From national icon to neoliberal monument

This text began as a radio essay on BBC Radio 4 in November 2015, later developed into a web essay at Versopolis. It chronicles the shift from the mid 20th to the early 21st century through a meditation on

The metamorphosis of the Holmenkollen ski jumping hill

An insightful and surprisingly readable sociology book from the turn of the century is George Ritzer’s The Globalization of Nothing (2002). By ‘nothing’, he helpfully adds, he refers to non-places, non-services, non-products and non-people. That is to say, phenomena with no discernable local identity, things that could really have been anywhere. A decade earlier, the anthropologist Marc Augé, one of Ritzer’s sources of inspiration, wrote about Non-Lieux (1991), referring to the highways, hotels, airports and shopping malls of the emerging globosphere. Had he been Norwegian, Augé might well have spoken about a ski jumping hill. Let me explain.

The Norwegian national identity, when it was carved out in the 19th century in deliberate contrast to the neighbouring waning empires of Denmark and Sweden, was built around the allegedly close relationship of Norwegians to nature. Even today, nature has a sacred quality in the Norwegian way of life. On a bright winter Sunday, suburban trains and metro lines in Paris are typically crammed with people on their way into the city centre, with the intention of strolling along the Seine, visiting a museum or a gallery, and enjoying a leisurely lunch in a restaurant. In Oslo, by contrast, on a typical Sunday in January, the metro is full of people, many of them carrying skis, on their way into Nordmarka, ‘the Northern Fields’, the largely unspoilt area of forests and lakes surrounding Oslo on three sides.

It therefore stands to reason that the single most important work of art in Norwegian culture should not be a painting, a sculpture or a video installation, but an outdoor structure straddling the thin boundary between culture and nature. I am thinking of the Holmenkollen Ski Jumping Hill, a landmark visible from most parts of the city and a symbol of Oslo for decades.

To be precise, I’m referring to the hill as it appeared in the latter half of the 20th century, before its demolition in 2008 and subsequent replacement with a technologically more sophisticated, but less aesthetically appealing structure. The metamorphosis of Holmenkollen is no less than a tangible expression of the transformation of Norway from sensible social democracy to globalised neoliberalism. Let me explain.

White, elegant and majestic, the ski jumping hill hovered above the city like a large bird about to take flight. It was a work of art enjoyed by tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people every day, mostly unaware that they were beholding a membrane between nature and culture, between the civilised and the savage.

Oslo is a bowl surrounded by hills on three sides, facing the sea on the fourth. On the western side, which is where most skiing competitions take place, ski jumping has been a spectator sport since the late 19th century. The Holmenkollen hill was initially all natural, the runoff built of snow and ice. By the early 20th century, shifting structures of stone, steel and wood led to its gradual evolution. So the Holmenkollen that would eventually etch itself into the consciousness of Oslo’s population and its visitors was completed ahead of the Winter Olympics in 1952.

Stretching skywards in a sweeping, optimistic gesture, the hill was perhaps most striking off season when its whiteness was offset by the surrounding greenery, but it was imposing and uplifting in winter too. People returning from weekend trips down the coast knew that they would soon be home when they could glimpse the Holmenkollen ski tower in the distance.

The hill has been expanded and rebuilt many times since ski jumping in Holmenkollen began. The first race was held on 30 January 1892, and won by Arne Ustvedt, who jumped 21.5 meters. The current record is held by Anders Jacobsen, who jumped 142.5 meters in 2011. So evidently, the sport has evolved significantly over the last century or so, and this involves every aspect of it, from the fabric of the gloves worn by jumpers to the style of jumping. Interestingly, ski jumpers are judged not only on the length of their flight, but also on aesthetic criteria, which have also changed over the years.

And so the hill had to change too. It would not have happened independently of developments elsewhere. Norwegians are famous for their conservatism in winter sport. They hung on to wooden skis for years after the rest of the skiing world had shifted to fibreglass, and were reluctant to accept the new style of ski jumping introduced by the Swede Jan Boklöv in the 1980s, who discovered that he could improve both stability and length by jumping in a V-shape rather than with parallel skis. Yet, in a field of transnational competition, you have to keep up with the Joneses. So, as central European countries improved their ski jumping facilities, Norway had to follow suit. The classic Holmenkollen ski hill was eventually demolished in 2008, the new structure completed two years later, in time for the World Championship in skiing in 2011. The new hill is technologically far superior to the white, gliding bird of yesteryear. It is a meshwork of wood and metal, functional and hypermodern. But the new hill, dark brown in colour, does not light up the surroundings, and it ends not with an optimistic flourish towards the sky; it merely ends.

A large, new ski stadium has been built around the ski jumping hill for cross-country events, and well-equipped recreational venues now accommodate domestic and foreign visitors who, until recently, had to make do with more basic facilities. Few will deny that the new hill and surroundings are less charming than the previous incarnation. It is flashy, hi-tech and efficient, funded by generous flows of Norwegian petrokroner. Yet it will never become a condensed symbol which gives Oslo its identity while simultaneously giving expression to human yearnings and transcending the nature–culture divide.

At the same time, the result of this multimillion kroner investment into newness serves as a reminder of an aspect of the ski jumping hill which is so obvious that it is easily overlooked, but no less important for that, namely competitive sport as an emblematic activity in modernity. The need to improve, and to keep up with your competitors, embody the essence of the modern ideology. In this kind of society, you have to keep moving in order to stay in the same place. Just a few years after Arne Ustvedt’s 21.5 meter jump, the first modern Olympic Games were organised in Athens under the slogan Citius, Altius, Fortius  – faster, higher, stronger. So if rituals in traditional societies are typically about communication with timeless, spiritual entities, the most popular ritual events in our societies, that is competitive sports, are about change and improvement, progress and development. You should do better than you did last year. Records have to be beaten, and techniques need to be improved. And so it was perhaps inevitable that this slender, white sculpture from the mid-20th century, a landmark, an icon and a condensed symbol which was also, incidentally, occasionally used for sport events, had to go. But although its replacement is obviously ‘faster, higher, stronger’, it fails to address our aesthetic sensibilities and spiritual longings; rather, it speaks to the global admiration for the power of money, of scale and competitiveness on a level playing field. It is all efficiency with no soul. The magic of the genius loci has been replaced by the magic of global capitalism. Sic transit gloria mundi, one might well say.