The ski-jump competition is one of the most popular aspects of any Winter Olympics and has been since the first edition in 1924. These days, the modern greats like Simon Ammann and Gregor Schlierenzauer leap well over 100 metres; back in 1900 it was more like 100 feet. Even so, today’s stars wouldn’t be doing their stuff if the pioneers hadn’t laid the path.
Arthur Edmund Spender was a British journalist who travelled to Norway in 1900 and 1901 for the Holmenkollen ski fair, the forerunner to the Winter Olympics. His book Two Winters in Norway chronicles the development of winter sports in Norway. Part 1 looked at how a future Nobel Peace Prize winner became a disciple of the Telemark technique while Part 2 showed Spender’s ambivalence for cross-country skiing events.
Part 3 looks at the flyboys, what Spender describes as the Blue Ribbon event at the Holmenkollen Games. First he sets the scene for the great day as spectators travel from Christiania (Oslo today) to the slopes just outside the city. He sets the scene with a look at the crowd as they make their way towards the hill.
“A procession of enthusiasts can be seen at an early hour strolling leisurely towards the great rendez-vous. This alone is worth a pilgrimage, for nowhere in the world can such a kaleidoscopic army of peaceful citizens be seen. Even at night time on the return journey after all the excitement of the day there is noise with comparatively little drunkenness. I watched the crowd carefully in regard to this; it was not immaculate in its sobriety, but it could bear favorable comparison with the careless holiday-seekers in other countries.
Amongst the earliest of those who were able to reach the Holmenkollen were some four or five youngsters, their faces fresh and jolly as rosy apples, full of life, supple of limb, and fearless of difficulties. Shuffling along on their skis, they had walked out the whole five miles from Christiania in order to secure a certain place at a cheap price. Most of them wore tight knickerbockers and stockings, whilst their ears were covered with the flaps of the cloth caps which they wore tied under their chins.
Behind came some of the older youths, not quite fast enough to enter the competition, but none the less bent on seeing good sport. Tottering along on a tiny pair of snowshoes were a couple of young imps struggling bravely to keep up with those that had longer strides. The smaller of them promised to become an expert snow-lober before she had grown up.
Possibly, bringing up the tail of this little procession, would struggle bravely the father and the mother, also on skis, gently risking the little descents and little liking the constant passing to and fro of the jingling sleighs – those eternal bells worrying one’s attention with their persistent incessancy. (More than once I longed for a sharp blade to cut through the harness to which they were attached.) Yet their perpetual clamp clump is necessary, otherwise the sleighs would glide so softly through the snow that the foot passenger would have no warning of their approach.
Just as the costers on Derby Day, so do the sleigh drivers strive to pass each other. It is a struggling race at half speed with many stoppages. A horse is eager to push on forward when some dull-witted pedestrian steps into the way, and is annoyed by the fancy that he was nearly run over. A vein of sarcasm may escape the driver’s lips, who sees that he has lost his chance for a little while.
It was an exciting game, and the horse which my friend was driving, and which he called Kvik, meaning “Quick” out of compliment to his guest, craned his neck repeatedly forward to grasp the right moment for a bound ahead. Many a stolid pacer we left behind us, and other wretches who had a hard task before them to pull up the heavy weight that sat behind. One was turned aside for the owner had been seized with an apoplectic fit. Then we strove to pass a smart turn-out, an open victoria drawn by a pair of horses, with footman and coachman on the box. The whole presented a very grand effect.
We made a bend and then drew in rein on a flat space, the hidden surface of the lake. The open stable was quite a feature: each coachman took up a place alongside those who had been earlier arrivals, their masters alighted, and with grey or pink cards pinned on to their buttonholes received the salutes of the obliging soldiers, who were there to do duty for the day. A few there who were mounted, directed the crowd quietly that stood without the privileged circle.
The mass of spectators closed together in a horseshoe shape, the rounded part of which was formed at the base of the hill, leaving a sufficient space for the jumpers to manoevre about after they had finished their evolutions. The keener sportsmen stood at the ends of the shoe halfway up the hill, just inside the boundary set by the line of forest which had been left standing, and formed a picturesque background to the scene. Here at this end, a third of the way below the brow of the hill, which was out of sight, had been built up a bank of snow, about four feet in depth at its outer end, in which was embedded the Norwegian flag.
