Going for the Gold

Winter Olympics History

By Eilene Lyon

I was so inspired by the American women’s relay in cross-country skiing. The first gold medal EVER for the U.S. in cross-country skiing in Olympic history. Go Team USA!

The winter games began in 1924, so that’s nearly a century-long drought – it seems only the Chicago Cubs have had it worse!

I thought it would be fun to look back at the early winter Olympics and see how things have changed – or not.

The first winter Olympics were held in Chamonix, France, but weren’t actually dubbed “Olympics” until 1926.1 The list of events was fairly short: bobsleigh, curling, ice hockey, figure skating, speed skating, military patrol, cross-country skiing, Nordic combined, and ski jumping.2

Wait, what? Military patrol?

Military patrol was the pre-cursor of today’s biathlon, combining cross-country skiing with target shooting, but was a team-of-four event.3

All those skating events were held outdoors, by the way, not inside cushy arenas with Zamboni-groomed ice like we have today. In 1924, Sonja Henie made her first appearance as a figure skater – at age 11!4 She came in last place at those games, but earned gold in the next three Olympics. She became the youngest Olympic champion of an individual event at age 15 in 1928, a record that stood for 74 years.5

Henie

Sonja Henie at the 1924 Olympics. The original caption read: “Little Miss Sonja Henie of Norway was the youngest competitor in the Winter Olympics at Chamonix. The 12-year-old daughter of the Vikings took part in the fancy skating competition.” Credit: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Note that curling was a medal event in 1924. It was just a demonstration event in the next three games. But here it is again in 2018, and for the first time, the U.S. is a contender for a gold medal. Go Team USA!

Sixteen countries participated in 1924, but with the Great War still an open wound in the global psyche, Germany was barred from competing. But they hosted the games in 1936 at the conjoined villages of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

Hitler games

As now, opening ceremonies in 1936 were a pageant, overseen by Der Fuehrer himself. As each country’s group of athletes marched by in front of a crowd estimated at 80,000 people, Hitler gave them the Nazi salute and most returned it in kind – the American delegation being among the exceptions.6 Go Team USA!

One interesting story from the 1924 games is that the winner of the bobsleigh event, Eduard Scherrer of Switzerland, only took up the sport because he won a bobsleigh in a raffle in the early 1920s.7 In ice hockey, the Canadians scored a jaw-dropping 85 goals against five contenders – and gave up not a single one in return.8

ski jump

The second winter Olympics in 1928 were held in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Japan participated for the first time at these games. The 50k cross-country ski race was bizarre, because the temperature at the start of the race was 0˚C (32˚F) and at the finish was 25˚C (77˚F)!!9

The third games, in 1932, were held for the first time outside of Europe, in Lake Placid, New York. Check out this video of the winning U.S. bobsled run! Unfortunately, the number of countries participating was reduced by the worldwide economic depression.

There have been many, many changes in the winter games over the years, including the addition of snowboarding.

One thing doesn’t seemed to have changed: Norwegian dominance. They’re still pulling in more medals than any other country.

Go Team USA!

 

 

Europe14 163

If you’re in Switzerland, be sure to visit The Olympic Museum in Lausanne

Feature image (gold medal): Charles Deluvio 🇨🇦 on Unsplash

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