On a recent trip to the French Alps, I tried my hand at equestrian skijoring, which is essentially a horse pulling you on cross-country skis.
My spotted puller, Mika, playfully ran with other horses from Le Ranch du Lac, just outside the resort town of Les Gets in the mountainous region of southeastern France that has hosted the Winter Olympics three times–including the very first cold-weather Games, held in Chamonix in 1924, with Grenoble following suit in 1968 and Albertville in 1992.
With the Sochi Games picking up steam, I couldn’t help but wonder why such a sport wouldn’t be in the Winter Games. I mean, if shooting rifles on cross-country skis (biathlon) is an Olympic event, why not add equestrian skijoring to the list? After all, isn’t 2014 the Year of the Horse?
The origins of this animal-powered sport trace back to Scandinavia, where native Laplanders tethered themselves to reindeer as a mode of transportation (a tradition many continue to this day). Utilitarian or not, I found the experience completely enjoyable.
In fact, horse-drawn skijoring had its time in the sun with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In the 1928 Winter Olympics, held in St. Moritz, the equestrian sport made an appearance as a demonstration event, but was ultimately denied a spot as a full-fledged event in future Games. The Independent speculatedThe Independent speculated that this is because “the IOC couldn’t decide whether to award the medals to the athletes or the horses.”
Equestrian skijoring has endured over the decades thanks to die-hard enthusiasts and athletes in spite of the IOC’s 1928 decision. But don’t count it out as an Olympic hopeful.
“I think skijoring does have a fighting and legitimate chance at a return to the Olympic games,” says Tony Fox, cofounder of the North American Ski-Joring Association. “The sport is much more prolific and worldwide now than it was 85 years ago.”
While it may take some time for skijoring to make a comeback at the Winter Games, there are plenty of ways to get your DIY Olympics on in the French Alps in and around the three former host cities.
- Ice Skating in Morzine: You can try figure skating, or just watch a hockey game, at the ice rinks in Morzine, one of France’s classic ski resort towns.
- Bobsledding in La Plagne: The track that was built for the sliding events (bobsled, luge, and skeleton) at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville is open to the public for a “bob experience,” including a four-person bobsled, piloted by a professional, at speeds up to 70 mph.
- Luging in Les Arcs: If riding the former Olympic track is too fast for you, many resorts offer private tracks where you can go at your own pace. The one in Rodeo Park in Les Arcs took me 1.8 miles down banked turns, as I rode on my back à la luge olympique.
- Training for the Biathlon: Part cross-country skiing, part shooting-range practice, this hybrid winter sport isn’t confined to the Olympics. Lessons are available at Ecole du Ski Français in Morzine.
- Riding the Half Pipe: Unlike skijoring, snowboarding became a full Olympic event without much fuss, making its debut in 1998. Shaun White wannabes can find formidable half pipes in Avoriaz, one of the resorts that comprises the Portes du Soleil ski area. The region also offers two types of “boarder cross”: an actual boarder-cross course, and the option to cross the border into Switzerland via a series of trails.