Board and winter sports reinvented”. Construction of a sports and leisure territory, Oisans from 1960 up until today

Dorothée Fournier, Docteure en histoire du sport, Laboratoire Sens-UFRAPS, Labex ITEM

Doctoral thesis in Science and Technique ofPhysical and Sports Activities (STAPS), Grenoble-Alpes university, Labex ITEM, supervised by Profs. Michaël Attali and Anne-Marie Granet-Abisset. Defended on the 12thof March 2018.

Paragliding take off area, top of the Devil’s ski slope, Les Deux Alpes ski resort, December 2017.

The origin of this thesis is due to Labex ITEM commitments to promote an enlarged partnership with socioeconomic actors and offer decision-making tools to meet territorial requirements. Across time, mountain areas have shown their resilience. However, today, they are facing new challenges: touristic, residential and environmental. In the context of global change, they become resource areas (by their economy based on tourism) and vulnerable areas (exposure to climate change). This duality requires considering them as relevant laboratories to observe the ongoing changes. This posture and an in-depth field knowledge by the entrant form the basis of the research hypothesis about the question of sports new collaborative innovation development models. Oisans area is an excellent casestudy. In some parts, it is like any other mountain place but with its own peculiar characteristics. It expresses different realities, administrative, geographic, and symbolic. It is divided in two county and two regions, nineteen towns in Isere county (and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region) and two in Hautes-Alpes county (and Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur region). Situated South-East of Grenoble, on an important communication route between Rhône valley and Italy by the city of Briançon, it’s a pathway reinforced in the 19thby the construction of the Lautaret route. This high mountain territory is marked by its history of alpinism and by its first tourists. The conquest of LaMeije gives it an international and a mythical recognition. A part of it became an officially designated national park reserve in 1973. Over the years, it has experienced many transformations and adaptations. Historically, by administration of communal land, agropastoralism is the core activity of this area. This occupation enriched the local population and familiarised them with displacement. Seasonal and temporary migration and long distance commuting on which the economic activity is based, has shaped the identity of the territory.

By a movement towards the bottom valley in the 19th century, Oisans operates an extensive network of industrial facilities restoring the attractiveness of this subspace, structuring new migrations and a new economic attractiveness. At the same time, with the rise of mountaineering, from the 1920s during the development of the first winter sports (phenomenon that is accentuated in the 1960s), Oisans becomes a tourist territory thanks to ski in winter, then in summer, and following the same timeline by the implementation of other sport activities such as cycling in the dynamics of the Tour de France. In successive adaptation and wondering about its future, Oisans serves as a case study of this problem of aptitude/weakness, which characterizes mountain territories. They wonder about the sustainability of the ski activity and the ability of diversified activities to replace them. In this context, the aim is to assess the way in which sport practices “build the territory” wondering if the Oisans is taking new measures for its survival. Does it still have the capacity to innovate to adapt to new constraints as it has done in the past? The solutions that the actors are ready to implement to answer new challenges constitute the stake of this thesis centered on sport activities. This question requires an analysis of past experiences to understand the mechanisms by which this area has been maintained to this day. In an interdisciplinary approach favored by the Labex ITEM this research seeks several disciplines of humanities and social sciences : cultural history of sport, sociology of organizations, cultural geography. It essentially mobilizes two concepts, territory and innovation. In its cultural sense, the territory refers to an appropriate space, historically built, resulting from reconfigurations. It’s a process that sets a practice in a specific place. The framework adopted by the Labex Item invites to question the concept of innovation applied to sport practices. Is it simply a “portmanteau” word to give a sense of progress and say that mountain territories are areas of progress while it is in reality only adaptation? While some practices seem innovative in terms of their content, other, considered as such, are not. By a communication argument, how does the Oisans area, in reality and by speech, build itself as a touristic territory thanks to sport? This study questions the adaptability of Oisans taking into account what is often presented as socio-cultural innovations. It gives a central place to this concept by rejecting a strictly technological approach. The contribution of Norbert Alter is favored. Based on Schumpeter’s economic theory, the author separates the goal to be achieved (economic considerations) from the means of attaining it (social and cultural concerns). He postulates that innovative action is not driven by economic rationality but by a desire for social recognition. Innovative behavior consists of accepting purpose prescribed by society but not social rules. Thus the process of innovation always stumbles against the established order, supposes a rupture, forces a deviant behavior without it, it cannot be conceived. This ordinary act represents the main vector of the movement as well as a risk of sanctions. It is considered normal behavior for some, so it remains relative. It has benefits, requires learning and builds an identity. Innovation is the daily reality of any operator. Examining their networks provides an essential diagnostic tool made available to organizations.

