Though the first Vasaloppet was held with barely two weeks of preparation, it was an immediate success. The idea of a national ski race brought attention throughout the country and Vasaloppet immediately grew bigger than the Swedish Championships and other competitions. Vasaloppet consistently attracted 10,000–15,000 spectators to Mora and as early as the second race in 1923, the motto ”In forefathers’ tracks for future victories” was added.
No one had expected that a woman would want to participate in Vasaloppet but when Margit Nordin from Grängesberg signed up in 1923, she was allowed to start. She managed the race gallantly, even though she came in last. Eight days after the race, the Vasaloppet organizers held a board meeting. Article 8 of the minutes read: ”A motion to ban women from participation is approved unanimously.” That put a stop to women in Vasaloppet for a long time to come.
Radio presenter Sven Jerring contributed to Vasaloppet’s enormous popularity over the years. On March 8, 1925, he commentated the first Swedish live sports broadcast from the Vasaloppet finish line. Radiotjänst had started its radio broadcasts only two months earlier! Jerring would continue to present Vasaloppet races on the radio all the way up until the 1970s.
Vasaloppet attracted many of the best skiers. In 1928, a strange thing happened when two of the greatest skiers of the time, Per Erik Hedlund and Sven Utterström (each with a previous Vasaloppet victory), skied across the finish line arm in arm, much to the surprise of the audience. But Hedlund, whose shoulder was first across the finish line, was judged to be the winner and both skiers refused to return to Vasaloppet thereafter. Towards the end of the decade, there was a somewhat reduced interest, at least in terms of the number of participants.
In the tenth race in 1931, spectators in Mora finally got to cheer a local winner, Anders Ström, across the finish line. But the Great Depression led to worse times ahead for Vasaloppet, which had to cancel in both 1932 and 1934. In 1932 it was due to lack of snow and in 1934 that was also the official reason, though the truth was that in 1934 there was a lacking interest from participants. Only 17 people had signed up when the competition was cancelled. The race also clashed with the 1934 FIS championships in Sollefteå (corresponding to today’s World Championships).
Another central reason for Vasaloppet’s declining popularity in the 1930s was the fact that the course ran on roads where older, longer skis were usually used. But the best Swedish skiers, who got medals in the World Championships and Olympics, no longer wanted to ski on roads, they wanted to be out in the terrain. They used increasingly short skis with fixed bindings and leather boots. Vasaloppet had become old-fashioned. During the second half of the 1930s, the Vasaloppet route was therefore changed to a more off-road course – a successful reorganization.
Skiers returned to Vasaloppet, including Arthur Häggblad, one of the most colourful figures in Swedish sports at the time. He won the race a total of four times, once by drawing lots: In 1935, Häggblad and Hjalmar Blomstedt tried to share the victory and the referee ruled it a draw. But according to the Swedish Ski Association’s rules, in the event of a draw the winner would be determined by random chance. Häggblad is therefore the only Vasaloppet winner to win the race through a lottery…
The 1940s began with the organizer IFK Mora announcing that Vasaloppet 1940 had been cancelled. World War II had broken out and in Finland the Winter War was raging. Many skiers had been called to serve in the military and were not given leave. Under the circumstances, the board did not think it appropriate to arrange Vasaloppet, which was meant as a fun sports festival. Instead people were encouraged to donate money to Finland. But soon came the protests.
A petition was started by Yngve Lindvall, President of Dalarnas Idrottsförbund, who considered Vasaloppet positive propaganda. He wanted people to ski and not to show any hesitation – all traditional competitions should be held. He announced that he himself was training after many years of hiatus, to set a good example. So Vasaloppet 1940 was held with a new participation record; 172 starting participants. 45-year-old Lindvall completed the race in nine and a half hours.
Someone whose skiing career got a real boost from the war was factory worker Nils Karlsson from Mora who was drafted as a messenger on skis, meaning that he was training non-stop. ”Mora-Nisse” competed in Vasaloppet for the first time in 1943 when he was 25 years old. His sister was Kranskulla that year and crowned her brother with the victory garland! ”Mora-Nisse” won Vasaloppet a total of nine times out of ten starts (he finished second in 1944) and he has, more than anyone, come to personify Vasaloppet.
1948 was the first year that Finnish skiers participated in Vasaloppet, which would soon become an increasingly international ski race. From 1948, Vasaloppet has always been run on the first Sunday in March – Vasaloppet Sunday (the exception being 2015 when the Nordic World Ski Championships were held in Falun and Vasaloppet ran on the second Sunday in March).
There was a new participant record, 364 starting participants, in the 1950 Vasaloppet. ”Mora-Nisse” won its last victory in 1953 but Vasaloppet’s popularity continued to soar. The first foreign victory came in 1954 with Finnish Pekka Kuvaja and next year’s winner was ”Mora-Nisse’s Crown Prince”, as he was called, Sixten Jernberg from Lima. He held the lead from start to finish.
In 1956, Swedish skiing was on the rise – mainly through Sixten Jernberg – at the Winter Olympics in Cortina, after the debacle in Oslo in 1952. These were good times and hoards of new skiers emerged. People skied like never before and Vasaloppet cemented its position as a real institution in the world of Swedish skiing.
