The Ice Prince
The end of the nineteenth century was an age of royal eccentricity. Prince Ludwig II of Bavaria spent a fortune on a series of elaborate castles across Southern Germany. The most famous, the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein, was an expression of his love for swans.
Sigulda Castle (above) was built in 1878. It is now proudly in Latvia but was then part of a sprawling Russian Empire – the castle was was built by a Russian aristocratic family, the Kropotkins. Like Prince Ludwig II, Nikolai Kropotkin sought to add a personal touch, but swans were not thrilling enough for him, so he looked to Switzerland for inspiration.
In St Moritz, the hotel owner Caspar Badrutt had been trying to promote the town as a winter resort. He found that his guests, who were mostly British, would enjoy sliding though its streets on improvised sleds. Wanting to encourage them, but equally mindful of the danger to pedestrians, he built the world’s first sliding track, now the Cresta Run.
The idea snowballed, laying further tracks as it did so. Sliding spread to other parts of Switerland, including Arosa and Davos, which had a very good bobsleigh team (below).
More than a century later, the legacy of this Swiss-British invention continues to be felt. Switzerland still has more Olympic bobsleigh medals than any other country, although Germany is catching up fast. Great Britain is by far the most successful nation without its own track, in bobsleigh and even more so in skeleton, particularly in women’s events.
The Sigulda region is known as the “Switzerland of Latvia” and Nikolai Kropotkin tried to strengthen this association by building a sliding track, modelled on those in the Alps, in the grounds of his castle. This was 90 years before the modern track was completed.
This cannot have been a coincidence. The Soviet choice of Sigulda to host a track surely had much to do with the precedent that the prince had set. And the passion of the locals for the sport must have spread like icy fire from Kropotkin, who they wanted to emulate.
The mystery appears to have been solved. Latvia’s sliding history has been traced back, through the Soviet era, to the moment when it all began, with the fanciful act of a prince.
Or has it?
Nikolai Kropotkin was an adviser to Tsar Nicholas II, the last of the Romanov dynasty, which had eccentrics of its own. The great great great grandmother of Nicholas II was Catherine the Great, who installed an ice slide outside St Petersburg’s Winter Palace.
Catherine might also have been an inspiration for Kropotkin. Not only is the history of sport shaped by unpredictable crazes and capricious decisions, but there are so many overlapping causes that it is impossible to be certain that a final answer has been found.