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History of Skiing

Updated on May 28, 2010

The oldest known ski is 7,000 years old. There is evidence that skiing has been a widespread means of transport in the extreme north of Europe and Asia for at least 4,000 years. Primitive skis have been found in Scandinavian bogs, and it is known that the Laplanders were early skiers.

At the Battle of Oslo in 1200, Norwegian troops used skis, and military use of skis was made in other wars, including World Wars I and II. Ski lengths have varied greatly over the centuries, with skis as short as 3 feet (1 meter) being used in 16th century warfare.

Skis were used for military purposes in 1483 by the Russians. They were introduced to central Europe via Austria in 1580, to Greenland in 1722, and to the American continent during the eatiy 18th century, where they were adopted by the Eskimos. In 1759, skiing was featured in an ice festival in Canada. The first ski competition, a military affair, was held in 1767 in Christiania (now Oslo), Norway.

The world's first ski club was organized in Christiania in 1870, and it was the Norwegian Telemark and Christiania turns that made true downhill skiing practicable. In 1880, Norwegian students introduced the sport to Germany, from where it spread rapidly to Austria and Switzerland. By the turn of the century it was a well-established sport both in Norway and in the Alps. Since 1900 the development of downhill skiing has taken place largely in the Alps.

In earlier times skiing was more often a military skill or a means of transportation than a sport. However, it assumed recreational status during the late 19th century, and in the 20th century it became a major winter sport wherever terrain and weather conditions permitted.

In 1862 the first officially recorded ski competition was held near Oslo, and in 1877 the Christiania Ski Club was organized in Norway. An indication of the country's importance in skiing progress is the large number of skiing terms that are in Norwegian. The Christiania (commonly shortened to Christie) designates a high-speed turn with parallel skis. Telemark, a turn in deep snow, and slalom are other skiing terms with Norwegian origins.

Scandinavians were instrumental in introducing the sport to the United States, with skis reported in the Middle West as early as 1840. The first ski club in the United States, eventually known as the Nansen Ski Club, was organized in 1882 in Berlin, N. H., for jumping and crosscountry racing. In 1904 the National Ski Association was formed in Ishpeming, Mich. All the charter member clubs were from the Middle West.

Around 1880 skiing gained popularity in Austria and later in Switzerland, Germany, and France. In the late 19th century many Englishmen became ski enthusiasts during their travels on the Continent. The Ski Club of Great Britain, formed in 1903, became one of the world's largest. In general, West Europeans preferred downhill skiing to the jumping and crosscountry racing favored by the Scandinavians.

Beginning in 1907, Hannes Schneider, an Austrian, began to teach skiing in the Arlberg section of the Alps. His Arlberg technique, which was an improvement of the methods of an instructor named Mathias Zdarsky, became extremely popular after World War I. Schneider taught a crouched style with forward lean that emphasized rotating the body into a turn. Schneider's techniques were relatively easy to learn and were instrumental in popularizing the sport. An additional spur was the development of rope tows, which eliminated the slow, arduous uphill climb and enabled skiers to make many more runs per day.

In North America, eastern Canadian colleges and the Dartmouth Outing Club in the United States made key contributions to early 20th century skiing. In 1931 the first snow train carried members of the Appalachian Mountain Club from Boston to the ski slopes of the White Mountains. This was followed by trains from New York, and many city dwellers were soon taking weekend or vacation excursions to ski resorts. In 1932 the Winter Olympics, held at Lake Placid, N. Y., did much to stimulate interest in the United States. Enthusiasts watched and read about jumping and cross country as well as downhill and slalom racing.

After World War II different types of techniques developed. The Austrians championed the wedeln, which emphasized short, connected parallel turns. Another school stressed counter-rotation of the body while turning. In an attempt to standardize instruction in the United States, the American Ski Technique was worked out and gained acceptance during the 1960's.

By the early 1970's there were approximately 4 million skiers, nearly half of them women, in the United States, compared with a total of 2 million about 20 years earlier. In addition to the traditional ski areas, some of them world famous, many new ski slopes open each year. Artificial snow-making machines supplement normal snowfalls at many ski slopes and have allowed skiing to be introduced into some areas where natural conditions make the sport impossible. The Northeast and Far West, with the advantages of cold winters and mountainous terrain, continue to be the most popular ski areas, but the sport is also growing rapidly in the Midwest, and some trails have been carved out of the mountains in the Southeast. Cross-country skiing, which had been out of favor in the United States, surged in the early 1970's as skiers enjoyed lighter equipment and the freedom from lift lines and .increasingly crowded downhill slopes. Although the most dramatic growth has been in the United States, enthusiasm for the sport has increased in Europe, South America, Japan, and other areas that have suitable conditions. To serve the multitudes of new skiers, the manufacture of skis and other equipment has burgeoned, and resort complexes have multiplied.

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