THE TRUE BELIEVERS OF WINTER SPORT an essay by franzobel

“Now, all that has changed. A means of loco motion for poor mountain farmers has become a luxurious leisure pursuit.

If ethnologists were to look at winter sport, they would conclude that skiing was a religious ritual, the only purpose of which was to placate the gods of the mountains. How else would one explain all the effort? People cut swathes out of the forests, build big, blocky lift facilities, ensure white pistes with snow machines, build huge hotels in rough terrain, and prepare the snow with monstrous tracked vehicles. And all of this is only in order to slide down the slopes, more or less elegantly, on boards. To any foreign culture, skiing must seem pointless, like something that can only be explained as a religious cult – similar to the Mayas’ football game with big suspender belts or the Aztecs’ sacrifice of human hearts.


In this case, the pleasure lies in the overcoming of the elements. Like the surfers, who lie on their boards in the sea for hours, waiting for the wave, to then ride on the ocean for moments, skiers go to a lot of bother, forcing themselves into clothing resembling a sleeping bag, and boots reminiscent of medieval instruments of torture, to swerve down fields of snow in a barren landscape, to stand on a knife-point for moments, to defy elemental forces with fast, elegant sweeps. Skiing is like the toe-dancing of a ballerina on a wobbly pyramid of chairs: the exhibiting of the impossible. For this, one endures tearful hours of learning and suffering, falls, and every risk of injury. Skiing is a religion.


60 years ago, my father used to put up with bus trips lasting hours to ascend a mountain, and to ski down once, one single time.


When I was a child, there were uncomfortable chair and button lifts, which we used to the very last minute because they were so expensive. Back then, we took sliced cold sausage sandwiches and a flask of tea along with us. It did not matter to us that we had to queue up forever for the lifts and came home soaked in the evening. We, believers of the Ski God, wore self-knitted pullovers and old anoraks, and had skis that were much too long, handed down by elder relatives.


Now, all that has changed. A means of locomotion for poor mountain farmers has become a luxurious leisure pursuit. One stays in expensive hotels with a spa area, and in the evenings one is served fillets of Scottish highland beef with cranberry-vinaigrette and saffron risotto or New Zealand cod on fennel purée with scallops – accompanied of course by exquisite wines. The skis have a core of gneiss rock and use ther moplastics from aircraft construction, with chro mium steel and Canadian cedar, carved at the equinox by moonlight – and cost the same as a small car. On top of this you have wind-channeltested sticks from a Swiss high-precision factory, individually adjusted, and heated shoes, astronaut clothing.


It is like with religion. Earlier, there used to be poor pilgrims and suffering martyrs who endured inhuman hardships to serve their god. Today, the Church of Winter Sport is luxuriating in splendour and extravagance, building summit stations like cathedrals and hotel complexes like Benedictine monasteries. And the world religion of winter sport wants to send out missionaries and expand. What will that lead to? To a religious war! But until that happens, we should be humble, enjoy, and pray that things stay like this for a few more decades, because, after all, it is lovely.

Franzobel ist ein österreichischer Schriftsteller. Er veröffentlichte zahlreiche Theaterstücke, Prosa und Lyrik. Seine Theaterstücke wurden unter anderem in Mexiko, Argentinien, Chile, Dänemark, Frankreich, Polen, Rumänien, der Ukraine, Italien, Russland und den USA gezeigt.

Sein großer historischer Abenteuerroman „Das Floß der Medusa“ (Zsolnay Verlag) wurde mit dem Bayerischen Buchpreis 2017 ausgezeichnet und stand auf der Shortlist zum Deutschen Buchpreis 2017