In 1957, the blueberry harvest went off and Ekströms were contacted to supply blueberry soup for Vasaloppet in 1958. They are still supplying it today. In 1959, Vasaloppet’s participation number crossed one thousand but after a gigantic false start, starter Sune Åhs had to call back the field and make a restart. The whole affair delayed the 1,137 participants by half an hour.
During the 1960s, interest in exercise would increase further in Sweden and in 1961 the organizers had to move the Vasaloppet start from Sälens by to Berga by where the start is held to this day. A lot of work was also done on the track in general during the 1960s as Mora-Nisse first became course manager and then competition manager.
Radio’s Sven Jerring was now joined by TV; in 1960 there was a 20-minute feature broadcast from Vasaloppet. In 1962 Sven ”Plex” Peterson made his first Vasaloppet feature (in Sportspegeln). The first live broadcast on TV from Vasaloppet was in 1966.
In 1966, something else happened that would pave the way for technological advancements in Vasaloppet. Over 6,000 starting participants meant that functionaries at the finish couldn’t keep up and there were kilometre-long queues to the finish line. In 1967 IBM therefore entered the scene and skiers’ times were measured by machine for the first time with punch cards that were stamped at the finish.
Janne Stefansson won Vasaloppet seven times this decade (only ”Mora-Nisse” has won more victories), but it was the veritable explosion of exercisers and ”ordinary” participants that characterized Vasaloppet in the 1960s. Women were however not allowed to participate, though some did try, with false beards and other disguises.
The exercise trend in the 1970s continued to raise interest in Vasaloppet. Participants came from all walks of life as more and more people wanted to exercise a lot, and for a long time, despite the fact that the average Swede’s health deteriorated due to more time spent in front of TVs and in cars. Perhaps this sounds familiar?
In 1973, there was a live broadcast from Vasaloppet in colour TV for the first time. It was the 50th race and additionally remarkable as there were over 10,000 registrants for the first time, although not everyone came to the start due to a winter with little snow.
In 1974, plastic skis were introduced and over the course of the 1970s Vasaloppet saw its definitive international breakthrough. Five of the victors this decade came from countries other than Sweden: Norway, Finland, East Germany, the Soviet Union and France.
In 1977, 10,000 skiers started for the first time in Sälen, including the 30-year-old King Carl XVI Gustaf, who definitely attracted the most attention this year. Towards the end of the 1970s, Vasaloppet organizers had to say no to more and more people who wanted to participate in Vasaloppet. To meet this increased demand, Öppet Spår was launched in 1979. It was not a competition, so women were allowed to ski from Sälen to Mora in Öppet Spår.
From 1981, women were allowed to participate in the real Vasaloppet for the first time since 1923. Meeri Bodelid was the fastest woman in that race, which is otherwise remembered for Sven-Åke Lundbäck’s spurt up the slopes to Oxberg, which now go by the name Lundbäcksbackarna.
In 1982, the entire Vasaloppet was broadcast live for the first time from start to finish; it was Sweden’s biggest TV investment to date.
Skiing underwent an important change in the early 1980s, when machine-prepared tracks made skating possible to a greater extent, mainly with one ski in the track and the other pushing outside the track. Bengt Hassis used the style when he won with a new record time in 1986, but it was also the last year that free style skiing was allowed in Vasaloppet. Additionally, the finish line portal on Vasagatan in Mora was made permanent this year, meaning that it’s stood there all year round ever since.
The debate over skating was tough at times, but the decision by Vasaloppet organizers meant that from 1987, only classic skiing technique was allowed in Vasaloppet. In 1988, another somewhat controversial decision was made after brothers Anders and Örjan Blomquist lifted the Kranskulla and skied with her across the finish – for the first, and so far only, time, two skiers were allowed to share the victory.
Women’s participation in exercise sports increased dramatically in the 1980s. The running competition Tjejmilen had started in Stockholm in 1984, and in 1988, women also got their own race in the Vasaloppet track: Tjejvasan’s 30 km from Oxberg to Mora attracted almost 2,000 registrants its very first year and Karin Värnlund from Mora was the winner of this historic race. From the 1980s and on, the Kranskulla has been accompanied by a Kransmas at the finish line.
Many times over the years Vasaloppet has been threatened by lack of snow and mild weather, but through massive efforts the race had, since the two cancelled races in the 1930s, always been saved. Difficult years were coming and in 1989 Öppet Spår had to be cancelled, though Vasaloppet itself could run this year.
In 1990, worst came to worst: Tjejvasan, Öppet Spår and Vasaloppet had to be cancelled. There simply wasn’t enough snow. Looking back, many would later say that the cancellation was a good thing as it drew attention to how much the Vasaloppet events meant to the Sälen and Mora regions.
Winters with lacking snow led to a slight decline in interest but it soon rose again. Jan Ottosson took four victories in Vasaloppet 1989-94. In 1994, however, the person who came fifth almost got more attention than the winner: Mora’s Staffan Larsson, who had previously injured his knee badly, used his poles to propel himself through the whole race and held the lead up to Hökberg where the strength ran out of his arms. Five years later, in the 75th Vasaloppet in 1999, Staffan finally got his long-awaited victory.
