Oslo's rights of winter: skiing for everyone

Skiing in Oslo is like walking the dog in any other city. Residents can get to trails on a short tram ride. Some ski out their back doors. The city is two-thirds forest with 1,250 miles of ski trails.

Here, people ski after work on lighted slopes until 11 p.m. There are free saunas and showers for anyone who wants them, and cross-country skiing is free.

It may sound luxurious, but to Oslovians, skiing is a way of surviving.

''Winter in Norway is dark, long, and cold,'' says Knut Moberg, who is acting head of Skiforeningen, Oslo's ski association. ''We have to adjust to it.''

In fact, the sport is considered so crucial to winter well-being that Skiforeningen used to have a special fund to buy skis for the needy. Now it is unneccesary, because, thanks to a program of used-ski exchanges, everyone in Oslo can afford to ski.

Nearly every Oslo resident owns four pairs of skis for different types of snow and skiing, estimates Anne-Marie Taraldset, manager of Oslo's city guides.

Children, who get skis as their first Christmas present, need longer ones as they grow up. So Oslo's sports clubs organize used-ski sales. Parents sell outgrown skis and buy longer ones, saving about 50 percent of the price. Buying the more expensive slalom skis this way, says Mrs. Taraldset, one can save up to 75 percent. The role model for this frugality may have been Norway's former monarch, King Haakon VII, who, it is said, used to repair his own skis.

Skiing was always an important way to get around in the snowbound, rocky country, where the valleys were so isolated that each valley population made its own distinctive style of skis.

''I remember when my father was young, he had to go skiing to go to school because they didn't have buses,'' says Moberg, who is also editor of Norway's Sno and Ski magazine. ''Today, we do it as a pleasure.''

Modern skiing was invented by a Norwegian, Sondre Nordheim of Telemark, who came to Oslo in 1868 to show off a binding that held toe and heel to the ski. But the Holmenkollen Ski Museum shows Norwegians have skied for years before that. The world's first cross-country skier appears in a 4,000-year-old cave painting found near the Arctic circle.

Skiforeningen's ski school, near the Holmenkollen ski jump, is now teaching classes to 5,000 five- to seven-year-olds twice a week after school, Mr. Moberg says. Contrary to the popular saying that Norwegians were born to ski, he says they were really born to learn to ski. Nonetheless, by the age of 7, Norwegians know how. The only grown-ups who go to ski school here are foreigners.

Norwegians even watch ski races actively. In March, fans get up at eight in the morning and ski up to the ski jump for the Holmenkollen ski festival, a World Cup event. This year, Moberg says, the ski association expects 10,000 observers to make the trek.

Skiforeningen celebrated its 100th anniversary last week with a banquet. Everyone but Norway's monarch, King Olav V, had to pay for his dinner, so the association can spend its money on preparing slopes and getting more people to ''come out from television, come out from the house,'' says Moberg.

''When there's snow in the forest, it's more light. . . . It gives you power to go out and work the next week. And in our society today, where grown-ups and children are more and more separated, on Saturdays and Sundays they can go skiing together. . . . I think that if you ask most Norwegians, they will say they cannot think of a winter without being able to ski. When we have winter, all people talk about is 'where, when, come on, snow.' ''

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