of life in that country at the turn of the century when winter sports were just being taken up, largely by British tourists who found the lure of the slopes irresistible. The Wilson Line would put on their largest boat to take tourists to Norway (although they had their fingers burned in 1901 when they were hit by last minute cancellations following the death of Queen Victoria).

Two_Winters_in_NorwayOne chapter of Two Winters in Norway hit a special chord with me. For many years I thought I was the first sports writer in the family but it seems my grandfather beat me to it by some 80-odd years. The chapter is called “Norway’s Olympic Games” and it deals with the development of cross country skiing and ski-jumping and how the site of Holmenkollen, one of the leading ski-jump venues in the world today, came into being.

As we begin to focus on Sochi, it may shed a little light on some aspects of what we are about to witness. I hope it will also light a candle for AE Spender as one of the earliest sports feature writers.

I have taken a grandson’s liberty in lightly editing his prose to suit a blog, a concept I am sure he would have grasped as eagerly as he used to reach for the marmalade.

Part 2 deals with the cross country and Part 3 with the ski-jumping events at these Games. Part 1 looks at how a future Nobel Peace Prize winner helped to forge their development through discovering the Telemarken technique, and how a group of city fathers discovered the site that has become an Oslo landmark for the last century – famous enough to be used by Jo Nesbo in his Harry Hole crime novel The Snowman.

 Christiania, 1900, looking anything but abuzz - presumably as everyone had headed off for the skiing at Holmenkollen

Christiania, 1900, looking anything but abuzz – presumably as everyone had headed off for the skiing at Holmenkollen

“The city (Christiani) was alive with a throng of chatterers jumping on to and leaping from the electric cars that clang their dinner gongs as they turn every corner on their run. The people were returning from the practices for the Holmenkollen, which was to occur on the following day which happens to be on the second Sunday in February. We have to sink our idiosyncracies for once as to the proper way of the Sabbath, and join with the merry folk in watching what they choose to term, somewhat inadequately, the Norwegian Derby. In reality the competition bears a closer resemblance to the inter-Varsity sports, except that the competitors vie for their own honour and not as the representative of anybody save as a member of the ski club to which they may happen to belong.

But let me back some twenty years, when the Holmenkollen was less than a dream. It is necessary if we wish to know exactly the outcome of the great event, and it possesses a special interest which is known to few foreigners.

At a place now called Majorstuen, not more than a couple of miles out of Christiania, existed a school in which students learnt their lessons and enjoyed their larks much as every other schoolboy loves to do all over the world. But there was one amongst them who was respected if not exactly a favourite, for he was of a retiring nature. He preferred to roam in search of adventure rather than risk the probable sequel of breaking a master’s windows. He was bent in his own mind on training himself for the future and he went about his recreation in a very serious way. When the winter again returned he would fasten on his skis and be lost in the wood for the rest of the half-holiday, venturing along the narrow path that knitted itself between the firs or also daring a jump in an open clearing that might have made an older person feel no coward at declining the leap.

Ski-jumping was often more of a mad leap than an exact science (Photo: AE Spender)
Ski-jumping was often more of a mad leap than an exact science (Photo: AE Spender)

During one of his winter roamings this lad saw two strange fellows enjoying themselves much in the same way as himself. But he could see at once that they were strangers, for they had a style peculiarly their own when racing down the hills. The schoolboy had been in habit of carrying on his journeys a long wooden pole, some fifteen feet in length, which was a great tax upon him as he struggled up the hills. But this burden had to be endured because the pole was necessary to secure one’s balance when making the descent, and also for steering purposes in the same descent. But as he looked at the two lads madly rushing down the hill in front of him with merely a couple of short sticks in their hands he stood still, astonished.

He watched them for some time carefully and then found reason for further surprise. In preparing for a snow jump he has always been in the habit of making a snow bank at the bottom of the hill, so that he would finish the descent, leap into the air and then land on the level. But these Telemarken peasants – for that was the livelihood of these two stray lads – had built up their bank of snow halfway down the slope, so that they had a good run, then a jump into the air, and a fall on to the slope of the hill, again enabling them to continue their run. This added greatly to the interest of their rivalry, for it required more skill to come down on the slope and then to finish the run standing to the bottom. On the other hand, although it may not look so on the face of it, it is undoubtedly the safer plan, for if the jumper fell he would have more chance of breaking his fall by sliding down the soft snowy bank instead of descending in a heavy mass on the level. This advantage was soon remedied and since that time the jumps have nearly always been made on the slope of the hill.

Fridtjof Nansen. A renowned adventurer and later a "peacemaker", Nansen was a passionate skier.
Fridtjof Nansen. A renowned adventurer and later a “peacemaker”, Nansen was a passionate skier.

But on this occasion to which I refer the plan seemed to be so novel to the schoolboy that he raced home on his skis and hailed his brother, not telling him the cause of his excitement, but persuading him to follow him back to the point of interest. The young peasants were still amusing themselves, all unconscious of the interest that they were causing, and doubtless considered later that it was rather ridiculous that two schoolboys should manifest such keenness in their actions. But the Christiania boys were not to be discouraged: they made friends with the peasants, and when they got home they persuaded their parents to pay the lads to teach them how they carried out their local plan.

