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El Dorado of Cross-Country Ski Sport

Nordic Ski World Championships Seefeld 2019

El Dorado of Cross-Country Ski Sport

How Seefeld came to be the hotspot of Nordic disciplines

Text: Simon Leitner, Picture: Schaadfoto/Frischauf Bild

Both professional and amateur athletes appreciate Seefeld as an excellent cross-country destination. But this reputation was preceded by a lengthy process that began with the 1964 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck and is closely linked to Seefeld's development as a tourist destination. A look back.

Cross-country skiing and Seefeld - two entities that, in the minds of many, go hand-in-hand. Not only amateur athletes, but also top athletes from home and abroad regularly use the cross-country skiing trails in the Tirolean community for training and preparing for major sporting events, such as World Cup competitions or Nordic World Ski Championships. After all, it was such events that contributed significantly to the reputation of Seefeld as a hotspot for cross-country skiers in the past. These, however, are not the only reasons: efforts of the local tourism association under the then managing director Walter Frenes, who made a great contribution to the popularisation of cross-country skiing since the 1960s, play a no-less important role in this respect.

The starting shot

The history of cross-country skiing in Seefeld goes back to the 1960s, when Innsbruck was selected to host the 1964 Olympic Winter Games by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and Seefeld was chosen to host the Nordic competitions in turn. Thanks to its topography and snow-sure conditions, the Tirolean municipality was deemed ideally suited as venue for competitions in the cross-country skiing, ski jumping and Nordic combined disciplines. Bearing in mind the low snowfall during the winter of 1964, this decision not only proved to be the right one for the Games, but also had a major impact on the development of winter sports in Seefeld.

As part of his preparations for the Olympic Games, Walter Frenes and a delegation from Holmenkollen travelled to Oslo to find out more about the Nordic disciplines and organising competitions. And it was there, while attending a cross-country skiing event, that it occurred to him that the sport could actually fit in quite well with his home community.

"Before we travelled to Norway, we only associated cross-country skiing with racing," Frenes recalls. "But suddenly we saw thousands of people, who were cross-country skiing for pure pleasure and gliding through the forests. Absolutely everyone was doing it. And I thought to myself: Why don’t we do the same at home?” Frenes was already aware that Seefeld would not be able to compete against major winter sports resorts in the alpine skiing sector, and therefore had to come up with an alternative offer. Cross-country skiing was the perfect answer.

Sixten Jernberg (SWE) won the 50 kilometre cross-country race at the 1964 Olympic Games, while Finland’s Eero Mäntyranta (r.) won gold in the 15 and 30 kilometre competitions.  

Ski hiking instead of cross-country skiing

Establishing the sport on the Seefeld Plateau, however, was not without its problems as cross-country skiing was not particularly popular in Tirol at that time - something that not even the Olympics could not change for the time being. Alpine skiing was practised in most of the winter sports resorts of the country. A sport that enjoyed a long tradition and was simply more popular with the general public. "The problem was that we had only associated cross-country skiing with racing until then and it didn’t really have a great reputation," explains Frenes. People saw cross-country skiers collapse completely exhausted at the end of the races and thought to themselves:  "Why would you do that to yourself, it can't be nice. It took us a long time to shake off the negativity.”

In order to win over the sceptic public, various measures were taken by Frenes and his team. These included coming up with a new name for the sport: instead of "cross-country skiing", people in Seefeld suddenly spoke of "ski hiking" and propagated this as a popular sport suitable for people of all ages and skill levels. Seefeld, in turn, was advertised as the “El Dorado of ski hikers", while walkers at Seekirche were approached directly by members of the tourism association and asked whether they would like to try their hand at cross-country skiing.

One thing was needed above all, however, in addition to creating a new awareness of cross-country skiing - suitable cross-country trails. “Around 50 soldiers from the German Armed Forces cut the tracks for the Olympic Games,” explains Frenes. "After that, however, we were left completely to our own devices. And as we only had three field workers back then, two of whom were very shaky on skis, we had to improvise when building the trails. 