In 1994, the Vasaloppet course was designated a nature reserve, which facilitated work along the track considerably as there were many different landowners along the ninety kilometres to take into account. In 1997, women got an official competition class in Vasaloppet and 1998 saw new records for both men and women: The record times 3.38.57 for the men’s winner Peter Göransson and 4.17.02 for the women’s winner Kerrin Petty held for 14 years.
In the 1990s, two races were added to the Vasaloppet week. Men got their own shorter race in 1997, ”45:man”, which originally started in Evertsberg. From 1999 onwards, women were also allowed to take part in this race, which was then renamed ”the 45”, and the following year renamed again to Halvvasan. The start was later moved to Oxberg. In addition, Kortvasan was added in 1997; 30 km from Oxberg to Mora.
In the first Vasaloppet of the new millennium, about 14,000 came to the start and the whole Vasaloppet week passed 40,000 registered participants for the first time. This year, Gösta Aronsson from Herrljunga was the first to complete 50 races. Today there are over 1,000 who have completed 30 races from Sälen to Mora or more, and who can thereby become members of the Vasaloppet Veterans Club.
More races were added: 2002 Skejtvasan (held up until 2012), 2003 Stafettvasan and 2008 Ungdomsvasan. In 2007, Vasaloppet established its own snow factory in Oxberg, where snow is produced to be used on the course as needed. Snow is the white gold!
This decade, Vasaloppet had two skiers who won three races each: Oskar Svärd and Daniel Tynell. In 2006, Sofia Lind also won her fourth victory in the women’s class.
Vasaloppet continued to renew and develop: in 2009, the concept of the Vasaloppet Arena was introduced; an arena that offers challenges and promises of adventure and memories for life. The same year saw the premiere of the Summer Week with the first Cykelvasan, won by Matthias Wengelin and Hanna Bergman respectively. The Summer Week also included Stavgångsvasan which had its premiere in 2004, and running relay race Vasastafetten, first held in 1991 and arranged by Vasaloppet since 2008.
The winters of 2010 and 2011 were cold and white throughout the country and Swedish skiing successes increased cross-country skiing’s popularity again. 2010 was the first time that over 50,000 participants signed up for the Vasaloppet Winter Week and in 2012 there were 60,000 registrants for the first time!
During Vasaloppet’s Winter Week 2012, the millionth skier crossed the finish line. New record times in Vasaloppet were set: Jörgen Brink, Hudiksvall, 3.38.41 and Vibeke Skofterud, Norway, 4.08.24. Bengt Eriksson from Sälen skied his 60th race. Since 2012, Tjejvasan is also broadcast live on TV.
In 2013, Jörgen Aukland became the first men’s winner to complete Vasaloppet without grip wax and in 2014 Laila Kveli did the same in the women’s class. Since Jörgen Brink’s victory in 2012, only Norwegians have won Vasaloppet. John Kristian Dahl won three of these races: 2014, 2016 and 2017 with a combined margin of four seconds! In the women’s class, the end of the decade saw Swedish victories with Britta Johansson Norgren (2017 and 2019) and Lina Korsgren (2018).
Vasaloppet was very close to being cancelled in 2014 due to warm weather, but could be carried out after hard work from volunteers. Apart from Ungdomsvasan, all Winter Week races were fully booked for the first time that year. The 12,000 start places for Cykelvasan 90 2014 were filled in three minutes. Since 2016, the maximum number of participants has been raised to 13,000 and that year also saw the introduction of Cykelvasan Öppet Spår. Vasaloppet 2016 was fully booked in 83 seconds. In other words, there were far more people who wanted to participate than there were start places…
The Summer Week got another addition in 2014 when close to 1,000 runners ran from Sälen to Mora in Ultravasan. Jonas Buud and Holly Rush were the winners of this historic first race. In 2015, Buud repeated the victory and set an impressive track record: 90 kilometres run in 5.45.08.
Nattvasan premiered in 2017, a year when many participants in the Winter Week wore red hats as a tribute to ”Mora-Nisse” who would have turned 100 years old.
Vasaloppet’s Summer Week has now established itself as one of the summer’s biggest highlights for both exercisers and elite athletes. 2017 was the premiere for Vasakvartetten, where four runners share the section Sälen–Mora, roughly corresponding to four half marathons. In 2018, Cykelvasan and the entire Vasaloppet Summer Week celebrated its tenth anniversary with over 33,000 registered participants. In total, 2018 saw an all time high with 99,847 registered participants (including 2,044 in the children’s race Barnens Vasalopp on skis, bike and running). Winter Week participants came from 70 different nations!
Vasaloppet now has races on skis, wheels and foot… The Vasaloppet Arena inspires activity all year round. More than one and a half million finishing times have been noted in the various races since 1922 in what is now called Vasaloppet’s Winter Week and Summer Week. Do you remember when Vasaloppet was just a ski race?