Switzerland – a nation of skiers: How much is reality? How much is myth?
Switzerland – a nation of skiers: How much is reality? How much is myth? Swiss National Museum

The whole country is skiing! The whole country…?

Switzerland sees itself as a great skiing nation. Where does that self-image come from? Is it more of a myth, or more of a reality?

Simon Engel

Simon Engel

Simon Engel is a historian and is responsible for public relations work at Swiss Sports History.

In 1963, multi-talented showbiz personality Vico Torriani sang about what was simultaneously a Swiss attitude towards life, and a source of national identity: Alles fahrt Ski, alles fahrt Ski. Ski fahrt die ganzi Nation. Alles fahrt Ski, alles fahrt Ski, d'Mamme, dr Bappe, dr Sohn. Es git halt nüt Schöner's, juhe, juhe, als Sunneschy, Bärge und Schnee. From the 1960s onwards, hitting the ski slopes was actually part of everyday life for many Swiss people. After all, a true Swiss person can ski! Whether the whole nation, or only half of it, was skiing at the time is hard to say; there are no precise statistics on this issue. But there are reliable data on it for the present: according to Sport 2020, a study on the sports activities and sporting interests of Switzerland’s resident population, skiing is in the top 5, along with hiking, cycling, swimming and jogging. Overall, however, just 35% of the population goes skiing regularly, which is still a very high figure compared to other types of sport. But is that enough for us to call ourselves a nation of skiers?
Vico Torriani’s song made Switzerland see itself as a nation of skiers. YouTube
The tourism industry, politicians and the media continue to cling to a narrative of the Skination Schweiz; there’s no publicity without a reference to the country’s long heritage of skiing, no retrospective on SRF Sport that fails to mention the ‘golden days of Sapporo’. Ours is a culture of remembrance, in which snow-capped mountains, ski camps and skiing races are presented on TV as collective occasions. Often accompanied by Vico Torriani’s hit song. But because the introduction of skiing in Switzerland can be traced back to overseas influences and was the product of a globally networked Switzerland, skiing first had to be ‘nationalised’. About 70 years passed between the first skiers appearing in Switzerland and the national mantra ‘Everyone is skiing’. People were gliding across the snow on wooden laths as early as the Stone Age in various parts of the world. The ski has often served farmers and tradespeople as a means of transport and locomotion. But the Norwegians were the first to turn it into a sport, in the mid-19th century. Skiing (cross-country skiing) and ski-jumping became a common recreational activity across all levels of society there. Skiing came to Switzerland around 1890 through Norwegian business people and academics who worked with Swiss people or lived in Switzerland. But skiing was popularised above all by the book The First Crossing of Greenland by Fridtjof Nansen, another Norwegian. In the book, Nansen described his crossing of Greenland on skis, which was quite a sensation for the conditions of the time. The well-read urban middle classes of Central Europe were captivated by Nansen’s account, and rushed to get themselves some of the ‘Norwegian snowshoes’. Skiing promised an escape from the hectic pace and dirt of the industrialised cities, in glorious winter landscapes with clean air.
At the end of the 19th century skiing was something for wealthy tourists, like these jolly types in Graubünden in 1890.
At the end of the 19th century skiing was something for wealthy tourists, like these jolly types in Graubünden in 1890. Swiss National Museum

Alpine skiing is a British invention

In Switzerland, it was mountaineers who first discovered skis as a useful tool for their expeditions. The first skiing club was formed in Glarus in 1893, the first ski races were held in 1902 and the Swiss Ski Association (SSV, now Swiss-Ski) was founded in 1904. Skiing quickly took hold in the winter sports resorts such as St Moritz, Gstaad and Davos, where upper-class British tourists had frolicked since the 1870s. They had already brought entertainments such as curling and ice hockey to Switzerland, so they were fundamentally keen on sports. It wasn’t long before some of them discovered the new sport of skiing. One of those British tourists was Arnold Lunn. He was the son of a travel agent who offered winter holidays in Mürren for well-heeled British tourists. In line with his background and his social class, Lunn Junior interpreted skiing according to the principles of ‘british sports’: competition, speed and freedom of movement. These were values held by an industrial elite at the end of the 19th century, which were fed by the belief in progress, technology and quantification. On the steep slopes of the Alps Lunn found an ideal field for experimentation, and from 1911 onwards he teamed up with like-minded British and Swiss people to organise races that worked on the principle of ‘downhill only’, i.e. descending a slope as fast as possible. Lunn and his associates thus invented Alpine skiing – that is, what is understood today in common parlance as ski racing and skiing.
The starters line up for the first Alpine ski race in 1911.
The starters line up for the first Alpine ski race in 1911. Swiss Sports History / Archives BASPO
It’s thanks to the ‘downhill only’ principle that skiing subsequently became a mass sport, and an important economic factor, in Switzerland. Seeking out a suitable slope and then whizzing down it in an exhilarating rush of speed was simply more fun, and was in line with the nascent spirit of mass culture according to which people should squeeze as much content and enjoyment into their leisure time as possible. In the early days, however, skiing remained more of an amusement for wealthy tourists and moneyed locals, a pastime that stood for sophistication and worldliness. The subsequent rise of skiing to become Switzerland’s national sport – and its resulting ‘nationalisation’ – is primarily due to the two world wars.

