With all the reading I do, I’ve come to an epiphany: An obscure book on an obscure subject can gratify the most. That’s because each page alchemizes darkness (what you didn’t know) into light (what you now know). I’ve been thinking about this because, as Americans, we watch the Winter Olympics in Sochi in various drifts of ignorance. That includes the biathlon (bizarre combo!), curling (parodic!), and the skeleton (what the?). But these pursuits are only peculiar because we aren’t Russian or Canadian or Swiss. And we haven’t done our homework.
So today, we’ll take a look at some edifying books on winter sports. I’ll cover the biggies (downhill, figure skating), but I’ll start with my obscure gem: “Everyone to Skis! Skiing in Russia and the Rise of Soviet Biathlon” (Northern Illinois University, 2013). I doubt there are many ex-biathletes with a PhD in history, but I give you William Frank, who here richly unfurls Soviet culture by way of guys who ski and shoot. How ethnocentric of me to find the biathlon odd: It’s the most popular winter sport in Europe, Frank reports. And its origins lie in historical crisis. In a continent that withstood winter sieges from the likes of Napoleon and Hitler, armed ski troops were critical. They schussed supplies to soldiers at the front, when cavalry horses and later mechanized armor grew useless in deep snow.
The biathlon’s biggest catalyst, it seems, is the Soviets’ loss against the Finns at Suomussalmi in 1940. Finnish ski troopers attacked from all sides a much-larger Red Army, poorly equipped for winter fighting and shackled to heavy machinery.
The next year, Hitler invaded Russia. So Stalin urged all comrades to take up skiing as a form of national defense. Not fancy capitalist downhill, of course, but Nordic-style, suitable for the steppes and suffused with “stoical endurance,” which made the biathlon “the quintessential socialist realist sport.” To this day, at various Moscow parades, you can see phalanxes of ski troopers in their camouflage whites, a copse of rifles rising from their backs.
We prefer our over-land skiing rifle-free, but obscurity is still the case for Nordic skiers. “Maybe if we changed the name to cross-country ice-dancing it would get some coverage,” to quote one Olympics crank from “Long Distance: Testing the Limits of Body and Spirit in a Year of Living Strenuously” (Rodale, 2010). In this lovely effort, Bill McKibben, the writer and climate-change activist, tries to become a decent Nordic competitor, skiing hours a day, as he struggles to “bull uphill and dance down’’ in his native Adirondacks, suburban Boston, and Lillehammer, Norway. Like all Nordic geeks, he obsesses over his heart rate, snow conditions, and, most of all, wax.
McKibben pokes fun at the gulf between gaudy downhillers/snowboarders and his plainer tribe. “Cross country skiers may be the Shakers of sport, and like the Shakers in their day subject to every kind of ridicule.” But don’t forget “there’s no more physically demanding sport on earth.” Who knew that, in terms of how much oxygen they burn per minute, Nordic skiers outrank all other athletes, including marathoners and Tour de France bikers?
But “Long Distance” isn’t only a book about sport. It manages to artfully link athletic grit to life itself; each must make a “grand quiet passion out of enduring.” During McKibben’s strenuous year, his father, a former Globe editor, grows ill and dies, and we follow the author as he skis through his grief, in prose as bright as fresh powder.
‘Cross country skiers may be the Shakers of sport, and like the Shakers in their day subject to every kind of ridicule.’
Speaking of good prose, I like how Joy Goodwin says a ring of brightly-costumed skaters circling a rink “look like a school of tropical fish.” Her “The Second Mark: Courage, Corruption, and the Battle for Olympic Gold” (Simon & Schuster, 2004) is ostensibly about the pairs judging scandal at the 2002 games. But I loved most the sections on Canadian, Chinese, and Russian skating histories. You want endurance? Then look to the old Chinese teams. Coaches always carried hatchets to cut through Siberian-border pond ice (there were no indoor rinks in China then), drawing up buckets of water for the youth skaters, who Zambonied the surface by hand.
Meanwhile, the males in Canadian pairs train by skating while lifting 100-pound sacks of potatoes. Unlike the Chinese, they’ve got plenty of rinks. But the state doesn’t support them, as in China and Russia. In the pre-endorsements era, gold medalists David Pelletier and Jamie Salé worked as a bar back and barista, respectively. What of the Russians skaters? Amusingly, they disdain all others for lack of passion. Raised on grand traditions of ballet and theater, “Russians feel deeper,” says gold medalist Anton Sikharulidze. The audience wants to see, he adds, “jealousy, emotion, ardor.”
Jealousy, emotion, and ardor, of course, make me think of curling. Sorry, it’s impossible to avoid irony while reading “Curling, Etcetera: A Whole Bunch of Stuff About the Roaring Game” (Wiley, 2008, out of print but findable). Not exactly a rigorous sport — it’s also called “chess on ice” — this Scottish invention of rocks on lochs has been owned for decades by Canada, a nation heavy with Scottish immigrants. And author Bob Weeks, a columnist for the Ontario Curling Report, has a nice vanilla sense of humor. I really liked his dissection of the 1972 world championships in which American Bob Labonte was so excited at a good shot, he did a little happy dance — with a cigarette in his mouth — and mistakenly kicked the Canadian stone to victory. Bonus tracks: It’s called curling because of the “curr” sound of the gliding stones, and Bruce Springsteen and Wayne Gretzky are devotees.
From brooms to sticks, then: Wayne Coffey’s “The Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team” (Crown, 2005) will repump your adrenaline at its play-by-play of the Lake Placid miracle. But even better was the rich context: how the team, split between midwesterners and northeasterners (including four from Boston University), had varying styles and conflicts. Or how Herb Brooks, the quasi-sadistic coach, chose players based on whether they could be rewired for a faster, Russian style of play, deploying less muscle and more puck finesse. Brooks steals the show actually, “cultivating uncertainty as if it were a crop.”
“White Planet: A Mad Dash Through Modern Global Ski Culture” (Greystone, 2011) is the work of Leslie Anthony, a Powder magazine contributor with a Hunter-Thompson-on-Rossignols touch. From the Inferno amateur race in the Alps to the Bulgarian Extreme and Freestyle Skiing Association to the nascent downhill scene in Newfoundland (where locals ski the slopes in sou’westers) “[c]hasing gravity was our food.” He quotes Hemingway, uses lots of “snowcabulary,” and gushes over the sheer joy at the sport: “You never see such grins elsewhere,” as at the bottom of a good run.
Likewise, it’s hard not to smile in Todd Richards’s company. He’s the veteran snowboarder (and Olympic commentator) behind the dude-abides-ish memoir “P3: Pipes, Parks, and Powder” (ReaganBooks, 2004), written with Eric Blehm. This Paxton native (who cut his teeth at Mount Wachusett) ollies both personal and snowboarding history here. On one page, he’s drinking margaritas that can, in sufficient quantities, make you “legally blind,” on another he traces the sport’s evolution to smaller boards and bigger half-pipes. I liked the stuff on the “wet cat,” Richards’s most famous trick, so-called because he looks like a cat wildly trying to exit a bathtub. He’s also astute on what was gained and lost when the X Games and then the Olympics legitimized the sport: “It was sort of sad to say good-bye to being a bunch of misunderstood outcasts.” See? Obscurity has its fans.Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.