A Past (and Future?) Olympic Sport That's Like Waterskiing Behind a Dog

Skijoring, a demonstration event in the 1928 Olympics, is campaigning to make a comeback.
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Steven Donahue / AP

The Winter Olympics is no stranger to wacky sporting events. In its modern history, the Winter Games have hosted weird spectacles like the winter biathlon (a sport that pairs two pastimes that don’t at all go together—cross-country skiing and precision rifle shooting), luge (an event in which athletes lie on their backs atop a tiny sled and hurl themselves down an icy track at speeds up to 90 mph), and curling (in which two teams take turns sliding large, polished stones over a rectangular sheet of ice toward a bull’s-eye target, while two teammates frantically sweep the ice with brooms to help direct the stones).

But if those sports, all featured at the Sochi games, ­aren’t quite bizarre enough for your taste, consider the onetime—and possibly future—Olympic sport of skijoring.

Pronounced skee-JORE-ing, the sport has been described by some as being somewhat akin to water skiing, except on snow. While wearing snow skis instead of water skis. And while being pulled by a dog.

In reality, the sport is closer to being a cross between cross-country skiing and dog sledding. Skijoring (Norwegian for “ski driving”) is a competitive sport in which a dog is outfitted with a sledding harness that’s attached by a towline to a belt worn by a skier. Skijoring races—usually anywhere from four to 12 miles­ in length—are a study in human-canine teamwork; a blur of fur, ski blades, and snow (sometimes yellow snow). Athletes wear ultra-light skate skis and power themselves by striding with poles while simultaneously being pulled along by a dog (or small team of dogs) that run 6-to-10 feet a head of the skier. Dog-powered skijorers can reach speeds of up to 25 mph.

Skijoring was a demonstration event at the 1928 Winter Olympics, held in St. Moritz, Switzerland; skiers were towed, somewhat implausibly, by horses rather than dogs. After that, it disappeared from competition.

Inevitably, several forms of “extreme skijoring” have cropped up, some more improbable than others. There’s equestrian skijoring—the type demonstrated in the 1928 Olympics—in which a skier is pulled by a towline attached to the harness of a galloping horse. Often, equestrian skijorers also have to negotiate a series of obstacles and jumps. Skiers often have a difficult time controlling their spirited steeds, and athletes commonly suffer cuts and bruises from flying ice kicked up by horses’ hooves.

Arno Balzarini / AP

There’s also, on the less serious end of the spectrum, snowmobile-powered skijoring—which involves a skier, a snowmobile, and not infrequently, alcohol. The object of snowmobile skijoring appears to be causing the skier to wipe out as spectacularly as possible, while a third party records the hilarity and posts it on YouTube.

And then there’s the ultimate in extreme skijoring—skiing while being pulled by a powerful all-wheel-drive vehicle. This form of the sport is not for the faint of heart, nor the sensible. Skijoring world champion Franco Moroski once sped through the snow while tethered to the rear of a twin-turbocharged 567-horsepower luxury Bentley Continental GT, and lived to tell the tale. It’s unlikely that this type of skijoring will ever become an Olympic event. Unless, of course, Bentley agrees to sponsor it.

But in recent years, a movement to bring skijoring (the dog-powered variety) to a future Winter Olympics has started to gain some traction. And why not? It’s hard to argue that a skier being pulled by dogs is any stranger than athletes madly sweeping brooms to direct large polished stones across the ice.

In order for skijoring be added to a future Winter Olympics, supporters will need to convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that the sport has international appeal, attracts world-class athletes, adds value to the games and presents well on television. The IOC tends to be somewhat stingy when it comes to adding new events, although the committeee has added golf and rugby to the 2016 summer games in Rio.

Supporters failed to convince the IOC to add skijoring to the Sochi games, but advocates are setting their sights on the 2018 Winter Olympics, to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The International Federation of Sleddog Sports (IFSS), the global governing body of all sled dog sports, is currently drafting an application to submit to the IOC on behalf of skijoring. The group says it’s too early to tell how the committee will rule, but officials feel that, with a little luck, skijoring’s moment in the Olympic spotlight may not be far off.

