Skiing into Modernity: A Cultural and Environmental History

With El Niño and the Arctic Oscillation bearing down this December, plenty of us will be wishing for a white Christmas. We have the antidote – a podcast episode about snow-covered Alpine slopes, idyllic journeys through wintry hills and forests, rustic chalets, and dashing downhill racers.

Alpine skiing is little more than a century old, and its development was framed within the broader history of modern sports. Andrew Denning looks at the emergence of this winter activity and the history of the region where it was invented in his new book Skiing into Modernity: A Cultural and Environmental History. Part of the University of California Press’ new series “Sport in World History,” Andy’s book shows how downhill skiing developed out of Nordic skiing and then supplanted that older version of the sport, becoming an activity that encompassed the modern love of speed as well as a romantic connection to nature. And as Alpine skiing gained adherents, it transformed the region where it was born. Once seen as a remote and backward corner of Europe, the Alps became a hub for tourists and the site of a distinct brand of modernity. Skiers escaped from the cities to enjoy the mountains, forests, and fresh air, while strapping on engineered bindings and skis, climbing aboard ski lifts and gondolas, and rushing down manicured slopes packed with artificial snow. As the subtitle states, Andy’s book is indeed a cultural and environmental history, showing how an athletic activity grew out of a particular natural landscape, became widely embraced and celebrated in popular culture, and then – it its popularity – altered that original landscape into something new.

For another sample of “Sport in World History” series, check out the interview with Roger Kittleson about his book The Country of Football: Soccer and the Making of Modern Brazil.