It does seem a bit pointless. Spending a fortune getting to the top of a mountain so, at great personal risk, we can slide down it. We usually end up exactly where we started – at the bottom of the first lift.
But then all sport is pointless – right?
There might be some health benefit to playing sport. Humans used to get their exercise from chasing food; instead we now chase each other to keep in shape. Given that most people usually return from a skiing holiday fatter, dehydrated, sunburnt and often in plaster, we can rule out any net health benefits.
So, other than being pointless, what does skiing have in common with other sports – is skiing actually a sport?
There are versions of skiing (downhill, slalom, biathlon etc.) that involve the wearing of
lycra and sometimes the carrying of a gun, which are indeed sports, but they bear little resemblance to what most of us do on our skiing holiday. Not only do skiing athletes wear different clothes, but they also use very different skis to us. They ski on different terrain, usually pre-prepared ice, which we go to great lengths to avoid. They never ski in bad visibility or have to take emergency action to avoid a human obstacle sat in the middle of the piste. They never stop half way down it for lunch, or go binge drinking afterwards, either.
There are those who think an activity must be done in shorts, not long trousers, to be deemed a ‘sport’ because it implies some physical exertion will be undertaken. But then cricket, a very physically demanding activity, would get thrown out along with the bathwater (snooker and darts). We skiers would also go down the plughole because, apart from the odd Scott, we seldom ski bare-legged. The pub definition I like the most is known as the ‘Shoe Test’.
Does the activity require specialist foot wear? If the answer is yes, then it’s a sport. If no, then it isn’t. This gets rid of pub-based activities but keeps football, rugby, cricket and most importantly skiing in. Skiers have the ultimate in specialist footwear after all.
Rather than look for clothing based definitions I should probably head to the Oxford English Dictionary which defines ‘sport’ as: ‘an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others.’ Skiing does involve exertion and requires skill, but unless you’re wearing lycra, or carrying a rifle, you’re not competing against anyone else – so skiing is not a sport.
There are those, mostly men, who try and turn skiing into a competitive sport. They try to be the first down every run or record the highest speed of the day on SkiTracks. Some, I’m convinced, think it’s a contact sport, given their disregard for others on the piste. But most of us are not consciously entering a competition when we go skiing. If we are in a competition, it is with the mountain, and mountains can never truly be beaten.
There are also fitness freaks that see skiing as an endurance sport. Ski Touring is popular amongst these types. They cover vast distances and often stay overnight in remote mountain huts – which appeals to me. However they spend most of the day ‘skinning-up’ slopes, which doesn’t. Spending four hours skinning for ten minutes of skiing seems a very poor reward. I also like the idea of having a geographical objective for the day – a nice restaurant in my case, not a mountain hut.
Others see skiing as an exercise in orienteering and love navigating their way around the slopes in military fashion. For them, skiing is just a giant game of snakes and ladders (the pistes being the snakes and the lifts the ladders) making skiing more of a board game than a sport for them. Then there are the collectors. They tick off ski resorts and their signature runs, but that makes skiing more of a hobby than a sport.
Then we have the adrenaline junkies who get a buzz from going deeper and steeper. They seek radical experiences and sometimes jump out of perfectly serviceable helicopters. For them, skiing is a sequence of escalating challenges – not a sport.
Perhaps the best way to define skiing is to look at the history of the Alps before it became a playground. Skiing wasn’t invented to be a sport, a competition, a hobby or a challenge but a means of winter transportation. The farming population made essential journeys on skis – their skiing wasn’t pointless. For many of us, skiing is just the best way to get around snow-covered mountains which unfortunately means wearing long trousers and specialised shoes.
Skis allow us to access an ancient wilderness normally too difficult for bipeds to move around in. Skis allow us to explore places Homo sapiens were not designed to go. Skiing is many things to many people but for most of us, I think, skiing is much more than just a sport.