As the town lads became greater experts they challenged the Telemarken farmers, but rarely competed against them successfully, although always in a friendly spirit. Annual contest were held, with one or two exceptions, and prizes were consistently carried off by those from the country districts. This was but natural, seeing that this is simply part of their daily occupation in the winter months, for without skis they would never be able to get many steps beyond their own front door in the deep snow that covers the ground. But at last Christiania was in a state of festivity, for the Ladies’ Prize was carried off by one of their own folk, and he was the schoolboy of old who had first drawn the attention of the Telemarken method to the others. It was worthy of the lad’s perseverance, and of the man who afterwards tracked to the ’Farthest North’ for the boy happened to be none other than Dr Fridtjof Nansen himself [more of Nansen in part 3].


Husebybakken in 1879 (photo: Christian Krohg)
Husebybakken in 1879 (photo: Christian Krohg)

From that time the long period of victory which the Telemarken peasants had maintained began to wane, for the interest in the capital increased, and it became the fashion to spend a half-holiday upon some hill not too far away from the town where they could meet and enjoy themselves. Husseby-bakken, or farm of Husseby, was not exactly a perfect spot for the competition, as the hill was neither sufficiently steep nor long enough to ensure a good jump being made.

For the moment there was no better site, so that performers had to be content with their minor achievements under adverse conditions. But human nature triumphed, and there was one, a leading light in the country, whose modesty prevents me from mentioning him by name, who in the course of his duties found the ski-lober’s Eldorado. Having chosen the spot which his keen eye detected as being admirably suited for the requirements of the ski-jumpers, he arranged for an expedition in the shape of a large picnic party, telling his friends that he was intending to take them to a particularly fine spot in the woods not far from the capital.

But after they had gone three-quarters of the way his friends were not so keen on the enterprise. They wanted to halt, but their guide was insistent, and they had to toil still higher. The chief of them at last declined to go a step further, but the leader coaxed him to take a few paces and placed his hands over his eyes. Then as he led him to a particular spot he removed his hands and waited for the exclamation of delight that came from the other. The latter was delighted, and every whit as gratified as the guide, who, spiking the ground with his stick, said in a tone that admitted no opposition, “Here we must build a sanatorium, and here we must persuade foreigners to come in their numbers.”

The hotel at Holmenkollen
Photo: AE Spender

A syndicate was formed to buy the land in 1885, and though there was some opposition from those who had not seen the situation, the gentleman who had been blindfolded at once replied, “I give in,” and, as he was a banker by profession, he was able to be one of the staunchest supporters of the promoter of the scheme. The thousand kroners were raised privately, and Holmenkollen Hotel was built.

After the opposition had been silenced, the Corporation of Christiania saw the wisdom of the few, and, with the discretion of Aristotelians, commenced to buy land in “this finest park in the world.” They then constructed a road through it, and the syndicate which had been responsible for the initiative of attracting the attention of all men towards the spot very generously handed over their portion for the perpetual benefit of the public.

But even then the pioneer was not satisfied with all that had been done, and his expert mind as an engineer planned the existence of an artificial lake half-way up the hillside. He was chaffed again by his friends, and one even ventured a bet with him, the gain to be given to charity if the engineer succeeded.

Holmenkollen, as it is today, still with the frozen lake at the base of the jump
Holmenkollen, as it is today, still with the frozen lake at the base of the jump

It is ill making light of new ideas when their originators are bent upon bringing them to an effective success. Mr Promoter completed his task, and it is now a welcome resting place in summer time for those who are toiling to the summit on foot. The name of the road which starts from the Holmenkollen upwards has its good auspices for it was constructed in 1890 in time for the Emperor of Germany’s visit to King Oscar at Oscarshall. It was but natural then that he should have taken the drive up to this spot, and it was equally natural that the road should henceforth be known as the Wilhelmsveien, starting from the tall granite monolith that bears in carved letters of gold the signatures of Oscar and Wilhelm.

During winter the lake is not so apparent; indeed, there are many thousands who every year pass over it who quite forget its existence. Yet it ought to be remembered for it is upon this very track of frozen water that the jumpers end their run.

Holmenkollen has grown a bit since these pioneering days. In 1952, the Nordic Skiing events of the Winter Olympics were held there – finally Spender’s assertion of “Norway’s Olympics” coming true. The hill has been receveloped 19 times over the years; the ski festival remains an annual event, now on the FIS World Cup calendar. It has also hosted the World Championships four times, most recently in 2011.

With a capacity of 30,000 spectators, it is a slightly bigger event than in Spender’s day.

In the second part of AE Spender’s reports on Norway’s Olympic Games, attention turns to the cross-country and the perils that lie therein.

And in the third part of AE Spender’s reports on Norway’s Olympic Games, he reveals his great affection for the mad leap of the ski-jump.

©Barney Spender/AE Spender 2014