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Sondre Norheim
- the
Skiing Pioneer of Telemark

Sondre in the History of Skiing

It’s said about Norwegians that they are born with skis on. And for centuries, people’s lives in this country have been closely related to skiing – first as means of transportation – then, from the last part of the 19th century, as a leisure and sports activity. Later Norwegian students and emigrants introduced skiing at the European continent, the USA and in other countries. Skiing is Norway’s national sport.

Your guide to this story
>Skiing in Norway
>Skiing as Recreation
>From Morgedal to the Nation's Capital
>Sondre's Breakthrough
>An Inventor?
>The Father of Modern Skiing
>Ski Historians About Sondre
>Teaching Others
>Telemark to the World
>Nansen About the Skiers from Telemark
>Alpine Skiing
>The Telemark Skiing Renaissance
>Telemark Style Re-born, and Brought Home
>Free Heel
>Organized Telemark Skiing
>The Alpine Ski vs. the Telemark Ski
>Sondre in History

The word “ski” is a Norwegian word which comes from the Old Norse word “skid”, a split length of wood. And we know that skis have been used in Norway for more than 4,000 years. Rock carvings from Northern Norway confirm this.

Skiing in Norway
In a country with long distances between the small, isolated communities and hard, snowy winters, skiing became important as means of keeping in social contact with each other. Also the use of skis was important for the hunter and the farmer, who spent mornings going far into the forests, returning with game and firewood in the afternoons.

There are reports about the use of skis among soldiers as far back in time as the Middle Ages. Companies of ski troops were formed around 1750. And the very first skiing competitions were held in the military in 1767.

Skiing as Recreation
March 21, 1843, the world’s first public announced, non-military skiing competition was held in Tromsø, Northern Norway. In the years to come, the interest in using skis as a recreation activity excelled. Skiing competitions were held in different parts of the country, among them Trondheim and Trysil.

One area where skiing became a real popular leisure activity, was the district of Telemark, Southern Norway. In the small rural communities, many of them located in deep valleys, conditions were excellent for having fun on skis.

The valley of Morgedal, with its steep hillsides, was great for challenging skiing. A popular activity on Sundays, was to come together and have a joyful time on the slopes and hills. Some were eager to surpass each other in the most spectacular skiing acrobatics – like jumping from the roofs.

In addition to excellent skiers, this community also had many craftsmen, fully capable of making skis and skiing related equipment. This explains why Morgedal became a place where people experimented with new types of skis and bindings, and where new ways of using the skis were developed. The skis and the bindings were crucial to innovation of new techniques.

The style and the technique which developed here from the 1850’s, and later was introduced in the capital Christiania (now Oslo), has become known all over the world as Telemark skiing. Also slalom originated in Telemark.

Among the eminent skiers from Morgedal, Sondre was the best of the lot. Sondre was a brilliant skier, he was a true ski artist and a great inspiration in his own community. He was fearless
on the crazy man’s slopes down the steep hillsides – and he was a master in jumping. Sondre also was an outstanding craftsman who made skis for himself and others. His achievements as a skier would soon become known all over Telemark and later all over Norway.

In 1866, Sondre was invited to participate in what has been described as the world’s first ski jumping competition with prizes, held at Ofte, Høydalsmo (15 kilometres west of Morgedal). There he won 1st prize, and also received an extra award for spectacular performance. This was the first competition where an audience outside Morgedal recognized Sondre’s skills as a skier.

From Morgedal to the Nation’s Capital
In 1868 he impressed and surprised the audience and his competitors when he participated in the first national skiing competition in Norway, held in the capital Christiania (now Oslo). People in Christiania had heard about this extraordinary skier, and Sondre was invited. He and his two fellow skiers arrived in the capital after a three-day walk on skis from Morgedal, a distance of 200 kilometres.