Cross-country skiers have fought some tough battles in Seefeld since 1964

After years of tinkering and diverse experiments with varying degrees of success - for example using weighted skis that were pulled along by a skidoo - a small device for setting tracks was finally developed in cooperation with a piste equipment manufacturer. "This whole process went on from 1965 to 1972, but it resulted in us being the first to offer really good tracks. Even the Scandinavians visited to see how we did it," says Frenes.

Over the years, Seefeld has acquired increasing expertise in cross-country skiing, which has contributed not only to the development of tourism, but also to the sporting reputation of the region. The 1976 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck, for which Seefeld was venue once again for the Nordic competitions, provided an additional boost: existing cross-country ski runs were improved and extended, and the Olympic Sports and Congress Centre was also built. "The 1976 Olympics brought fresh impetus in every respect," says Frenes. “Moreover, many other Central European locations also began to promote cross-country skiing.

Olympische Winterspiele 1964

The jumping competitions in Seefeld took place in front of huge crowds.

Revolutionary innovations

In 1985, Seefeld was again the focus of the Nordic sports world, not even ten years after the Olympic Games in Innsbruck - this time as host of the 35th Nordic World Ski Championships. The fact that the International Ski Federation (FIS) selected the municipality was a surprise even for Frenes, who was responsible for the bid concept: "We had extremely strong competition from Finland, France and Germany.  We simply didn't expect FIS to give us the go-ahead at our first attempt - even though we were convinced, of course, that we were the right choice.

The fact that Seefeld had already proved its competence as organiser of Nordic disciplines several times over in the past may have been one reason for the FIS delegates' decision. The community's efforts to promote cross-country skiing, however, was another decisive contributing factor. In any case, those responsible for the World Cup in Seefeld did not have to make any major structural changes to the sports facilities for the World Championships, only minor improvements such as adjustments to the cross-country-ski trails and the establishment of a lift at the ski jump were required.

In sporting terms, however, there were a number of innovations at the 1985 World Championships, two of which are particularly noteworthy.  One was the Siitonen step - the precursor to modern skating technique in cross-country skiing - which made its breakthrough in Seefeld. Secondly, the Nordic Combined celebrated its Gundersen Method premiere: this special start modus is still used to this day, in which the judges use the ski jump results to award the first starting position in the pursuit cross-country race. The rest of the competitors’ ski- jumping scores are then converted into staggered start times. The second and remaining athletes start seconds or even minutes after the leader. Thus, the first athlete across the tape at the end of the cross-country race is the gold medallist, making the race more exciting for spectators.

Seefeld in the Spotlight

After several World Cup competitions in recent years, Seefeld is now hosting another Nordic Ski World Championships from 19th February to 3rd March and will once again have the opportunity to present itself to the broad masses as a cross-country skiing hotspot. The municipality already enjoys an enduringly good reputation amongst professional cross-country skiers, primarily due to its wealth of cross-country ski trails. “Thanks to its topographical conditions, Seefeld not only has an enormous number of cross-country ski trails, but extraordinarily varied ones too," explains Frenes. “They lead over meadows and through forests, over clearings and past beautiful landscapes. You won't find this variety anywhere else."

According to Frenes, athletes and teams also benefit from Seefeld's infrastructure, which as a tourist resort, offers a great choice of accommodation and just as many recreational opportunities. And this is almost equally important for athletes as optimal training conditions, says Frenes: "Even professionals appreciate the opportunity to go for a stroll, or visit a welcoming guesthouse after a strenuous session. This is possible in Seefeld."

© Stefan Voitl

FIS Nordic Ski World Championships 2019

Seefeld Olympic Region will host the Nordic World Ski Championships for a second time since 1985 from 19th February to 3rd March. During this event, some 700 athletes from around 60 nations will compete for medals in the disciplines of ski jumping, cross-country skiing and Nordic combined. Venues include Seefeld in Tirol and Innsbruck, where the jumping competitions are to be held on the famous Bergisel Hill.

© 2017 Tirol Werbung