What do Norwegians do in winter while snow and ice cover large parts of their country? They go cross-country skiing, ski jumping, downhill skiing. At weekends, during their holidays, after work. When the snow melts in the lowlands in spring, they retreat with it, up to the mountains. And if there really is no snow anywhere within reach, skating is always an option ...
Over the years Norway has been the world's second most successful nation at winter sports: only the former Soviet Union won more Olympic medals. Among the reasons for this sporting success is the fact that winter sports are traditional and very broadly based in Norway.
Norwegians have practically unlimited access to skiing and skating. About 30,000 kilometres (three times the distance between Norway and Australia) of marked ski trails wind their way through unspoilt scenery. Even in the capital Oslo, a city of 400,000 inhabitants, the ski tracks are never far away. Tracks are prepared up in the mountains, too, where skiing may be enjoyed until well into the month of May.
It gets dark early in winter, but that is no obstacle. 2500 lit tracks all over the country provide welcome recreation and good opportunities for serious exercise after work.
Alpine skiing has gradually increased in popularity in Norway, though it is by no means as universal as cross-country skiing. Resorts for alpine skiing have been developed throughout the country, and some 440 lifts and 230 smaller tows serve Norwegian slopes.
Ski jumping has decreased somewhat in popularity in recent years. Nevertheless there are about 600 ski jumps in Norway.
The latest innovations are children's play slopes. These tend to consist of a small jump, a slope (without lift), and a mogul run. The idea is that at these sites children should be able to learn the basic skills of skiing. About thirty have already been established, and the number is growing rapidly.
Coastal areas of western and southern Norway often suffer from lack of snow. Yet even here it is possible to ski in some places -- on man-made snow, if necessary.
And, in the total absence of snow, there is skating. In winter, municipalities up and down the country convert sports- and playgrounds into ice rinks by spraying them with water. These are then used for ice hockey and speed skating. When the fjords freeze over, people take their Sunday "walks" skating among the rocks and islets.
In southern Norway there are several artificially frozen outdoor rinks. And 1992 saw the country's first indoor ice rink specially designed for speed skating which requires a 400-metre circuit. 25 indoor ice rinks or "ice halls" have been built, where ice hockey can be played throughout the year.
Skis have been a source of benefit and pleasure to Norwegians for thousands of years. A rock carving from Rødøy in Nordland county in the north of the country, about 4000 years old and known as the Rødøy Man, is evidence that the use of skis in Norway dates back to the Stone Age. Until about 100 years ago, much of community life in winter was dependent on skis. Skis were used for transport and hunting. They were practical in a sparsely populated country where distances were great and the terrain difficult. Over the centuries, troops on skis have defended Norway's frontiers.
Skiing developed to become a mass sport. The first competitions were arranged in the mid-1880s. Sondre Norheim of Morgedal in Telemark was a pioneer in skiing as a sport, and is often called the father of modern skiing. He was the originator of the skis which are narrower in the middle than at the front and back and have stiff heel bindings made of osier, skis which have come to be known as Telemark skis. The shape of the skis made turning easier, and the heel binding enabled the skier to jump from rooftops and over rocks without the skis falling off.
The international term slalom is a Norwegian word which originated in Morgedal. The first syllable sla means a slope, hill or smooth expanse, while låm is the track down it. The usual slalom was a run down sloping fields, over stone walls and mounds, left and right of shrubs and bushes.
In our day, Telemark skiing has enjoyed a revival both as a competitive sport and as an increasingly popular leisure activity in the USA and Europe.
During the nineteenth century, Norwegian emigrants and students took their skiing skills with them and introduced the sport of skiing to all corners of the earth.
Norwegian polar explorers also helped make skiing known, at home and abroad. "Skiing is the most Norwegian of all our sports, and a glorious sport it is; if any merits being called the sport of sports, this is surely the one", wrote Fridtjof Nansen after crossing the Greenland interior on skis in 1880. Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole in 1911, the first man ever. He did so on skis. Several Norwegian expeditions have in recent years followed the routes used by these two great explorers and skied to both the North and South Poles. In 1993 Erling Kagge, an Oslo lawyer, crossed Antarctica on skis to the South Pole, alone and without radio contact with the rest of the world. He took 50 days to cover the 1300 kilometres (measured as the crow flies).
