Foundation of the new Skisport. In the thirty years from about 1880 to 1910 which coincide with the peak years of Scandinavian immigration, local clubs promoted the skisport and laid the foundation for modern skiing. 1 There was only an occasional attempt to “pull off”to use the expression of the timesa cross-country race. The ethnic exclusiveness of Ski-Idraet was the underlying force behind the clubs.

Just how this transplanted winter culture fared in its American setting makes an interesting study: tradition transforms and is itself transformed in the modernizing process of the skisport.

Foundation of the Skisport

One of the marks of a modern sport is the equality of both the competitors and the conditions of the competition.2 Early skisport’s inequalities were natural and often written into club constitutions to ensure what was perceived as the purity of Ski-Idraet. Fridtjof Nansen, the explorer, provides an excellent guide to the many different ways in which Idraet influenced the American skisport: through the language of skiing, through the formation, the organization, and the discrimination of the clubs, and in the style of competitive jumping. The National Ski Association (NSA) was founded in 1905 in Ishpeming, Michigan, to regulate club activities and so produce equality in competitions.

Nansen and Idraet Influences

When Norwegians, joined by few others, founded clubs to promote skiing, they turned it, often unwittingly, from an unstructured pursuit to a cult that had nationalistic overtones. This should come as no great surprise; the latter nineteenth century, after all, was rampant with nationalism. That the nationalism of skiing should be Norwegian in its thrust can be explained partly because there were few immigrants from the other countries where skiing was prevalent (skiing in the Alpine regions of Europe only started in the 1880s). Swedes tended to be assimilated easily into American society, as were Norwegians who settled in large cities.

Those who ended up in smaller communities in the NorthwestMinnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigansaw skiing as an occasion for socializing as well as a sport that retained features of their native way of life. The involvement of Scandinavia with skiing was epitomized in the person and exploits of Fridtjof Nansen who crossed Greenland on skis in 1888 and whose book Paa Ski over Grønland was available in English in 1890.

Nansen was “something of a soloist,” remembered a friend, “steadfast towards those to whom he attaches himself; but there are not many.”5 He was not the first into Greenland on skis, but he captured the public’s sporting imagination. The Times of London caught his appeal exactly: “Nansen was not only a naturalist but a first class sportsman as skater and snow-shoe runner, and a crack shot.

Before he was sixteen he had taken all the medals and premiums obtainable for so young a man, and at the concourse in Christiania he became champion ski runner. Last winter he made a kind of dress rehearsal by running on snow-shoes through some of the highest mountains in Norway, drawing his fully laden sledge along with him.”

Here was a muscular Christian in action, the equivalent of the rugged American individualist whose virility was proved by conquering yet another piece of the globe. Nansen added to his own and to skiing’s mystique:

I know of no form of sport which so evenly develops the muscles, which renders the body so strong and elastic, which teaches so well the qualities of dexterity and resource, which in an equal degree calls for decision and resolution, and which gives the same vigour and exhilaration to mind and body alike. Where can one find a healthier and purer delight than when on a brilliant winter’s day one binds one’s ski to one’s feet and takes one’s way out into the forest?

Civilization is, as it were, washed clean from the mind and left behind with the city atmosphere and city life; one’s whole being is, so to say, wrapped in one’s ski and the surrounding nature. There is something in the whole which develops soul and not body alone, and the sport is perhaps of far greater national importance than is generally supposed.