The Thin White Line of Cross-Country Skiing

Holmenkollen has been a home for cross country skiing since 1892 (Holmenkollen Ski Museum)
Holmenkollen has been a home for cross-country skiing since 1892 (Holmenkollen Ski Museum)

Cross-country skiing is an integral part of the Winter Olympics and has been since the first event in Chamonix, France in 1924. It is one of the simpler sports for non-alpinists to understand, the competitors racing up and downhill, either in time-trial formation or in a mass start. The distances can range from the five kilometre sprint to the 50 kilometre marathon.

As with running, the different distances suit different kinds of runners. Prior to the Olympics it was a standard event in what is now referred to as the Holmenkollen ski festival in Norway which my grandfather Arthur Edmund Spender attended in 1900 and 1901.

He was a journalist, writing dispatches for The Times and Westminster Gazette among others. The fruits of his travels appeared in the book Two Winters in Norway from which these posts have been culled.

Two_Winters_in_NorwayIn Part 1, he talked of the role of a future adventurer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Fridtjof Nansen had in the development of winter sports in Norway and how a group of Christiania’s finest (or wealthiest) burghers transformed Holmenkollen into what has since become one of the leading ski-jump venues in the world.

In Part 2, Spender tries to overcome what appears to be an ambivalence towards cross-country competition…

“There is the same special training as there is for hurdling or running at home, for apart from the jumping the competitors have to prove themselves also skilled in long-distance running. But the jumping is the contest which the public chiefly go to watch, and there is a danger that the competitors will neglect the cross-country training in order to make themselves the more efficient in the leap. This, without a doubt, would be a misfortune, for the jump is more in the nature of a pastime, while the steeplechase on skis is a stern test of physical endurance.

I ought to describe the run that precedes the jump, from the numbers of which only a selected number emerge successfully to be allowed to compete in the leap. On the Sunday morning there is a fair gathering by the club to watch the start, which is void of the thrilling interest so common in English racing wherein all the starters line up and make the pace against each other from the beginning. Indeed when I arrived on the scene somewhat early I began to wonder whether the number of competitors would exceed one, for the course commenced through a narrow passage in which it was impossible to rush through at a time.

Then I looked round enquiringly to see if there were any ambulance parties present, for the only alternative that for the moment occurred to my mind was that there must be a neck-and-neck race to the gorge, in which all would be scrimmaging as in a rugby match to keep back the others, a scrimmage which in this instance would have inevitably meant some broken bones. There was one doctor but that was all.

Group cross-country skiing in Canada, using long poles to steer This group was photographed in 1895. (Library and Archives Canada, C-043152)
Group cross-country skiing in Canada, using long poles to steer
This group was photographed in 1895. (Library and Archives Canada, C-043152)

However, I was quickly undeceived, for a gentleman buried deep in a wolf-skin coat sat at a table with a chart in front of him and a stop-watch in his hand. By the side stood an athlete, less warmly clad, with little more, in fact, than a thick woollen vest covered with broad piece of calico on which was printed his number.

“Get ready, No. 1,” said the judge at the table quietly.

Then after half a minute he gave the solemn word to “go”. In England there would have been a wild cry of excitement, and cheers would have forced the struggling athlete a full bound forward; but in Norway they are more passive. A good-natured friend may pass a chaffing remark which the starter either does not hear or heed. It is as well, he has a long journey before him; he has to save his best energies till the last.

A minute after he has passed out of sight No 2 is following in his footsteps, and so on until the eightieth has passed in slow succession.

A course has been mapped out by the judges which the runners have to follow carefully, otherwise they are liable to be disqualified, and there is generally an instance in which such a challenge is made.

Last year, in fact, the rumour went about that the champion had taken the wrong course, and that consequently he would be disqualified. What truth there might have been in this was not stated; but the protest was not sustained, so that he was able to win his honours. It would have been hard had it been otherwise, for it cannot be so difficult to get confused as to the proper direction on a course of 18 miles right across country, up hill and down dale, through the forests, and not avoiding the more difficult places, as an ordinary wayfarer would naturally do.

All along this route there are pieces of red ribbon attached to the branches of the trees, and in many parts there are many non-competing members of the clubs who stand along the road to act as living signposts. But when a runner is straining all his nerves to recover a lost second he is apt to overlook the sight of a red ribbon or the sound of a guiding voice.

A group of skiers around 1900 using the long poles
Competition in 1900 was restricted to men but women were equally adept at getting around on skis; this group from around 1900 using the long poles

Realising the difficulties of the course it is surprising to see how many competitors enter for the race, and the difference in their status. Norway is republican in her tastes, cosmopolitan perhaps, and in this race there are leading lights in the legal profession competing on equal terms with the peasant, the soldier and the conscript or the cadet, and not for a moment is it considered to be deregulatory to their positions to join in such a contest which proves what the absence of professionalism will bring about.