Nowadays, skiing is the Norwegians' winter sport number one. No sports event in winter Norway attracts such crowds as the Holmenkollen Ski Festival. The Holmenkollen Ski Jump, now over 100 years old, is a national monument, and one of the country's prime tourist attractions: over a million visitors each year make the short journey up from the centre of Oslo to see it. Whereas in 1892 the longest distance jumped at Holmenkollen was 22 metres, modern skiers can jump about 100 metres further. The world's top cross-country skiers also compete in races at Holmenkollen every year. And several thousand children participate in the annual Children's Day at Holmenkollen.
Throughout Norway annual cross-country events are organised, with family and "keep fit" categories in which taking exercise and experiencing the natural surroundings matter as much as achieving the fastest time and winning prizes.
Norway has pioneered the development of skiing as a sport for the disabled. During the 1950s schools for the blind introduced cross- country skiing as part of physical training. In 1963 specially deep ski tracks were prepared in the snow at Beitostølen in the southern Norwegian upland valley Valdres, and the following year the first Ridderrenn, a skiing competition for the blind and partially sighted, was held there. The Beitostølen rehabilitation programme for the physically disabled has served as a model for other countries. On the international scene, Norway is a driving force behind attempts to achieve full status within the Olympic movement for sport for the disabled.
1952 was the first time Norway hosted the Winter Olympic Games, in Oslo. The forthcoming 1994 Winter Olympics in the small town of Lillehammer, 180 kilometres north of Oslo, consolidate Norway's position as a sporting nation with well-established traditions in winter sport.
In the statistics of medallists at Winter Olympics since the very first at Chamonix in 1924, Norway is in second place, after the former Soviet Union. Cross-country skiers and ski jumpers have won the lion's share of medals. And today Norwegian cross-country skiers, notably Bjørn Dæhlie and Vegard Ulvang, are world champions. Norway also leads the world in research into skiing equipment and skiers' ability to perform under diverse conditions. A medical team accompanies the skiers during practice and at competitions. High altitude training is being tested. Norway's male cross-country skiers have gained a pre-eminence which should last through the first half of the 1990s, at any rate.
The female cross-country skiers are toiling with less success at the moment. In the 1980s they were supreme, but now both Russian and Italian skiers have overtaken them. However, recruitment to the sport is very good, and new stars can emerge any day.
The greatest names in ski jumping for many years were Norwegian. Jacob Thullin Thams (Chamonix 1924), Birger Ruud (Garmisch Partenkirchen 1936) and Arnfinn Bergmann (Oslo 1952) are still well-known in Norway. During the 1960s Thoralf Engan and Bjørn Wirkola dominated the sport, Wirkola being the only man ever to win the Germano-Austrian Championship on three successive occasions.
Only now and then was there a Norwegian among the world's best ski jumpers during the 1970s and 80s. Nor did the Norwegian elite make a success of the switch to the new "V" style in the early 1990s. Norway is attempting to build up a revitalised national team of young talent.
Nordic combined, which is a combination of ski jumping and cross-country skiing, has long traditions in Norway. In the four first Winter Olympics, all twelve medals in this event were won by Norwegians. In Oslo (1952), Cortina (1956) and Innsbruck (1964) the gold medals also went to Norway. Then central Europeans came to the fore, until in 1984 there was another Norwegian gold medallist. In the 1990s performance in nordic combined events has reflected the circumstances of Norwegian ski- jumping. Norwegian competitors are fast cross-country skiers but considerably weaker when it comes to jumping.
Biathlon is a more recent sport, and was first included in the Winter Olympic programme at Squaw Valley in 1960. It is a cross-country skiing race with shooting contests interspersed. Lately it has become very popular in Norway, particularly on television. The intense excitement as the competitors stand shoulder to shoulder, facing the targets and fighting to control their nerves, comes over very well on the screen. Yet participation in this sport is far less than in cross-country skiing and ski jumping.
In 1968, 1972 and 1984 the gold medallists in the Olympic biathlon were Norwegians. And in the 1990s, Norwegians -- both men and women -- continue to be among the best in the world.