Early on the field were Dr Fridtjof Nansen and his wife, the latter well wrapped up with a hood of sheepskin over her head. The explorer was content with a short coat and the national round fur cap for warmth. Undoubtedly he is a man of fine physique, but I was disappointed with his looks. His features are hard, but the fire of his eyes betrays his force of character. Not so his speech, for he is unusually taciturn, and he did little towards making himself obliging. This, however, was partly to be excused by the fact that he was so intent upon every incident as man after man made the leap, in which he once was so keen a competitor.
Near to him stands Dr (Ingebrigt) Holm*, short but extremely affable, and personally interested in the contest towards which he has given an annual cup. Down in the judge’s box opposite the snow bank, giving his whole attention to the contests, stands Mr (Axel) Heiberg, the champion in ski-lobing.
THE CONTEST BEGINS
One of the committee tries the jump, the whole of which has been laid out with an expert’s care, and the signal is given for the first competitor to have his fling. Only those who had had the preparation of a cinder path for the long jump to attend to at home can realise the anxiety there is in the preparation of the snow on the hill lest the surface should be too slippery or the reverse.
On one occasion the weather was so mild that the great event had to be postponed for three weeks, and people waited impatiently and fretfully for the colder weather to return. In 1901 there were the same fears, and, ridiculous though it may sound, in order to make the hill sage they had to unload cartload after cartload of snow brought from elsewhere – truly a case of “carrying coals to Newcastle”. On the Sunday the jump had been tested and the fore, or condition of the snow’s surface, had been pronounced perfect. On the Monday, however, a biting frost in the night had hardened the dry crispness of the snow to the disappointment of the runners.
I think that had we been an English crowd we should have shouted out “time!” Out in Norway a mere gesture marks out impatience for the contest to commence
By the judge’s box, a flag is lowered, a mournful note is sounded somewhere out of sight, and whilst we are wondering and raising our eyes upwards we espy a black speck racing down the hill, and before we can quite take in what has happened the first jumper has reached the base of the hill.
We are dullards and have to collect our thoughts more sharply. Another note is sounded, another black figure darts down. We turn round; he is in the air, and he too has reached the bottom. We have to be sharper still if we wish to watch the jumper throughout.
First he slips over the brow of the hill, tears down the narrow incline with feet well set, but knees bent and with eyes straining towards the bank from which he is to make his leap. There is silence, the breath of everyone is checked, the jumper has reached the platform, he springs right forwards, away into space, steadies himself in mid-air, still for the tenth of a second, then he drops like a hawk on to the slope of the hill beneath. Here comes the real test, for if he has done well he will land so that his right foot is slightly in advance of his left, but pointing straight in front with knees barely bent and his hands rigid at his side. Then he slips down as he holds himself erect into the flat open space beneath, where he joins the little knot of those who have preceeded him and are ready to congratulate him upon his neatnes of style.
A few hushed bravos are raised, but here is not once the volley of sound that would come from the gorges of Britons at any such gathering, and one is much surprised at the difference.
For a time the equal skill that is shown by the competitors becomes monotonous, but there are one or two who have missed their footing or are less efficient; some fun ensues, and the crowd makes merry thereat in a good-humoured way. No 49 loses his balance in mid-air, swings his arms as though he happened to be a flying windmill, and then, when he descends to terra firma, again he is seen no more. He falls, and in his place there arises a thick cloud of powdered snow which races down to the end of the hill; and there again reassumes the shape of a man little damaged but very crestfallen.
Sometimes the points of the skis rise above the clouds of snow that he has raised in his tumble like bayonets fixed for a charge after a sharp fusillade. Sometimes again a dog rushes out to see where the genius has disappeared, and causes quite a commotion as he stumbles in the snow after the victim.
ACCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN
One incident which provoked unusual laughter was when a jumper fell in such a manner that his skis stuck in the snow, and a policeman had to render to him “first aid”, as he had driven them so far into the ground that he could not release himself. It seemed really marvelous that there were comparatively few accidents; one or two men snapped their skis, but when men spring from such a height one would expect that they at least ran the danger of breaking a leg or an arm.
As a matter of fact this rarely happens, and may be partly accounted for by the fact that only men of known experience are allowed to join in the contest. All of them have earlier in the day to compete on another hill a little further off; they are the remnant of those who have found a possible place after the Sunday steeplechase, and a further selection is made before they are allowed to enter for the Holmenkollen jump.