The end is hardly more interesting than the start, for there is the same thin line of runners, not always in the same order as when they started, for oftentimes the better runners will outstrip several of those who were in front of them. As a rule it is possible for the spectators to obtain a shrewd guess as to who will be in the first 20. For instance, if, as happened, No. 11 comes in first, that necessarily implies that he has beaten the first that started by at least 11 minutes, and probably by several minutes more, so that he would have a fair chance of standing high, whilst No 1 would be relatively low in the list.

Besides which the committee know the strength of the various competitors to such a nicety that, unless there is some unforeseen accident, the winner of the champion gold medal can be almost settled beforehand.

But the accidents that do occur do provide a chance of excitement. I can still see a little crowd walking slowly towards the finish. Two of the party were carrying back one of the competitors in a dazed state, and it quickly spread that the fellow had broken his leg. Fortunately we learnt after that the runner had only become exhausted. But there is a danger even in this, for if a competitor should sink down tired somewhere off the course, so that he is passed by unnoticed, he may quickly be frozen to death.

We have to remember that he is clad in little thicker garments that what a runner wears on a long course; that he sits down hot with perspiration coming from every pore of his skin; and further, that the cold of the day is so intense that several competitors refused to start in consequence, whilst the spectators in their fur coats are rubbing their noses which look more blue than their natural colour.

Abel Rossignol was a carpenter who spotted a gap in the market. He travelled from Chartreuse to Norway to learn about skiiing and then In 1907 in his Voiron workshop, he set upp what was to become a leading ski and skiwear company
Abel Rossignol was a carpenter who spotted a gap in the market. He travelled from Chartreuse to Norway to learn about skiing and then in 1907 in his Voiron workshop, he set up what was to become a leading ski and skiwear company

At the first meeting which I happened to attend, one runner reached home with his eyelid slit and his ear bleeding, only to report of another accident which had taken place along the course. On the day preceding another had with the greatest pluck run the while course with a broken arm; a feat which was, to say the least of it, equally foolhardy.

Two years previous to that there had been a worse disaster, for a man had sprained his ankle during the race, and he tried to make a hole for himself in the snow, where he lay; but he perished from the cold. I believe that this death did not occur during any particular race but to a private individual who was out on his own enjoyment a few miles out of Christiania.

The news came as a great shock to the people for it occurred in a part that was fairly frequented. Had it happened during the race the chances are that the man would have been saved, for the runners are comrades first before they are competitors and if anyone is hurt, or injured, the runners that pass him will stay behind, sacrifice all chance of victory, and render him the best possible assistance at their command. As an instance, one good Samaritan stopped and picked up a man who was suffering from a weak heart and carried him on his back for half an hour.

There was rather a similar incident when a lady had gone on skis with her husband some distance over the snow to see the runners pass by, when from some cause or other she fell down and broke her leg. The husband was in despair, being no good ski-lober*, for they were foreigners in the country. A runner sighted what had happened, found the lady had broken her leg, took off her skis, made splints of them, and then carried her on his back to the nearest cottage , where she was kept for weeks.

My last incident is comical because if was so near becoming a tragedy. A runner was racing for all he was worth when he sighted a couple of legs sticking in the air belonging apparently to nobody. He stopped, pulled at them as vigorously as he could, when finally he heard a grunt and man appeared at the end of them. The runner had fallen into a snow drift so deeply that only his legs could be seen above the surface, and he had been in that position for a quarter of an hour before he was released. Fortunately he was just able to move sufficiently to get air for breathing.

Awaiting the first arrivals near the final line (Arthur Edmond Spender)
Waiting for the first arrivals close to the finish line (Arthur Edmond Spender)

But look out! There are some who are returning home without accident, and two of them struggling for mastery. Neither has much energy left, but the people are roused to give them some encouragement, which spurs them on to make a fancy race. An open way is made by the public through which they pass, the recorder takes the time of their arrival, a friend approaches to them and throws their coats over their backs, whilst others unfasten their skis, when after a little rest they go towards the chalet hard by down into the cellar. Their toes are frozen, and the only remedy is to sit with their feet in a bucket of snow until the circulation is restored – a true paradox of nature!

The crowd has drifted away, impatient for the following day, for the Monday is the Blue Ribbon Day of the year.”

Whether Spender would pick up a slot as a sports writer on a national these days seems unlikely – it is usual after all at least to inform the reader who actually won the race – but his eye for colour and anecdote certainly provide a wonderful view on this early competition. Sadly he died in 1923, at the age of just 51, one year before the first Winter Olympics and was therefore unable to see his Holmenkollen ski festival graduate to Olympic honours.

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.

In the first part of AE Spender’s reports on Norway’s Olympic Games, he looks at the development of the Holmenkollen ski festival

©Barney Spender/AE Spender 2014

* Spender often refers to ski-lobing: this comes from the Norwegian skilöbning which means cross-country skiing. 

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