Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Wider Berth

Almost daily, for the eleven-and-a-half months of the year when Estonia is covered with snow, someone will ask me if I ski. This is a test with only one correct answer.

“But do you cross country ski?” they follow up, their look showing they think they’ve got me now.

“Absolutely,” I reply. And then before they can think too long I quickly add: “Of course, unlike you I wasn’t born on skis. I learned in army survival courses, which required me to ski fast enough to catch a wild horse, kill it with my knife, and then gut it and sleep inside its still-warm carcass on a cold Canadian arctic night.”

This usually effectively ends the skiing discussion and allows us to move on to other topics.

Of course the answer Estonians expect to hear is that I am a downhill skier, which is, in their minds, hardly a skier at all. As with ski resorts anywhere, visit one of Estonia’s two or three “mountains” and you’ll find the sort of people which residents of mountain country derogatorily refer to as “flatlanders”: Unfit pussies in designer ski wear who are present more for the après ski than the skiing itself. It is no wonder cross-country skiers would avoid them.

In Estonia it is debatable whether it is worse to be a downhill skier or a non-skier. So, if one does not want to be thought less of, it is always best to lie.

Estonians’ devotion to cross country skiing is worthy of scientific study. My friend Gunnar took part in the Tartu marathon this year--63 kilometers in minus-25 degree Celsius weather--just because he thought it was an experience he should have. My friend Ahti, who is just a regular guy and not especially ski-crazy can be found at least three nights a week on the lighted ski trail in Pirita. The prime minister is there, too, more than he’ll publicly admit. How do I know all this? I sometimes go there to walk the dog.

The rest of the world has yet to fully embrace this sport for a variety of reasons, mainly of which is that it’s terribly boring. (The Americans have cross-country ski teams, but this is hardly out of enthusiasm for the sport: it is rather to not be completely ignorant in the case that someone someday finds a way to actually make money off the sport.)

What could possibly be fun about skiing on flat ground? If all one wants to do is sweat, then running is a better substitute, and the gear is a fraction of the price.

I understand that cross country is a quiet sport, and I do see appeal here: one can quietly approach game and kill it with less trouble.

But cross country as a spectator sport is a let-down, crowds cheering for a half second as the skiers fly by and disappear into the trees. Skiing is even less conducive to televised broadcast than bowling or yoga.

Add personalities like Smigun, Veerpalu, and Mae, and it still holds no appeal. Who wants to listen to a skier in an interview say things like, “I’ve trained really hard” or “my team did a great job on the wax”? And when do ski fans do anything more than stand alongside the trail and wave flags? (In the Tour de France, fans used to throw tacks in front of the cyclists!)

The biathalon improves skiing only slightly, because it has a hint of an element of suspense: will the Chinese skier miss his target and accidentally shoot the Russian? What if the skier forgets and leaves a round in the chamber and falls hard rounding a turn which is packed with spectators?

If you want to give cross-country skiing more universal appeal, then you have to add back the element which makes all popular sports popular: violence.

What if Kristina Smigun were to ski through a forest inhabited by wolves and feral dogs? (Or ski through Bucharest, if no wolf population can be found.) What if contestants were required to ski across the Russian border at night armed only with a puukko and return with the scalps of a dozen Russian soldiers? (Or perhaps Latvian scalps, as the international community would hardly take notice of a few less Latvians.) Or what if prisoners were put on skis and forced to cross a clearing which is simultaneously shelled by artillery and strafed by fighter jets? One could easily argue that cross country skiing has not been interesting since the Winter War.

Despite the sport’s shortcomings, though, each year I give it a fresh try. Just as I’ve tried to give a chance to beet soup, head cheese, and Baltman suits, I approach skiing with an open mind. So what if there’s nothing on the trail to kill? So what if the sport causes the release of no more adrenalin than billiards? Onward I ski, striving not toward a finish line, but toward understanding.

And there goes the prime minister past me. Again. And again he in his spandex superhero costume cannot hide his disdain for my baggy wool Swedish army surplus trousers and my worn-out wool sweater. “Eest ära!” shouts one of his bodyguards, as if my pace is holding up the machinations of the Estonian state.

“Up yours!” I shout back. “Try sleeping inside a horse!” And then all three of them, Ansip and his body guards, slow their pace and turn back to have a look.

“That’s right,” I say. “A horse.” And next time, they give me a wider berth.

Oprah recommends Inherit the Family.