“I know the Olympic committee is looking for new winter sports that would be interesting to view on TV,” says Helen Lundberg, president of the IFSS. “To be honest, there are a lot of bureaucratic things you have to go through before they approve a new sport. But I’m optimistic.”

Skijoring supporters not only have to convince Olympic officials that the sport could attract competitive athletes from around the world, but they also have to show that skijoring adheres to the rules and restrictions imposed on all Olympic sports. That includes anti-doping rules. And not just for the skiers—for the dogs, too.

There’s an astonishing array of substances and methods prohibited for would-be Olympic dogs. Naturally, anabolic steroids, hormones, and masking agents such as diuretics are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, as they are for human athletes. So are oxygen transfer enhancements (blood doping), intravenous infusions, and force-feeding (even though it’s a rare dog that needs to be forced to eat anything).

But other prohibited substances for Olympic dogs include anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics, aspirin, and oddly, alcohol. (The International Federation of Equestrian Sports also maintains a similar list of banned substances for horses.) There are even bans on doggie cough suppressants, bronchodilators, acupuncture, and chiropractic manipulation. 

Most of these bans are held over from other canine sports, like sled dog racing. In 2005, Associated Press sportswriter Steve Wilstein noted that it was the dogs, not the humans, who got tested for banned substances at checkpoints in the famous Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska. “That says something about which ones are the real athletes in this 1,100-mile journey over snow and ice,” he wrote. If skijoring were to become a competition Olympic sport, the games could one day have to face the challenge of dealing with a canine Lance Armstrong.

Skijoring may be a little-known sport in America, but its popularity has grown over the past decade: There are now skijoring spots in New England, New York, California, and throughout the upper Midwest. The Minnesota-based Midwest Skijorers Club currently has about 200 fulltime members, and an estimated 2,000 people have been members since the club began in 2000. Jim Benson, president of the organization, took up the sport about 15 years ago, at a time when he says there weren’t any snow trails dedicated to skijoring.

“Now, there are probably 100 designated trails for skijoring in Minnesota,” Benson says.

The Midwest Skijorers Club holds regular races and provides “paws-on” training for novice skijorers and their dogs. The organization helps aspiring skijorers address questions such as: “Does your dog stop and sniff things on the trail?” and “Does your dog visit with other dogs on the trail rather than staying focused and passing them?” Other problematic dog behaviors include stopping to pee every few minutes and running in circles around their owner's ankles. But to hear enthusiasts tell it, skijoring can be as enjoyable for dogs as it is for humans. “When I take the skijoring harness out of the closet, my dog beats me to the door,” says Benson.

In America, recreational skijorers make up the largest segment of the sport, with skiers typically bringing the family pet along for the action. Almost any dog weighing more than 30 pounds that likes to run and pull is a candidate for skijoring—even poodles.

“It’s a big adrenaline rush when you’re skijoring behind two really powerful dogs,” says Rebecca Knight, a champion skijorer from Anchorage, Alaska. “I was hooked the first time I tried it. It allows me to combine my love of skiing with my passion for dogs.”

Skijoring holds world championships every two years; the last took place in 2013 in North Pole, Alaska, near Fairbanks. The sport is currently dominated by Scandinavian athletes, who reliably combine exceptional skiing prowess with superior dog breeding. (Dog breeds such as Huskies, German Shorthaired Pointers, Australian shepherds and Malamutes tend to be favored by world-class skijorers.)

But even though Scandinavians have won most of the medals at recent world championships, American skijorers and their dogs are nipping at the heels of their Nordic competitors.

“We have some excellent American skijorers right now,” Knight says. “I think that in the near future we’re going to see an American win a medal.”

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Tom McNichol, a frequent contributor to TheAtlantic.com, is a San Francisco writer whose work has also appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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