This last practice was enforced for the first time in 1901, and was a proper move on the part of the committee, for, with all due respect to the jumpers, I grew unutterably weary of the whole event in 1900 owing to the number of competitors. I was not a sufficient connoisseur to judge them on their respective merits.
The competition has not been entirely free from fatal accidents, for on one occasion a youngster was killed I believe, by running his ski into his body; but there is no sport of similar fascinations that can claim less victims than ski-lobing. The main reason for this is that everyone in Norway commences to practice from his earliest days – first in easy places and then, as he becomes more skilled, in spots a little more dangerous and exciting. That is my answer to friends who ask me whether I attempted the jump. I have never been a Norwegian boy, and the English climate never gave me the opportunity to be foolhardy in my young days.
The sensation of riding through the air must be exhilarating, and some have described it as a bird’s flight. It is more than that; it is the passing of a thought, just as something strikes a person in a moment and then at the next he has lost count of it. Up to now the Norwegians could call it a sport that was distinctly their own, just as we claim to be the originators of cricket, football. But in 1900 a party of Swedish officers were the invited guests of their confreres at Christiania, and they were so pleased with the competition that in 1901 they organised national sports of their own in which a ski-jump was included. I was present for the whole week at Stockholm as a very interested spectator; it is evident that the Norwegians will have to struggle hard if they do not wish to be outdone by the indefatigable Swedes.
A very pretty incident occurred in connection with King Oscar when he was watching the jump at Holmenkollen. One of the jumpers happened to be merely a young Telemarken peasant, who was so much at home in the air that he raised his cap and waved it loyally to the King. His Majesty was greatly taken with the graceful act of the boy, and at once ordered that he should be given the prize for best jumper; which is an honour apart from the gold medal that is given to the champion of the three days’ events. The peasant, not a bit abashed, amused the royal suite by addressing the King as du or ’thou’, which is only used in terms of familiarity or in the family circle.
As a rule the jumps are from about 80 to 95 feet, but no exceptional jump was made in 1901, although most of them attained a good average. The record appears to have been made in 1900 at Sandviken, said by some to be the best hill for jumping. There the furthest jump was recorded as 116 feet, in which two men leapt the same distance. Previous to that the highest figure marked was 107 feet.
When the last jumper had been allowed his second essay, the people showed signs of moving away, but some few stayed for a few moments, whilst others raced up to the top on their skis and came dancing down and leaping over the border by twos and threes; a sight that was most effective, for in some cases the pairs would land and descend in splendid form; in others all three parties would tumble pell mell, the laughing stock of the onlookers. But even for them the enjoyment was short, for the soldiers, having received their instructions, at once brought up their shovels and destroyed the snow bank from which the jumps had been made.
This was a necessary order, otherwise youngsters without fear but inexperienced would have raced down without order in a howling scrimmage, which must have ended in a more or less serious accident.
The rendezvous soon becomes deserted, and the newly erected platforms in between the forest of old pines look as if an army of locusts had swarmed in the clearing and eaten off all of the bark.”
As is the case today, health and safety was taken seriously enough at the start of the century.
Two Winters in Norway was never a great seller although it remains a classic of its kind, an early foray into travel writing at a time when the British were beginning to think of ways other than Empire-building to justify their tourism.
My grandfather returned from Norway to Plymouth where he continued to work at the Western Morning News, the newspaper his father had set up in 1860, as editor and as managing director. Between 1908 and 1909, he served as Mayor of Plymouth. A dispute with the WMN board led to his leaving Plymouth and moving north to take over as editor of the Shrewsbury Chronicle. Sadly, he died a few months later in July 1923 at the age of 51, victim of a burst appendix. The first Winter Olympics was held in Chamonix the following January – a Norwegian Jacob Tullin Thams won the gold medal for ski-jumping. I think my grandfather would have approved.
©Barney Spender/AE Spender 2014
* Ingebrigt Holm was born in Telemark in 1844. He studied medecine in Christiania before setting up practice in Larvik 1873 where he was closely involved with the development of the mineral water business which became Farris. In 1888, as Spender recounts, Holm got together with several other leading citizens including the engineer Hans H Krag and the mayor Evald Rygh to begin the development of Holmenkollen. He remained heavily involved in the spa tourism business until his death in 1918. A short biography in Norwegian can be found here