In ancient times, people strapped animal bones on their feet instead of ice skates to glide across frozen lakes. Skiing became a household word after a Norwegian adventurer made the first crossing of Greenland. And snowboarding was first known as snurfing—short for snow surfing.
Winter sports have come a long way.
In Beijing, competitions are underway for the 24th Winter Olympics. Sports like figure skating, ice hockey, curling, and cross-country skiing have been part of Olympic history since the first Winter Olympics was hosted in Chamonix, France, in 1924.
But the origins of many Olympic sports stretch back even further. Some evolved out of ancient adaptations to harsh weather—from the Indigenous people of North America who used simple sleds to carry food over the snow to the hunters on strapless skis that are depicted on Stone Age carvings in Norway. Still others are more recent inventions that have dramatically evolved in the last few decades.
Here are the origins behind some of the most popular winter sports: snowboarding, skiing, sledding, skating, and curling.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JONAS BENDIKSEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
A man on skis hauls a log in Atlay, China—which other historians contend was the birthplace of skiing in 8000 B.C. Ancient wood-carved skis had various adaptations that made them suitable to their region: like horsehair on Altay skis that helped people climb uphill and glide downhill.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JONAS BENDIKSEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
The ancient origins of skiing
Skiing has been around since early civilization, evidenced by a 5,000-year-old rock carving depicting men on skis hunting elk in Rødøy, Norway, and the discovery of a ski dating back to 6000 B.C. found in Vis, Russia. Historians debate where skiing first got its start, however; some argue that it was in Altay, China, in 8000 B.C.
Modern skiing, however, can be traced back to the Scandinavians, who primarily used skis as a means of travel or for other practical purposes, particularly the Indigenous Sámi people in Norway, Finland, and Sweden, writes Raymond Flower in The History of Skiing and Other Winter Sports. Norse myths even portrayed Ull, a winter god, on skis with curved tips and included other legends of heroes and goddesses skiing down mountains.
Some of the first official competitions began around 1850 in Norway, with the first recorded race in Sweden held outside Stockholm in 1879, writes Flowers. Other scholars say that skiing became a household word with the publication of the popular book offering a thrilling account of Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s difficult and historic trek on skis across Greenland in 1888.
The sport spread to the Swiss Alps, where it was enjoyed largely by British vacationers, before clubs popped up around the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Variations of the sport developed over the years, such as the slalom race, downhill jumping, and mountaineering. The British are largely credited with transforming skiing from its Scandinavian roots into the highly competitive sport it is now. In 1921, they developed regulations that became widely accepted and adjusted the slalom race to include flag gates to test the skill of skiers’ turns.
Skiing then exploded in popularity after World War II, when ski resorts evolved to accommodate single-day skiers as well as those taking longer vacations.
The British four-man bobsled team in action at the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix in February 1924. The first toboggans were largely made of wood, and those initially used at the famous Cresta Run in Switzerland were tied together with deer hide.
PHOTOGRAPH BY TOPICAL PRESS AGENCY, HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES
How sledding evolved in Switzerland
Modern-day sled races can trace their origins back to the Swiss Alps in the late 1800s when British tourists decided to race in wooden luges that locals had used to travel through snow. (That origin is disputed in snowy upstate New York, however, where there’s evidence that Albany held bobsled races as early as 1885.)
Wherever they began, sled races quickly became popular. The famous Cresta Run, named after the Swiss town near the base of its course, was built in 1885 using snowbanks. The first organised competition was in 1898, hosted by the first bobsleigh club in nearby St. Moritz. It was then that sledding began to split off from the luge to include two new sports: bob, and skeleton sledding.
Cresta Run is considered the birthplace of the skeleton, a particularly daring form of sledding. Unlike the luge, where competitors riding feet-first on a sled with metal runners, the skeleton is a steel sled with a bony appearance. Riders lie down on the sled headfirst, then plummet down an ice track.
Bobsledding, meanwhile, involves teams of two to four in which the person in front steers and the player in back brakes when needed. It earned its name after competitors started bobbing back and forth to speed up the sled.
Bobsledding initially overtook skeleton sledding in popularity, becoming one of a handful of sports played at the first Winter Games in 1924. The skeleton was limited to the Cresta Run for decades because other bob runs around the world were not built for the steel skeleton sled. But in the 1970s, adjustments were made to both the skeleton and to bob runs in order to include the event at future winter games.
