Flashbacks February 2006

The Call of the Slopes

Atlantic articles from the '30s through the '50s comment on the development and appeal of skiing as a sport

With the just-completed Torino Winter Olympic Games came increased publicity for obscure sports with mysterious names like "curling" and "skeleton." While downhill skiing seems downright mainstream by contrast, it is in fact only relatively recently that the sport has become a popular pastime in the United States or a competitive sport around the world. Over the years a number of Atlantic contributors have commented on these rapid changes in the skiing world—offering a fascinating look at the evolution of the sport.

In "Schussing a Few Decades" (February 1957), Newton F. Tolman offered a humorous account of the swiftness with which a downhill skiing craze swept New England in the late 1920s, bringing with it dramatic changes in the mores and equipment associated with the sport. No-one was exempt from the ski craze, Tolman explained—not even those who had no business venturing out on the slopes.

There were retired bankers in their late seventies who had even given up golf. One large Boston matron, insisting on lessons, probably hadn't taken so much as a short walk in years. With such formidable girth and battlements, when she caught an edge it was like a mighty pine toppling. We would have to round up all hands to get her back on her feet again.

As for ski instructors, they took on an enviable aura of glamour:

Dodging debutantes was the only serious hazard of the "ski pro." It remains a sociological mystery why so many girls so suddenly wanted to propose marriage, or at least propose, to any male eking out a living on skis. The trouble was, there weren't enough ski teachers to go around—about four, all told, in the East. They had to spread themselves a bit thin until we started importing Swiss and Austrians.

Over time, the era of climbing to the top of a run gave way to new technological developments such as the rope tow. "Even today, you can easily spot a veteran of the early tows," Tolman quipped. "Just look for a man with arms about six inches longer than normal and subject to bursitis."

Arnold Lunn, who invented the slalom race, shared a more serious perspective in a 1949 article titled "Downhill Racing." "It has been my good fortune," he commented, "to see skiing ... evolve, in half a century, from the specialty of a few eccentrics into one of the world's most popular sports." In the early days of skiing, he pointed out, mountaineering and orienteering were as much a part of the sport as the ability to race downhill. "The austere spell of the remote and lonely snows," he recalled, "meant as much to us as the actual run. Skiing was a branch of exploration."

Lunn also recalled his own uphill battle to win acceptance for his invention of the slalom—a race in which, as he described it, the race course is "defined by pairs of flags through which the skier must pass and which are so arranged as to test every variety of turn short and abrupt, long and sweeping." Vociferous objection to the new racing style came from Norway, a skiing powerhouse that was rather set in its ways. One leading Norwegian Skier testily informed Lunn, "It is beneath our dignity even to discuss the slalom."

Lunn's persistence paid off, however, and in 1936, slalom officially became part of the Winter Olympic Games. In May of that year, Olympic athlete Robert Livermore Jr. wrote an article titled "Notes on Olympic Skiing," recalling his experiences at the Games a few months earlier. Livermore, who placed eighteenth in the slalom event, recounted everything from the trip over from the United States to the team's practice runs, to his and his teammates' efforts to flirt with pretty French girls in multiple languages.

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