Norway’s “gods” of winter sports

Skiing & skating through history


Photo: Public Domain
The most famous image of the Birkebeiners, “Skiing Birchlegs Crossing the Mountain with the Royal Child,” by Knud Bergslien.

Michael Kleiner
The Norwegian American

More than 4,000 years before the Winter Olympics were initiated in 1924, an ancestral Norwegian or Sámi carved an image in a rock of a person on skis holding a stick. These have been found in Northern Norway. To honor this history, all the medals at the 1994 Lillehammer Games had the image of the event in the artistic form of the carving.

In 2004, archaeologists found a 1,300-year-old wooden ski, with leather binding intact, in a glacier in what’s now Reinheimen National Park in the mountains of Lesja in Oppland.

While wall paintings of the use of skis in the Xiaping region of China date 10,000 years, and fragments of skis found in Russia go as far back as 6300–5000, in no country has skiing become a part of the culture and mythology like in Norway.

This in part may contribute to Norway’s dominance of the Winter Olympics. When the name of the country has a snow reference, you have a step up on the competition. It helps when you’ve invented some of the events.

Norway’s name is derived from the god Nor, who legend says had to ski to get through a blizzard when he first arrived in the country. There are even gods of skiing and hunting (Ull) and a goddess of skiing (Skade) in Norse mythology. Throughout Norwegian history, dating to the Viking period, skiing is mentioned prominently. The word ski comes from the Old Norse word “skíð” which means stick of wood or ski. The word “ski” is also found in the Norwegian words “vedski,” meaning “splitwood for making fire” or “skigard,” meaning “a wooden split-rail fence.”

Before it was a sport, skiing was transportation—and it still is. Skis have been used by postmen to deliver mail and by doctors and midwives to reach expectant mothers. People ski to hunt, to attend church, funerals, and weddings. Being snowbound is not a concept in Norwegian life.

Skiing helped avert civil war, with the most popular legend occurring during the war in 1206. Two skiers carried the 2-year old prince from Lillehammer in Gudbransdal to Rena in Østerdal and eventually to Trondheim. They had to ski through the mountains in the dead of winter with only ice water to feed to the boy. Supporters of the royal family wore birch bark on their feet and became known as “birch legs”—birkebeiner. The boy later became King Haakon Haakonsen.

There has been an annual 54-km (35-mile) Birkebeiner Race over the Lillehammer-Rena course since 1932, drawing thousands of competitors. The skiers must carry the same weight as the infant prince weighed.

Over the next 500 years, skiing grew in importance. Hunters became very adept on skis. (Early biathlon?) There had to be restrictions placed on hunting to protect the animals.

Soldiers were organized in ski units in 1716 and the first manual on skiing was authored by Capt. Jens Emmahusen in 1733. Troops participated in competitions, including jumping and shooting while skiing downhill, beginning in 1767.

The first cross-country race was in Tromsø above the Arctic Circle in northern Norway in 1843; while the first ski-jumping competition was in 1866 in the Telemark area in southwest Norway.


Prehistoric rock carving from the Island of Tro in Norway, thought to depict a person skiing.

Sondre Norheim (1825-97), who lived in Morgedal in Telemark, is credited with developing modern skiing. What Norheim did was simply to invent tighter binding for the feet. He used shoots from birch roots and twisted them to fit around the feet. This became known as “osier binding.” This gave Norheim and “…the competitive…young farm boys from Morgedal…” flexibility as they skied down the mountainsides, twisting and turning around obstacles and jumping off hills and ledges. (Slalom?) Norheim invented the Telemark and Christiania Turn, which is also known as the Christie.

At the same time, he invented slalom and ski jumping. Slalom is derived from a Norwegian word, slålam, that literally means, “slope,” and “track in the snow.”

The popularity of skiing with the new bindings spread throughout the country, hitting the capital of Christiania (Oslo) in 1868. Crowds marveled at Norheim’s ability on skis. Huseby Hill was built in 1879 just outside the capital, and jumping competitions were held there until 1891 when the first Holmenkollen jump was built.

