By KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD Photo illustrations by IDRIS KHAN
At first glance, speedskating couldn’t be more boring. Two participants on metal blades glide round and around an oval ice track, and no sooner do they cross the finish line then a new pair is sent off to repeat the performance. All of their movements are nearly identical, making it impossible for the casual observer to tell the skillful skaters from the average ones. But if you keep looking, you’ll gradually enter the inner world of speedskating, and from there, from within, speedskating is among the most thrilling of sports.
In the country I come from, Norway, speedskating was once a national obsession. When I was growing up, I knew the names of skaters from the end of the 19th century to our modern times. Oscar Mathisen, Ivar Ballangrud, Hjalmar Andersen, Knut Johannesen, Fred Anton Maier — I never saw any of these legends skate, yet their names resonated like a list of kings. The media covered skating in detail, but novelists and poets wrote about it, too. One of the best-known works by Norway’s great postwar poet Olav H. Hauge is called “Kuppern Skates in Squaw Valley” and concerns the radio broadcast of a 1960 Olympic race, while Norway’s most important postwar novelist, Dag Solstad, has filled page upon page of his novels with race results.
What is it about speedskating that could bring an entire people together around the radio or television, women and men, young and old, rich and poor? What was it that compelled children to scribble down skate times and collect them in books? Why are the names of Kay Stenshjemmet, Jan Egil Storholt, Sten Stensen and Amund Sjoebrend etched in my memory 40 years after they hung up their skates for good, whereas I have long since forgotten the names of prominent politicians of the day or the teachers I had at school?
The oldest ice skates that anyone has found so far were made in Finland 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, which is to say 800 years before the Trojan War depicted by Homer in the “Iliad.” These primitive devices were made from the sharpened shinbones or jawbones of cattle. Metal skates first appeared in the Netherlands during the 13th or 14th century, when Dante was writing his “Divine Comedy,” and the first speedskating competition we know of took place in England in 1763, the same year Immanuel Kant presented his proof of the existence of God. The first unofficial world championships took place in 1889, when Nietschze published “Twilight of the Idols.” It is hard to know what the ancient skaters looked like as they raced across the ice, but film footage from 1911, before the Great War, shows skaters competing at the world championships in Trondheim, Norway. We see them flashing by like strange birds beating their wings. And although much has changed in the sport since then, the basic moves look more or less the same, for there is really only one way in which to propel oneself forward at a reasonable speed on ice with metal blades under one’s feet.
The skaters set off with short, rapid kicks of the feet, then convert to more sweeping movements as they gain momentum. To achieve this, they must lean forward, keeping a low center of gravity. Long-distance skating over, say, 5,000 meters demands a steady, measured rhythm that conserves energy, with both arms held behind the back. In high-speed skating, like the 500-meter sprint, the arms pump rapidly with the legs. The skaters, balancing on their metal blades, will reach speeds of 30 miles per hour as they approach the curves, where centrifugal force will then strive to sling them off the track. The skaters must combat their own momentum, and if they succeed in controlling its force, they will be thrust out onto the final straightaway, hurtling and lunging for the line.
That everyone must carry out the same maneuvers on the same track, thereby removing nearly all semblance of individuality, is part of what makes speedskating so absorbing. One might object that other sports — running, long-jumping, rowing — involve patterns of movement that are similarly constrained, restricting the possibilities of making a truly individual contribution, and this would be true, yet there is something about the balance of technique and strength that is unique to speedskating; the demands imposed by the skates and the ice are so great and so particular that pure strength, pure endurance, pure force are never enough on their own.
And yet none of these things ever occurred to me as I sat in front of the television set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, engrossed in speedskating. I didn’t care about the aesthetics of the sport. The only thing that mattered was the excitement. And the excitement was about times, numbers, the individual race against the clock, which is the very essence of the sport. A foot race can involve a dozen runners, all reacting to one another as the match develops, but speedskating is almost always one on one. The first skaters have no idea how those who follow will perform, how fast or slow they will go. Easing off for a lap or two is out of the question — everything is about time — but reaching a finish line that is five or 10 kilometers away also requires a careful portioning out of energy.
While the movements of a long-distance skater may be as beguiling as those of the ballet dancer, the skater’s style, as opposed to the dancer’s, is sooner or later doomed to disintegrate, since at some point, when the lactic acid seeps through the muscles of the thighs, the skater will become so exhausted as to be unable to keep such elegant movements together. It is when this struggle becomes plain that speedskating goes from sport to drama. Abruptly, the skater’s drawn-out inner battle becomes visibly external, will against body, body against clock, played out before thousands of eyes, transforming the final throes of the struggle against the body into a struggle against humiliation, against no longer remaining together, no longer being elegant, no longer being able to skate.
A skater can become world champion without winning a single discipline, since the final result is calculated on the basis of the times added up for all four distances. All these aspects — there being little room for individual technique, the limits within in which to demonstrate personal characteristics, each race run in total solitude, the champion being the one with the best average rather than the best single times — make speedskating a truly Puritan sport. For it is also about abstinence, a silent, dogged and yet elegant suffering, ever on the verge of collapse, simultaneously collective and individual. How powerful a mechanism this can be was made evident in 1983, when Rolf Falk-Larssen become world champion on home territory in Oslo. At that time there was a rule stating that a skater could be world champion by winning three distances regardless of his times in total. Falk-Larssen took the title on that basis, and yet when he raced the fourth contest — the 10,000 meter — he was roundly booed by his home crowd. To secure the championship he needed only to complete the distance, but the crowd demanded more. Falk-Larssen dawdled around the track, thereby denigrating the sport, whose true nature was not about winning but about winning by suffering.
I love speedskating for its history and tradition, its beauty and excitement, its intrinsic ethical code. But I also love it for something far simpler: the sound of steel on ice, the way it rises upward, a stream of incisions in the air on any freezing, crystal-clear day in winter, on any frozen body of water where people skate. To me this is the sound not only of winter but also of childhood, when we would clear a rink on the pond in the woods, the ice black against the white of snow, and skate lap after lap in our efforts to emulate the skaters we had seen on TV — arms on backs, long, sweeping pushes on the straightaways, shorter ones crisscrossing through the curves, one arm dangling free, the intense feeling of vanishing into something greater than oneself, entering a new state that arose in the moment. One such winter, when I was 10, was exceptionally cold. All water froze to ice, not just the streams, the pools, ponds and lakes, but also the strait on the mainland side of the island where I grew up, and the sea on the other side, where for some weeks people walked between the skerries and islets. We skated everywhere, up the streams that ran through the middle of the woods, I remember, and to this day it is the most magical of all my childhood memories, for the world was utterly transformed.
The speedskating competitions on television now all take place indoors, in controlled environments, on rinks of perfect ice, and in my homeland it has dwindled into a niche sport for nostalgic middle-aged and elderly men; people no longer gather around radios and television sets, no longer note down lap times; the tracks are no longer edged by grandstands packed with people from all walks of life. Speedskating has never been very popular outside the Netherlands and Norway, and the good skaters from the United States, Canada, Russia, Japan, China, Sweden and Finland have never felt the support of an entire people cheering them on, the way the Dutch and Norwegians have. But although the sport has become marginalized and streamlined in ways that have made it even less satisfying as a spectacle, it remains quite as abundant with tradition, beauty and excitement as ever. It is all there, in every race. All you have to do is look within.
Karl Ove Knausgaard is a contributing writer for the magazine. He last wrote about the merits of Juicy Fruit gum.Idris Khan is an artist based in London. His work is in permanent museum collections around the world, including the Guggenheim. Translated by Martin Aitken.