From the Bronze Age to the New Age, skiing owes a debt to the Old Country
Whether it be gliding through the Bavarian Alps or coursing along the fjords of Norway and the foothills of Finland, the thrill of cross-country skiing in America owes a nod of thanks to thousands of fellow European skiers who developed the sport as a modern tradition.
Cross-country skiing itself was invented in the Neolithic Age by hunters who found that strapping on skis crafted of bone or wood could help them pursue animals in the winter. Imagine following a herd of wooly mammoths on these early contraptions, which were as much snowshoes as skis-even without air form skating skis and Lycra suits, a day on the trail no doubt had its share of excitement.
Today, the ancestors of those hunters roam the mountains and plains of Europe in the tens of thousands, participation in numbers, which inspired America's own ski tradition. In Europe national pride is often at stake in cross-county ski racing, and clubs exist in virtually every town that has a hint of snow.
As you may know, the North American Vasa is based on the Swedish Vasalopet, and 85-kilometer race attracting 12,000 skiers each year. The Vasaloppet, in turn, was inspired by the example of Gustav Eriksson Vasa, who skied to freedom from Danish invaders in 1518 and rallied the resistance to liberate his country, earning his the Swedish crown.
Four hundred years later, journalist Anders Pers a native of Mora, Sweden, conceived of the idea of a ski race to commemorate King Vasa's journey across the Swedish countryside. That first Vasaloppet was a 90km course from the village of Salen to Mora, on March 19, 1922. Ernst Am, a 22-year-old lumberjack won the race out of a field of 119 skiers. He covered the winding track in 7:32:49, at a time which was a full hour ahead of what race organizers expected for a finishing time. With this race the Vasalopet tradition was officially launched.
For a quarter century, the Vasaloppet remained an exclusively Swedish run race, regarded as a historical and political event as well as a great sporting spectacle and challenge. By its 50th anniversary in 1973, the race attracted over 8,000 skiers from over 20 countries and 4 continents. Other aspects of the race have also changed since that first run. The racers' speed along the famous route (now from Salen to the village of Mora) depends on the state of the track and the snow conditions. And actual changes in the course, in addition to improvements in equiment have also helped quicken the pace. Those first 119 contenders broke their own tracks throught the forests and open fields on that March day in 1922.
In the village of Mora, the first racers to lead the 12,000 competitors across the finish line are welcomed by the sweet sound of traditional birch bark trumpets resounding form the bell tower and the cheers of thousands of spectators who arrive each year to witness what Sport illustrated had dubbed "the oddest, craziest, most agonizing, yet most prized of all modern sport events."