At Iversløkken Sondre demonstrated – for the first time outside Telemark – the Telemark turn and the turn which later (from 1901) has been called the Christiania turn. Sondre was using heel bindings, and he had shorter skis with curved sides. Other participants used the common toe bindings.

Sondre’s Breakthrough
Skiers from different parts of Norway participated. The 42-year-old Sondre won with brilliance. He was a revelation to everyone present. Newspaper reports said about Sondre, “It was the winner of the 1st prize who excelled over all the other competitors. He had such a remarkable style of skiing that one would think he had been born to it, and that it was his natural way of moving around.”

The performance at Iversløkken was a major breakthrough for Sondre and the new style of skiing. People were overwhelmed by this middle-aged man, the poor cotter from the countryside, demonstrating for everyone what an innovative ski artist he was – representing something totally new.

An Inventor?
Sondre has been credited for – in person – having invented the curved skis, the bindings with stiff heel bands made of willow, the Telemark turn and the Christiania turn. In fact we don’t know if Sondre really was the very first person who carried out a Telemark turn.

And when it comes to the bindings, there are reports about the use of willow heel bands many years before Sondre. But this was not frequently used among people in general. Normally the skis were connected to the foot by use of simple toe bindings, eventually also heel bands made of leather.

The Father of Modern Skiing
Thanks to a creative use of equipment, a unique interest in doing things differently, his talent and playfulness, Sondre contributed to a new and different way of using the skis. This is why he has been called the Father of Modern Skiing. “Modern” is referring to the use of skis as a recreation activity and in sports. 

Sondre’s contribution – in short – can be expressed this way:

  • He introduced skis and bindings which were new to most people at that time – he introduced the Telemark turn/Telemark style and the Christiania turn/slalom. By doing this in the capital, it received a lot of attention, and became crucial to further work of organizing skiing as a sport, along with the development and production of skis, both in Norway and abroad.
  • Sondre demonstrated to people the joy of skiing, he played an important role in changing skiing from utility into enjoyment and sports.

Ski Historians About Sondre
Even if people were skiing all over the country and local skiing competitions were held in several cities and villages, it’s recognized by ski historians that Sondre along with the rich ski environment in Morgedal has had a crucial impact on the development of skiing.

During the late 19th century, as skiing changed its character from a method of transportation into an enjoyable pastime and as a sports activity, the skiers who came in to the capital from the countryside of Telemark, played a key role.

Sondre was the pioneer with regard to ski equipment and skills, he was the one who really inspired people in the capital and elsewhere, as skiing as a sport became better organized with ski clubs and regular competitions.

The competition held at Iversløkken, Christiania in 1868 is regarded as a turning point and the beginning of a new era – it was a breakthrough for skiing as a sport in the capital of Norway, and because of that, a breakthrough that had an effect in the whole nation as well as outside Norway.

Teaching Others
After the 1868 breakthrough in Christiania, Sondre participated in further competitions in the capital, and he continued to help the children of Morgedal in their efforts to become excellent skiers. In 1884 he immigrated to the United States. There are few reports about his ski activity there.

Other skiers from Morgedal, such as the Mikkel and Torjus Hemmestveit brothers, continued to make the ski equipment and the Telemark style better known through competitions and by teaching people in the capital. In 1881, Mikkel and Torjus ran the world’s first ski school in Christiania. The heel bindings, the shorter, curved skis and the new turning techniques became accepted and more commonly used.

Telemark to the World
The 17-year-old Fritz Huitfeldt was in the audience when Sondre, in 1868, impressed the citizens of the capital. In 1896 he developed a ski model inspired by the one Sondre and other skiers from Telemark used. Huitfeldt’s Telemark ski came to be sold worldwide, and became the standard model for the growing ski industry.

The Hemmestveit brothers were among the many people from Telemark who immigrated to the United States by the late 19th century. They ran ski schools and won several competitions in their new homeland. In this way they made a major contribution in bringing the ski spirit from Morgedal to the world.

