How Strava could shape the future of Telemark Skiing.
In a recent article exploring Strava’s expansion into winter sports, we discussed a list of niche snowsports that the fitness app could potentially introduce to their platform within the coming seasons.
Amongst death-defying disciplines such as bobsleigh, the luge and ski jumping, one sport in particular stood out from the rest.
With it’s elegant and graceful mechanics to match its humble Norwegian beginnings, Telemark skiing is no more a sport than it is an art.
Mixing the downhill turns of alpine with the free-heel skis of cross-country, the technique was first introduced by Sondre Norheim in 1868, a farmer from the Telemark region of southern Norway.
In the decades that followed, the technique saw its popularity wane in favour of the more conventional downhill approach before a dramatic resurgence in the USA in the 1970’s drove the sport back into the mainstream (in large part due to the teachings of Norwegian Olympic legend Stein Eriksen).
Fast forward 40 years however, and the discipline is once again fading into the memory books of ski culture at a frighteningly fast rate.
With R&D investment in equipment technology virtually non-existent, and the widespread introduction of lightweight alpine touring (AT) boots meeting the demands of the backcountry, telemark skiing is now widely considered to be a dying art - flirting with extinction altogether.
What was once a common sight at ski hills across Europe and North America are now whispered rumours, ushered around the resort as if the skier in question was listening behind. “I saw a tele-skier on the lift today.” “A what?” “Really?” “I didn’t even know they existed anymore.”
But is this really the case?
According to a 2018 report by the BBC, the number of people participating in telemark skiing increased by 40% between 2004 and 2017.
What’s more, the 2017 World Championships saw 13 nations take part - a respectable figure compared to the international representation of a typical winter Olympic event.
Understandably, all this boded well for a possible inclusion at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics; the first time telemark races would take place at any Olympics despite the discipline being the oldest ski technique at 150 years of age.
And, when the International Ski Federation (FIS) officially proposed the inclusion of telemark skiing at the 2022 Winter Games to the International Olympic Committee, things were really looking up. For the first time in 50 years, it looked as though telemark skiing was making a come back. And this time, with an inclusion in the Winter Olympics, it would be here to stay.
Just months after the FIS’s proposition however, the IOC turned around and said, quite bluntly, “no”.
This came as a huge shock to the global telemark skiing community, especially after the IOC had initially seemed to be on board with the idea.
The benefit to the sport that would have come from an Olympic debut is difficult to understate. Increased participation, financial reward for athletes and coaches, brand interest...
Quite simply, having telemark skiing at the Winter Olympics would have been the major breakthrough that the sport has been longing for for years (some would even say 150 years).
Nevertheless, as telemark skiers worldwide prepare to wait another six years for Milan 2026, could their be another opportunity in the meantime?
Telemark, meet Strava. Strava, Telemark.
Now, at first this idea may seem farfetched. And it many ways it probably is. First of all, Strava doesn’t even offer telemark skiing as an option on its platform and the fitness app has only recently taken an interest in winter sports.
Furthermore, whether intentionally or not, Strava has a tendency to commercialise sports that many people think should really be left alone. Telemark skiing, with it’s distinct and unique culture, is likely to be one of these sports; similar to fell-running in northern England as detailed magnoficently by the writer Richard Askwith.
In fact, so reluctant are some tele-skiers to see their sport in the limelight that they were openly against seeing the discipline introduced to the Winter Olympics. Instead, they saw the money and business which would enter the sport as a threat to its integrity and a deterioration of its culture.
Despite this, the ability Strava has to unite a sporting community and increase athlete participation is certainly something to take note of.
In February 2020 for example, the company launched the February Snow Sport Challenge - with users invited to “test their winter legs and spend 10 hours on the snow.”
The challenge attracted just shy of 60,000 participants within a month. To clarify, there was no physical or financial reward for completing the challenge, just a virtual badge displayed on your profile.
In other words, that’s the equivalent of the entire population of Greenland skiing for 10 hours to receive an online sticker.
What’s more, if you think that only snowboarders and downhill skiers use the Strava app, you’re in for a surprise.
At the start of 2020, Strava teamed up with iconic French ski brand Salomon to launch the Salomon Nordic Ski Challenge, during which users were asked to “put their cross-country skiing skills to the test and cover 90km in a six-week period.”
Finishers of the challenge would receive a 15% discount off the Salomon website and the top five competitors would be invited to compete at the Red Bull Janteloppet in Norway - one of the most lucrative races in the Nordic skiing calendar.
Furthermore, as the weeks progressed participants were able to compare their activities with professional Salomon athletes such as Sweden’s Jens Berman, USA’s Sophie Caldwell-Hamilton, and Britain’s very own Andrew Musgrave.
In total the challenge was undertaken by 43,000 users - impressive numbers for a sport with a significantly lower participation rate than its downhill brother.
Most impressive of all however, the Salomon Nordic Ski Club (launched alongside the challenge) grew from 0 to 6,000 members in under two months.
At it’s height, 1,000 new members a week were joining an online Nordic skiing community essentially governed by the Salomon ski brand.
In this club participants shared photos and sent messages of support with one another from all over the globe; creating an emotional affiliation not just with the sport they love, but also with the brand which holds a significant market share in its equipment sales.
Based on these figures, it’s really not that inconceivable for something like this to be replicated for the telemark community.
In order for any of this to even happen however, Strava would need to add telemark skiing as an option for its users on the app.
As of 2020, telemark skiing is excluded from the current version of the app and participants must select between either of its distant cousins, alpine or nordic. Neither of which are comparable in terms of the skills required and cultural origins of telemark skiing.
This results in telemark skiers being unable to connect with fellow athletes from around the world in what is an already rare and highly-specialised sport.
But with Strava introducing sports such as windsurfing, ice-skating and snow-shoeing in recent years, there’s no reason to suggest that tele-skiing won’t be next. Especially if Strava sees an opportunity for brands to get involved in the fun.
This however, is where telemark skiing has been struggling for the better part of a decade. Watching from a distance as its younger siblings were snatched up and adopted by ski-brand after ski-brand, telemark has been well and truly left in the dust. Or snow.
The lack of corporate interest is one of the challenges facing the sport and has culminated in growing frustration at the lack of quality equipment compared to the advancements being made in similar fields such as Nordic and backcountry.
This vicious cycle of no brand interest with no participants and no participants with no brand R&D is hampering the long-term success of the sport.
As of 2020, the sport is much more dependant on its cultural attractiveness than its advancements in equipment when it comes to how and why new athletes buy their first pair of telemark skis.
I for one certainly support this type of organic, non-corporate growth of the sport but it’s tough to gain any momentum on a battle field where businesses involved with alpine ski and snowboarding are spending hundreds of millions each year on advertising alone.
Meanwhile, constant new developments in AT boots and X-Country skis are generating huge numbers of repeat customers for equipment that is arguably only marginally better than the previous model. Once a customer is financially committed however, not only does this not matter, but they are also much more likely to pledge their future allegiance (and finance) to the sport in which they have spent the most money on.
All of this culminates in telemark skiing being considered as an expensive novelty rather than a real sport.
Should a company one day decide to put profits aside and invest in developing improved, trustworthy telemark equipment, a turning point in the sport would almost certainly ensue.
The fancifulness of the first part of the previous sentence noted, I genuinely believe that - combined with an Olympic debut and an integration into the Strava and Slopes tracking app - the community for telemark skiing would not only grow, but grow connected so that it’s long term future and presence on the ski hills and in the backcountry would well and truly be here to stay.