How snurfing became snowboarding
Snowboarding is one of the world’s most popular sports. But it originated as a backyard activity known as snurfing—invented by a father to entertain stir-crazy children.
In 1965, Sherman Poppen of Muskegon, Michigan, was looking for something his children could use as a sled. He tied together two skis—creating a toy that his wife suggested naming a “Snurfer” for the way it simulated surfing over snow. Poppen pitched his Snurfer to sports equipment companies and, less than a year after he first tied those skis together, the toy was fast-tracked for a successful Christmas debut before exploding into a national craze.
A simple college tournament in Muskegon soon grew to an annual championship sponsored by the makers of the Snurfer. But despite efforts from organizers, competitors began to create and compete with their own boards. Because Poppen had trademarked the term Snurfer, they began to call the sport snowboarding instead—and the name stuck, according to Ron Pesch, a sports historian based in Michigan.
By 1985, snurfing fell out of fashion as production of the Snurfer exited the market, but snowboarding had caught on worldwide. It finally became an official Olympic sport for the 1998 Games.
These 19th century ice skates had straps that attached to a skater’s feet. In 1850, a Philadelphia inventor introduced the all-steel skate, revolutionizing the equipment. Ancient civilizations had used bones as blades–and it wasn’t until the 13th century that Dutch innovators are believed to have replaced bone with iron.
PHOTOGRAPH BY HERITAGE ART, HERITAGE IMAGES VIA GETTY IMAGES
Children skate to school during the winter in the Dutch city of Zaandam in the 19th century. Figure skating, speed skating, and ice hockey can all trace their origins to the Netherlands, where skating across frozen rivers and canals was a national pastime.
PHOTOGRAPH BY UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE, UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY IMAGES
How ice skating became a pastime
Figure skating, speed skating, and ice hockey can all trace their beginnings to early civilisations that strapped animal bones to their feet to skate over ice, according to A Dictionary of British History. Bone runners found in Switzerland date as far back as 3000 B.C., Flower writes, and there is also evidence of skating in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages.
Modern skating likely got its start in the Netherlands, where it was considered a national pastime in the early 17th century, when aristocrats skated on frozen canals for fun. European elites picked up the sport while visiting the Netherlands, and British royals soon brought skating back to England in the late 1600s. When the Thames froze over in 1683, skating was among the many diversions at London’s famous winter fair on the ice, which King Charles II attended.
At the end of the 18th century, American ballet dancer Jackson Haines transformed the sport into what is now known as figure skating by introducing elements of ballet to the ice. According to the Dictionary of American History, Haines skated in bear and ballet costumes and toured with exhibitions across Europe, where he was most lauded in Vienna, Austria.
Skating evolved into other sports, including speed skating and hockey. Speed skating has been around as early as Dutch people dared to race on their skates, but hockey developed in 19th century Canada as an icy version of field hockey. Both were well-established by the 1900s, so they were on the docket in the first Winter Olympics.
Men play curling on an ice rink in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in the early 20th century. The first curling stones were taken from a riverbed and were carved with holes to get a better grip on them. Now, granite from the Scottish island Ailsa Craig is used to carve and polish Olympic stones—which weigh between 38 to 44 pounds and have yellow or red plastic handles used to slide the rock into play. Modern synthetic brushes or brooms help the stone travel farther and straighter.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ULLSTEIN BILD VIA GETTY IMAGES
The earliest evidence of curling
The first written evidence of the ancestor to curling appears in a 1540 book written by a Scottish notary, who described a stone-throwing challenge on ice at a monastery that was similar to a game that was then played widely in Scotland.
Scotland lays claim to curling since it created its 16th-century predecessor, the ain game, played on frozen lochs and ponds using smooth boulders from riverbeds. The game was so popular that an old Scottish family, the Drummonds of Carlowrie, incorporated a curling stone in their coat of arms, writes Flower.
Centuries later, the first curling club was founded in Scotland and received the approval of Queen Victoria in 1843 following a curling demonstration on the ballroom floor of a palace in Perth. In the sport, players slide the stones toward a target—earning more points the closer the stone lands.
As interest grew, the club’s membership increased over the next 50 years, adding nearly 18,800 new members in Scotland alone, with more chapters in Canada, Russia, and New Zealand. By the 20th century, curling was so widespread that it was one of the few sports played in the first Olympic Games in 1924.