In a historical perspective, different sources constitute the corpus that questions the two concepts mentioned. To understand the choices of the decision-makers and the choices of actors carrying new sports practices, we studied mostly three types of sources. The first corpus was produced by consulting the local newspaper “Le Dauphiné Libéré”, from the 1960s to the present day. (The local edition of Oisans and the Grenoble edition were consulted simultaneously to detect differences in perception between urban and rural). Contrary to what one might think, it is not a source that is insufficient or too centrally localized. It is rich and essential for analysing the network of players. The repeated presence of the same events in the regional press is an indicator of the degree of incorporation of practice into a place. It is a mouthpiece for decision makers, rooted in the territory. This daily newspaper publishes positive information. It overvalues ​​local information and justifies public action.
It gives to see the official speech. Thus, it participates in the elaboration of the system of representations by shedding light on the place of practices, traditional or innovative. It puts them back into their life cycle. In the margin of the media discourse, the decisions of the administrations constitute a second level of sources. It is constituted by the funds of the communal archives, essentially the municipal reports and the municipality communities reports of Oisans area. This data is scattered throughout the studied perimeter or in different repositories. This is why the collection of oral testimonies constitutes a third level of sources. It is a rich teaching tool made available to the contemporary historian. These testimonials reveal how the actors appropriate the practices, act, give meaning to their choice. They offer access to the sphere of intimacy, at the heart of the process of interrelations. It takes into account different generations, the diversity of sports practiced by an individual and his belonging to different sectors of activity.

The results of this thesis are presented chronothemically. In a first part, we show how Oisans is raised in a tourist territory by the activity of skiing. This practise benefits of a positive vision from society. In addition, we highlight the change from summer tourism, with mountaineering using specific locations, to a winter tourism territory that specifies new tourist sites. New subspaces join the two economic drivers of Alpe d’Huez and Les Deux Alpes. By this transfer, they no longer appear in terms of backwardness. This first section provides an overview of skiing after the war, and in a more in-depth way from the 1960s to the 1980s. Skiing is the major economic resource of Oisans. We describe this practice as innovative at this time because of its change of use (from a means of travel to a leisure). In addition, its modalities of practice change. (It goes from ski mount to ski downhill). This stage of development indicates the asymmetrical path followed by winter sports. It is rationalized, codified, standardized. At the dawn of the 1980s, we are witnessing a reconfiguration of the territory. This architecture brings out new protagonists, ski lift managers, ski instructors, ski patrols. In contrast to this dynamic, the agricultural places are presented as lagging behind their time. The reinforcement of winter sports brings in its wake some of these agricultural “archaic” territories. They join the progress thanks to the extension of the territory of Alpe d’Huez from which they profit. Auris and the Eau d’Olle Valley prove it. In rural villages that have remained isolated from the phenomenon, the world of peasants disappears despite attempts to resist by associating agriculture with tourism. Another conception of the development of the mountain occurs. It challenges the dominant model and promotes the protection of nature. This is the vision of associations such as the French alpine club “Club Alpin Français”, precursor in the structuring of the mountain area. Their vision is that we must overcome the mountain not by mechanics but by physical effort. This dichotomy of representations brings up controversies, conflicts and negotiations illustrated by games between actors around two projects: the implementation of the Meije cable car and the creation of the Ecrins National Park. While winter sports continue to grow, in counterpoint, new methods of practice highlighting the values ​​of the American counterculture, begin to spread in Oisans during the 1970s. These emerging sports, such as freestyle skiing, reinforce new mentalities based on a new set of values ​​that is opposed to that of traditional sports. Although some of these practices, described as “Californian”, do not manage to establish themselves durably (freestyle skiing, monoski), they impel a new impetus in an unfavourable economic situation reinforced by the European market and low snow winters.

Starting from this new social and cultural reality at the dawn of the 1980s, the second and third parts of the thesis focus on understanding territorialization processes of innovative practices. The targeted study of three practices provides a detailed analysis of the dynamics of innovation. Beyond their countercultural specificity, we selected them because of their affiliation with traditional sports that affected to varying degrees the territory of Oisans in the period previously studied. Snowboarding and its relation to skiing, mountain biking and its relationship with road biking and free flight, and more particularly paragliding and its link with skydiving, are examined.

Considering the period of time between the 1980s and the 2000s, the second part deals with the appropriation of the innovative practices by the actors of the territory and the capacity of this one to change them. It begins by describing the values ​​and aspirations of the groups of innovators. They are identified through the different ways of getting involved in the practice.  Out of line  with the established cultural norm, innovators are driven by strong beliefs that resemble a form of activism. We then measure their degree of influence, their capacity to take risks, their relationship with the current rule. The notion of appropriation refers to the challenges of the territory. Relationships with traditional activities are studied to understand how snowboarding, mountain biking and free flying are perceived and whether or not they successfully take place on occupied space. On the other hand, the interest of the actors to take part in the action and the meaning of the different sequences of the appropriation process are detailed. If places “learn” faster than others do, the learning capacity is due to both the socio-cultural characteristics of the host site and the stronger influence of certain networks. The finding of differentiated appropriations leads to the establishment of territorial profiles. In order to interpret the trajectory of innovation, special attention is paid to conflicts and cooperation, in particular to the repercussions of national institutional tensions on local authorities of sport. In the light of this, the role of the smuggling agents is highlighted. The tensions identified reflect not only the economic stakes resulting from the development of new sports but also the stakes of power. A reflection begins from the social exchange and networks of competence to measure “the capacity to collectively produce innovation”. The influence of the actors of the territory shapes specificities within each modality of practice, from which are deduced meanings. While snowboarding and mountain biking have a profound impact on the territory at the same time as it shapes them to its profile, free flight illustrates the failure of an appropriation. Hang gliding and then paragliding face many obstacles related to a protectionism of the winter sports system highlighted by the place of central operators including lift companies.

The third part focuses on the most recent period, from the year 2000 to the present, and focuses on territoriality resulting from the innovation process. The repercussions of Oisans’ appropriation of innovative practices are studied in order to reflect their participation in its redefinition. The influence of snowboarding on skiing, mountain biking on road biking, even mountain biking on the ski, attest to a reversal of codes. This phase corresponds to the integration of these sports and the recognition of other standards. New sports do not reconfigure spaces evenly. Some projects illustrate the refusal of the territorial ecosystem to transform itself. The consequences on the territory are measured according to various factors, symbolic, organizational, social, cultural, but also according to technological, political criteria and finally in terms of space. The changes of representation on the space occur concomitantly with the modifications of the judgments on the actors of the innovative sports. These changes, interpreted through the lens of opportunities and threats, constitute an axis of reflection.
Beyond a mutation of the sporting landscape, this thesis finally attempts to measure the consequences of the heterogeneity of perceptions on the heterogeneity of the Oisans area, field of expression of identities. It takes stock of territorial reconfigurations. The touristic territories remain the big resorts that increase their space and reinforce their brand image. Bourg d’Oisans “valley bottom station” takes over a central function thanks to the development of cycling. Saint Christophe and La Grave, altitude areas, no longer have the same impact. Their attraction is articulated with the presence of the park and the defence of a territory and a ski of adventure and mountaineering. When territories join tourism, others remain on the periphery and do not benefit equally from sports recreation practices. The lower valley of the Romanche remains a territory of exclusion which no one considers as being part of the Oisans area. The territoriality emanating from these transformations is expressed through the different sports. Snowboard shows its ability to renew the image of winter sports. Mountaining biking illustrates the predisposition to restart the summer season in the mountains. In a context of climate change one can wonder about its ability to upset winter practices. Free flight, for its part, weakly influences the territory exposing its inability to transform it. By showing how Oisans is adopting new practices, the results of this research propose an indicator of the social, cultural and adaptive properties of the territory, as well as the capacity of its actors, to transform practices. Due to the territorial impact of innovative practices and reactions to them, the persistence of belief in winter sports is very interesting to reconsider. This questions the activity based on skiing and continues to seem to determine the choices of the actors. Alpe d’Huez and Deux Alpes plan to combine to give an image of the territory through skiing because of external competition. Would an Alpe d’Huez-Deux Alpes teleport link become a solution?

Several lines of work are emerging to continue this research. New practices such as snowkiting, speedriding, and electric bikes and mountain bikes deserve special attention. An analysis of the role of tourists and day-trippers in the transformation of Oisans is designed to shed a different light from that of local ownership initiatives. Going beyond the scale of the Oisans area, a comparison with other mountain territories, Alpine, Pyrenean or coastal areas, remains to be realized.

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Citer ce billet
manueljasse (2018, 12 décembre). Board and winter sports reinvented”. Construction of a sports and leisure territory, Oisans from 1960 up until today. Les carnets du Labex ITEM. Consulté le 13 juin 2024, à l’adresse