Nansen About the Skiers from Telemark
In 1888, the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen and his fellows became the first men to cross Greenland on skis. The book from this expedition was translated into several languages, and played an important role in promoting skiing as a sport across Europe. In his book Nansen describes skiing as “the sport of sports”.

Two years earlier, Nansen wrote the following about the skiers from Telemark, “Telemark is the rightful home of skiing. The people of Telemark are unquestionably our country’s best skiers, and if they are the best in our country, I can doubtless say, without fear of exaggeration, that they are also the world’s best.”

“They have taught the townspeople a completely new way of skiing, and have thereby raised the art of skiing to the heights it has achieved in recent years. Telemark skiers truly deserve our respect and thanks”, Nansen wrote.

Alpine Skiing
Around 1900 Telemark skiing and slalom were introduced in Central Europe. Norwegian skiers, many of them students, were invited to teach people in the Alp countries, and people from these countries were later used as alpine skiing teachers in the USA.

But the main focus, also when rules were made and competitions organized, was on slalom, downhill, cross-country and jumping. Telemark skiing was not a part of this, and for years the Telemark style was practised by a relatively small group of enthusiasts.

The Telemark Skiing Renaissance
In the 1970’s something happened in the USA – the interest in the Telemark style increased. The people behind this development were inspired by Norwegian ski star and Olympic champion from the 1952 Winter Games in Oslo, Stein Eriksen. After the games he moved to the States and had great success as a ski instructor.

Stein Eriksen was born in Telemark, and in his book “Come ski with me” he also mentioned the Telemark turn and showed a picture of his father, Marius, demonstrating this way of turning.

Telemark Style Re-born, and Brought Home
Skiing the Telemark way gained popularity, first in the United States and later in Central Europe, Sweden and Norway. In the early 80’s, the re-born Telemark technique came home to the country where it originated.

Today Telemark skiing is popular both in Europe, USA and in other parts of the world. There are Telemark clubs in several countries. People take courses to learn the Telemark style – they are attracted by the opportunity to leave the crowded, prepared slopes, and run down a hillside in deep powder snow.

Free Heel
With slalom skis on, the entire foot is attached to the ski. When using Telemark skis and bindings, the heel is free. One ski is placed a little in front of the other, and this makes it easier to manoeuvre the skis in challenging mountain terrain. In some countries the Telemark technique is called free-heel skiing.

People find this way of skiing not only fun but filled with an exhilarating sense of freedom – just as Sondre did when he introduced the Telemark technique in the 1860’s. The skis have curved sides and the turning technique is the same as back then. But there is a big difference – the skis are not handmade of pine and the bindings are not made of willow...

Organized Telemark Skiing
There is organized Telemark skiing in about 20 countries, and the national teams compete in the World Cup and the World Championship. The International Olympic Committee is now considering including Telemark as a part of the Olympic Games program.

The Alpine Ski vs. the Telemark Ski
During the 1990’s, the shape of the alpine skis has changed. Now known as “carving skis”, these skis have sidecuts too, just like Telemark skis, and are the most commonly used alpine skis today.

Now it’s not only the Telemark skiers who benefit from the equipment Sondre introduced so many years ago. Downhill and slalom skiers have also recognized how much easier it is to turn when the skis are narrow in the middle and wider at the tip and tail.

So by now, the only real difference between Telemark skiing and alpine skiing is the bindings and the way you turn. And – both turns originated in Telemark.

Sondre in History
No doubt – the poor cotter from Morgedal, Telemark earned a golden name in the history of skiing. His name is respected all over the ski-interested world. People travel to Morgedal to see his birthplace – a spot which also has been chosen as the site for lighting of the Olympic Torch three times.  He is honoured with memorials both in Morgedal and the United States. Sondre’s traces in the snow will always be visible…

Copyright © 2002-2012 by Anne-Gry Blikom and Eivind Molde email@sondrenorheim.com
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