It is said that Norwegians are born with skis on their feet. With the average Norwegian child starting to learn between the ages of 4 or 5 they may as well be! The wintertime sport is not only a national past time but a deeply rooted part of Norwegian history.
A 4500 year old ski was unearthed in Sweden and there have been rock paintings showing primitive hunters on skis. But one of the most famous stories dates back to 1204. Norway was in the midst of a civil war between the well funded and church backed baglers and the underdog birkebeiners. The birkebeiners got their names because they were too poor to cover their legs with anything but birch wrappings. They used twigs and ropes as bindings for their skis.
Just after the birkebeiner chieftain, and heir to the Norwegian throne, died in 1204, his son, Haakon Haakonson was born. The birkbeiners, fearing for the safety of the newborn prince, decided to send the child to safety in Trondheim. Torstein Skjevla and Skjervald Skrukka escaped on skis with the 18-month-old Haakonson strapped to their back and traversed over 60 miles in harsh winter conditions, from Lillehammer, over the mountains in Osterdalen, to Trondheim. Haaknon Haakonson later became king and ended the civil war.
The Norwegian Birkebeinerrennet, a 58-kilometer ski race held in Lillehammer each March, is a longstanding tradition (since 1932) in honor of the initial journey.
Although skiing has had a long history in Norway, it didn’t become a leisure sport until the 1800’s. A huge influence on modern day skiing is Sondre Norheim, also known as the father of skiing. Born in 1825, his life passion was skiing and he invented the shorter skis and poles similar to those that are used by today’s skiers and made popular many of the same techniques and skills (jumping and slalom turns) that skiers strive to perfect today.
Skiing is as deeply ingrained in Norwegian culture as the koselig time they enjoy in the evening after hitting the slopes all day. They even hosted the winter Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994. So next time you’re looking for a great ski destination, skip the Alps and visit Norway!