Snow and ice can be treacherous. You can slip and fall. You can sink into a soft snowdrift. You can even encounter an avalanche. But the ancient people who invented the first sleds, ice skates, and skis weren’t thinking about the dangers or the downsides. They were thinking about better—and faster—ways to get around.
The first ice skates were invented about 5,000 years ago, and they were simply animal bones tied to the bottom of people’s feet. Sound uncomfortable? Well, in wintry Finland with lots of frozen little lakes, it was much easier to glide across the ice on bone skates than to walk. And while a bone might seem a little rough, it would have had slippery animal fat on it, much like ski wax, to aid with a smooth passage.
Sleds were an even earlier innovation than ice skates. Ancient people living in the Arctic Circle were nomads. Because of the harsh climate, they had to travel across snowy landscapes to find food to hunt. They invented sleds as early as 7,000 years ago to carry their belongings wherever they went and to haul large game, such as walruses, seals, and caribou.
Archaeologists have found ancient sleds made of animal skins that had animal bones for their runners. These ancient sleds could be pulled by humans or by animals, such as dogs or reindeer.
So how did these prehistoric transportation tools get turned into the gear of modern-day winter sports? The basic technology behind skates and sleds is simple. You move faster and more efficiently across a surface when there is less friction. The runners on sleds and the blades on skates reduce surface-area drag. Moreover, ice and well-packed snow are already slippery surfaces, further reducing friction.
Still, there’s no way that a 21st-century figure skater could do a triple Axel or a quadruple Lutz, using animal bone ice skates.
The Dutch are credited with creating the modern ice skate. But even their first efforts were a little clunky. In the 1300s, they started making wooden blocks with flat iron runners, which could be strapped to the bottom of a person’s shoe. This was basically like attaching a miniature sled to the bottom of each foot. The skaters had to use poles to propel themselves across the ice. In the 1500s, the Dutch came up with a narrow metal blade that had edges on both sides–so that you could push off without a pole.
In the 1860s, an American skater named Jackson Haines invented the first blade that was attached directly to the skater’s boot and it’s also believed that he added the “toe pick,” the jagged tip of figure skating blades that allows people to perform many types of jumps and spins. While other skaters focused on performing figure eights and slow circles, Haines set his routines to music and began to thrill audiences with his dance-style moves, which were like nothing any skater had done before. Skating was changing from being a pastime into a sport, where individuals could compete and excel. By the end of the 19th century, national and international skating competitions were being organized, and the first Winter Olympics was held in 1924 at the foot of Mont Blanc in France.
Skiing has similar roots to ice skating—originating as a survival tool, with the earliest skis used by ancient hunters and trappers in snow-packed areas of Scandinavia, such as Norway and Finland, in Mongolia, and the Arctic Circle. Long, thin, flat boards made from pine trees were strapped to the skier’s animal-hide boots. This helped distribute the skier’s weight over a larger surface area so that the skier didn’t sink into soft snow. And much like the blades of ice skates and sled runners, the smooth wooden slats created very little friction, allowing the skier to glide on flat surfaces and whiz down hills. Ancient skis sometimes had animal hide wrapped around one ski, which increased friction, allowing the skier to “brake” when going downhill and to push off when traveling cross-country.
Ancient rock art shows hunters on skis holdings bows and arrows as long as 6,000 years ago. And early writings describe the amazing feats of skiers. In a Norwegian book from about AD 1250 called the “King’s Mirror,” skiers are described as one of the “marvels” of the kingdom. In winter, skillful skiers are “able to pass the bird on the wing.” The book goes on to say that “there is a large number of men who run so well on skis that they can strike down nine reindeer with a spear, or even more, in a single run.”
In Norway, due to the mountainous, snowy terrain, skiing eventually became an important military skill. One famous Norwegian story from the 13th century involves the ski rescue of an infant prince during a Civil War between two warring groups, the Birkebeiners and the Baglers. Two armed skiers from the Birkebeiner side brought the two-year-old prince over the mountains in a raging storm. To commemorate this feat, a 33-mile cross-country race called the Birkebeiner is held every year between the cities of Rena and Lillehammer. Each of the racer’s carries a pack weighing about 7.7 pounds to represent the rescued prince.
So how did skiing evolve into today’s slalom, ski jump, and snowboard cross? What’s the connection between the Norwegian Birkebeiners and superstar snowboarder Shaun White, doing a Double Alley-oop Backside Rodeo?
In fact, the ancient activity of skiing almost died out a couple of hundred years ago. It was mainly in Norway that skiing culture survived. Even though skiing was no longer necessary for hunting, Norwegians kept skiing alive by creating clubs and competitions for kids and young adults. Then, in the middle of the 19th century, when Europeans started building and vacationing at winter resorts—snowy mountain playgrounds where there was lots of leisure time—skiing and other winter sports began to develop.
One resort in particular was extremely important in making winter sports popular. In 1864, Caspar Badrutt, the owner of a holiday hotel in St. Moritz—located in the Swiss Alps—got tired of having no winter business. So, he invited his summertime guests to return when the weather got cold. If they didn’t have fun, he promised to pay for the cost of their entire trip. St. Moritz was so beautiful, snow-covered, and sunny that his winter guests not only kept coming, but they also started inventing new pastimes.
Tourists at St. Moritz loved sledding and tobogganing. But they weren’t content to keep doing it old school. The bobsled was first invented when tourists tied two small sleds together, so that as many as four grown men could ride together. They put a steering wheel on, which made the runners curve slightly to the left or right, and began racing down the resort’s icy roads. In 1870 Caspar Badrutt built an enormous bobsled track—a narrow halfpipe covered with ice. Over the years, bobsled tracks have evolved to be filled with high-speed twists and turns.
Also developed at St. Moritz were luge and skeleton—two other extreme sliding sports. In the luge, a lone athlete rides a tiny sled down a bobsled track while lying down, face up and feet first. Lugers steer by pressing their legs against the runners and shifting their bodies slightly in order to stay in the center of the track and reach speeds over 80 mph. In skeleton races, athletes are lying down, but face-down, head-first. Neither luge nor skeleton sleds have brakes.
Over the past 50 years, the number of winter sports has exploded. Snowboarding—a hybrid of snow skiing and surfing (“snurfing”) that first emerged in the 1960s—has morphed and developed the fastest. Now a fixture in the Winter Olympics and the Winter X Games, snowboarding was actually banned from most ski resorts in the early 1980s, because teenage snowboarders had reputations as rule-breakers. And there was truth to that. Then, as now, snowboarders have pushed boundaries, developing new sports within the sport and amazing audiences with seemingly impossible moves. Influenced by snowboarding, new freestyle skiing competitions have also gained massive popularity—as skiers engage in incredible spins, grabs, and flips.
Who knows what winter sports will emerge in the future?Written by Margaret Mittelbach