The skiers from Telemark were the show. As opposed to the contemporary styles, the Telemarkers lifted off the jumps with their legs tucked underneath them. They traveled only about 20 meters, but at the time, jumping still seemed death-defying to spectators.

By 1881, 5,000 Norwegians were competing in jumping and 50,000 were involved in skiing. Some of the Morgedal skiers opened a ski school in Christiania for children and adults, male and female. Excursions were taken to the countryside. Trophies were awarded in competitions, notably The Royal Cup. The Telemarkers were so dominant that the Ladies Cup was established for the “Most Gallant Skier from Christiania.” Two of the most notable Telemarker instructors were brothers Torjus and Mikkel Hemmestveit, who later immigrated to the United States and pioneered skiing here.

Even though Norheim invented slalom, ski jumping became more popular in Norway. It was left to an Englishman living in Switzerland, Sir Arnold Lunn, to further develop and popularize slalom. Norwegian Stein Eriksen won the first giant slalom gold medal at the 1952 Olympics in Norway, but Norway didn’t medal in downhill again until 1992.

If the lakes, rivers, or canals proved too icy for skiing, bones were put on the feet to glide across the surface. The Dutch and Norse used this method. In the 16th century, people began to recognize skating as recreational and competitive. King Eystein I of Norway bragged about his ability “racing on ice legs.” Norway and Netherlands can’t take full credit for the development of speed skating, though. A Scotsman added an iron blade to the skate in 1592, sparking the popularity of skating, particularly racing competitions.

The first official skating club, the Skating Club of Edinburgh was established in 1642, and the first competition was held on the Fens in England in 1763. The Dutch started using skates to traverse water passages between 11 cities of Friesland. Eventually, this became the Elfstedentocht, a marathon skating competition.

The sport crossed the Atlantic and by 1851 the North Americans had “fallen” for the sport. The all-steel blade was invented on this continent.

Norwegian clubs began holding competitions in 1863, drawing thousands in Christiania. Following victories in the United States, Norwegian Axel Paulsen was named Amateur Champion Skater of the World in 1884. The Dutch began holding the first “world championships” in 1889, including one organized by an Amsterdam club that included Russia, the United States, and United Kingdom, but not Norway—or other countries. The Netherlands Skating Union, which was created in 1882, organized world championships in 1890 and 1891. The International Skating Union—the first international winter sport association—was established in the Netherlands in 1892. Paulsen was the world champion speed skater from 1882-1890. He was also a figure skater. In 1882, he developed a new jump—while wearing speed skates—that became known as the Axel.

There were three important subsequent developments in speed skating. Weather conditions in the Netherlands prevented quality natural ice from developing. The advent of artificial ice entered the Olympics in 1960 and the subsequent availability in the Netherlands allowed the Orange to become the dominant country in speed skating. The 1994 Lillehammer Games were the first to hold speed skating indoors. This has also led to faster times.

At the inaugural 1924 Olympics, American Charles Jewtraw won the first gold medal amidst complaints from Norwegians about timing, while Finland made its presence felt with Clas Thunberg capturing the 1,500 meters, 5,000 meters and all-around. From 1918 to 1940, the Norwegians and Finns won every gold at the world championships. Austria and Latvia picked up medals in the European Championships.

Controversy reigned at the 1932 Olympics. Europeans raced in pairs with each skater in his own lane. North Americans raced in packs, the precursor to short-track speed skating. The United States and Canada won seven medals, Norway two. Many Norwegians, Swedes, Finns—including defending world champion Thurnberg—and Japanese successfully protested, and packs were outlawed. Short-track speed skating in packs was added to the Olympics in 1992. Mass start returns this year.

Women skaters were allowed to participate in the Olympics in 1928, but not to medal until 1960.

Aerodynamic suits and a longer “clap skate” have also contributed to faster times. In more recent Olympics, Germany, Japan, Russia, and China have also been strong contenders. Despite inventing the sport, Scotland has never won a speed-skating medal.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 9, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit;