Some sounds are unquestionably identified with certain sports. Like the vuvuzuela at the World Cup in South Africa. Or the “get in the hole” guy, who shrieks every time a professional golfer putts.
At the Winter Olympics, there is an unmistakable sound, straight out of an old “Saturday Night Live” sketch: Cowbell.
So. Very. Much. Cowbell.
Honestly, we can’t blame fans. Watching skiing or some other competition on a snowy mountain in freezing temperatures, spectators have to do something to make their cheers carry across the chilly expanse of competition. And so the cowbell is a sweet tradition with roots both in Europe and utilitarianism.
“Mittens don’t clap,” Elisabeth Halvorson, the founder and owner of the U.S.-based Cowbells.com, said this week in a telephone interview, using one of her favorite mottos.
Well, no, they don’t. And it’s also hard to yell with a scarf around your throat and mouth.
Consequently, cowbells have become a lucrative winter sports business, one that got its legs during the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics and, for Halvorson, took off with the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. The bells have proved enormously popular with fans and with athletes; Halvorson has met some competitors, like Picabo Street, who have raved about them. (Street said her young son was particularly taken with them.) And Halvorson cites a 2010 interview with Time in which Lindsey Vonn said, “I love the cowbell, I think it’s awesome… It’s a classic part of ski racing. The cowbells are what make all the noise. It’s like cheerleading. Anything to make you feel like people are behind you, I think that’s special.”
Although she sells some bells made in the United States and China, most of the cowbells Halvorson sells are made by Moen Bjøllefabrikk, a Norwegian company that Halvorson calls the “Tiffany of bells.” They caught on during those Games in Lillehammer and are crafted from the bullet casings at Norwegian military practice ranges. (Hence, another of her mottos: “From bullets to bells.”) This year’s special bronze Moen bell, etched with, duh, “Team USA,” retails online for $45.99, although it’s already sold out. Halvorson declined to discuss overall sales, but said she quit counting “when we reached 70 tons — and that was before the 2002 Games.”
And fans at the PyeongChang Games are finding that the bells are a popular item, unless you happen to be seated in front of a particularly enthusiastic ringer.
“A lot of the South Koreans are really enamored by it,’’ Paul Manning, who is from Chicago, told USA Today. “They want to grab it and ring it and everything. Especially the police. You’ve got to take it off. Everybody holds it and looks at me and goes, ‘What is this?’ And I ring it for them and they’re, ‘Ahhh.’ They want to know what it is. And then I ring it for them and everybody kind of laughs.’’
At the ski jump, there was less tolerance, with one spectator telling USA Today that fans compromised by ringing them only after jumpers had landed during the women’s competition. No one wants to hear cowbells while hurtling through the air and trying to stick a tricky landing. But the bells have become such a winter sports staple, especially at skiing events, that athletes have grown used to them, and to the connection they provide to family, friends and fans.
“It’s the way to communicate with athletes, who’ve told me they can hear them ringing from the bottom of the mountain all the way at the top,” Halvorson said.
The bells, which can be tuned with pliers, are also distinctive, at least to Halvorson’s sharp eyes and ears.
“The Swiss always bring bells and I can tell,” she said. “The top is rounded and the bottom small, and you can tell the different types.”
Bringing bells to races began with Swiss farmers, she said, who were “stout enough to compete, and the cows, along with their bells, were in barns for the winter. Families would grab the bells and go out to the competition. From there, it spread to Norway, Austria and Germany.”
And now they’ve spread to just every winter sports competition. Woo-hoo. Or as Halvorson puts it on her website, “Moo-hoo.”
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