Norwegian skiers have always been most proficient in the nordic events. Any Norwegians who have been a match for central Europeans in the alpine events have been exceptions. One such was Stein Eriksen. He was gold medallist in the giant slalom at the Oslo Winter Olympics in 1952, and won three world championships in 1954. He turned professional in the USA and has since run ski schools over there. Success for Norwegian alpine skiers was long in coming. Inger Bjørnbakken was 1958 world champion in the women's slalom, but the bright spots were few and far between.
Erik Håker was the first Norwegian winner of a World Cup alpine event -- in 1972. He proceeded to win three more World Cup races, the last of them in 1979. Ten years later Ole Kristian Furuseth made his breakthrough, winning World Cup competitions in both slalom and giant slalom. Furuseth's success inspired several promising young skiers, and two of them blossomed in 1992 at the Albertville Olympics. Ketil Andre Aamodt won the gold medal in the Super-G slalom, and Finn Christian Jagge in the slalom.
Interest in alpine skiing is increasing rapidly in Norway. New talents surface constantly, and there is good reason to believe that the 90s will be a heyday for Norwegian alpine skiing.
Freestyle is a new sport comprising the three disciplines mogul skiing, ballet and aerials. While mogul was an event in the 1992 Olympics, both moguls and aerials are included in the programme for the Lillehammer Olympics. Norwegians, men and women, are among the world's best in all the freestyle disciplines.
In the past, speed skating was as large a spectator sport and participation sport in Norway as cross-country skiing. Few Norwegian sportsmen have become such popular heroes as the "kings" of skating. More recently skating has lost ground to cross-country skiing, ski jumping and alpine skiing. Few skate at competition level, though the best speed skaters are among the best in the world.
The first speed skating competition of note was held in Oslo in 1863, on the frozen fjord beneath the ramparts of Akershus Castle. Thousands turned out to watch. The sport developed fast. Norway won innumerable Olympic gold medals, and public interest grew, keeping pace with the good results.
The climax was reached in the early 1950s. 30,000 spectators crowded into the arena to see the 1951 European Championships in Oslo. Hjalmar Andersen, known as "Hjallis" and Norway's greatest skating "king" of all time, damaged the edge of a skate during the crucial 10,000 metres. He was allowed to run the race again an hour later, and King Haakon VII postponed an important meeting at the palace so that he could watch. "Hjallis" won, and the nation was in ecstasy. The following year Hjalmar Andersen gained three Olympic gold medals in Oslo.
Another of the great Norwegian skating "kings" was Knut "Kupper'n" Johansen. Twice he was Olympic gold medallist, twice world champion and eight times Norwegian champion between 1957 and 1964. He specialised in long distances, and was the first to complete 10,000 metres in under 16 minutes. At Squaw Valley in 1960 he set his so-called unbeatable world record of 15.46.6. Now the best speed skaters do 10,000 metres in well under 14 minutes ...
During the 1950s and 60s thousands of spectators would brave 20 degrees below freezing to watch even small competitions out in the provinces. The sport's popularity has declined ever since, slowly but surely. Nowadays people do not choose to stand out in the cold for hours.
With the exception of the 1980s, Norwegian speed skaters managed to remain in the world elite. Johann Olav Koss seems set to dominate the sport well into the 90s. But the level of participation is worryingly low. Growing numbers of Norwegians prefer ice hockey skates to speed skates.
In winter in Norway almost every sheet of ice teems with children. Most of them are playing ice hockey. In recent years many indoor ice rinks have been built throughout the country. The standard of the national ice hockey team reflects this development and is now at a respectable level. Norway is still somewhat eclipsed by neighbouring Sweden, but the gap is being closed. Norway today is among the ten best ice hockey nations in the world.
Sonia Henie was Olympic figure skating gold medallist in 1928, 1932 and 1936. Never before or since has Norway had figure skaters of international ranking. And this sport has a very small following in Norway nowadays.
There is only one bobsleigh run in Norway built to international specifications, and presumably there will be no others. Norway has never been anywhere near winning a gold medal in this sport. Interest and participation are minimal.
The author, Olav Førde, is assistant editor of Nytt fra Norge