Wars make skiing more of a domestic affair

The First and Second World Wars brought international tourism to a standstill, but not skiing itself, because ski associations, mountain railways, hoteliers and political decision-makers banded together to try and make skiing more attractive to the local population. For example, the SSV gave away skis to young people, and funded the establishment of ski schools and production of standardised skiing textbooks. But what really tipped the scales in favour of getting Swiss people out on the slopes was the public funding granted by the federal government and cantons. This largesse can be ascribed to the heavy lobbying by hoteliers and their helpers in parliament, initially to rescue hotels and mountain railways, and later for the launch of a discounted winter sports ticket and for the purpose of subsidising ski camps and ski school courses. In the 1940s, the first cantons also introduced sports holidays that were to be used for skiing.
Skiing was promoted with discounts at ski schools.
Skiing was promoted with discounts at ski schools. Swiss Sports History
The army also played its part in the national project: the military potential offered by skis was identified before World War I, and skis soon became part of the standard equipment for mountain troops. From 1908, the army conducted its own ski courses, and during World War II there was even a joint promotional campaign with the tourism industry. Under the slogan ‘Gesunde Jugend. Wehrkräftiges Volk durch Wintersport’ (Healthy young people. Winter sport makes the nation fit for defence), General Guisan described the mountains and snow sports as the ideal arena to build the physical and moral strength needed for national defence.
Armed border guard on a ski patrol, 1945.
Armed border guard on a ski patrol, 1945. Swiss National Museum / ASL
The concerted propaganda campaign was highly successful; thanks to the new influx of domestic tourists, in the 1943/44 season Swiss hotels reached around 90% of their pre-war occupancy rates. In 1945, Federal Councillor Kobelt proclaimed: ‘Switzerland’s young people are skiing, the whole country is skiing and the Swiss Army is skiing!’ The many international achievements of Switzerland’s ski aces from the 1930s onwards strengthened the feeling of being a nation of skiers. For nearly 60 years, this master narrative worked pretty well: children learned their first turns in a ski camp or at a ski school, on their sports holidays the whole family took to the slopes, and the media euphorically followed Switzerland’s skiing superstars. The first cracks started to show in the mid-1980s, when snowboarders appeared on the slopes; with their snazzy gear and brash behaviour, these upstarts chose not to fit into the collective skiing tradition. The ‘Snöber’, as they’re called here, espoused a new lifestyle and a more individualistic attitude to sport, the influence of which is still perceptible today. Compared to the past, Mr and Mrs Swiss can choose from numerous offers, and skiing is just one of many options. Ski camps are now called ‘winter sport camps’, on your sporting vacations you fly to the Maldives with the family, and the media now also report on halfpipe snowboarding, biathlons and big air. The whole country… is doing whatever it wants!
Medals such as those won by Primin Zurbriggen and Maria Walliser in Crans-Montana in 1987 reinforced the feeling of being a nation of skiers.
Medals such as those won by Primin Zurbriggen and Maria Walliser in Crans-Montana in 1987 reinforced the feeling of being a nation of skiers. Swiss National Museum / ASL
Snowboard LOOK from Germany, made around 1980.
Snowboard LOOK from Germany, made around 1980. Swiss National Museum
So Switzerland’s self-image as a nation of skiers originates from a clever marketing move, and still has a strong association with tourism, sport and the army. Today, the Skination Schweiz also means a nostalgic flashback to the time between 1930 and 1990. But the Norwegian and British midwives who helped deliver and nurture our national pastime have disappeared from sight, and if they do happen to pop up, it’s usually in their own domains. National myths work in exactly the same way: a part of the story that doesn’t fit into the national concept is always faded out or appears only in blurred outline. The idea of Switzerland as a nation of skiers is therefore a myth that lacks traction in this day and age. What message should the story of Pirmin Zurbriggen’s ‘knee of the nation’ have for a second-generation Kosovan incomer? Or try asking a 15-year-old schoolgirl whether she’ll be going skiing on her next sporting vacation. The answers could be chastening…
Pirmin Zurbriggen wins Super-G in Schladming, 1988. YouTube

Swiss Sports History

Swiss Sports History
This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at sportshistory.ch

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