Saturday, January 25, 2014

First Winter Olympics 90 Years Ago

The eyes of the world are slowly turning to Sochi, Russia where in two weeks Vladimir Putin’s pride and joy will get under way.  Despite a dazzling array of talented athletes, however, attention to the XXII Olympic Winter Games has been focused on Russia’s repressive anti-Gay laws and policy and on threats of terrorism by disgruntled Caucus Muslims.  But while NBC relentlessly bangs the drums to promote the Games—and their otherwise dismal ratings—perhaps we can take a moment to reflect on how it all began. 
On January 25, 1924 athletes from 16 nations gathered at the foot of Mont Blanc in Chamonix, and Haute-Savoie, France for an International Winter Sports Week.  The event was considered by its host, the French Olympic Committee to be an informal extension of the Olympics Games held that summer in Paris.  It was in response to a clamor, particularly by Nordic countries for an international venue for amateur winter sports.
It was only after the conclusion of the successful games that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to formally inaugurate the Winter Games at their meeting in 1925, that they retroactively proclaimed the Chamonix games the I Olympic Winter Games.  Thereafter the games would be held every four years in the same years as the Summer Games—interrupted by World War II—until 1994 when the current schedule or holding the game two years after the last Summer event was adopted.
The French event was not, however the first time some winter sports were part of Olympic games.  Figure Skating had been an Olympic event in both London and Antwerp, and Ice Hockey was contested in Antwerp on indoor rinks.  Obviously those events which had to be held outdoors could not be accommodated in a normal Olympic schedule.
The first games were totally dominated by Nordic teams.  Norway won four Gold Medals and 17 total medals, Finland had four Golds and 11 total.  The United States only took a Gold in Speed Skating, a very distant Silver in Hockey, Silver in Lady’s Figure Skating, and a Bronze for Men’s Ski Jump.  But that was better than the hapless home team, despite fielding the second largest number of athletes.  The French won just three Bronze medals, one of them not actually awarded until 2006.
Curling had been presented during the games, but was not considered an official sport.  In 2006, the IOC retroactively awarded medals to the 1924 curling teams after an appeal on behalf of the victorious British by a Glasgow newspaper.
The Curling medals were not the only ones awarded tardily.  When officials in 1974 discovered a miss entered score in a ski jumping event, American Anders Haugen was elevated from fourth place to third and the 86 year old athlete finally received his Bronze.
The last medal presented during the competition was awarded to a sport that was not even contested during the games.  The French Olympic Committee presented a Gold Medal for alpinisme to Charles Granville Bruce, the leader of the expedition that tried but failed to climb Mount Everest in 1922.
Athletes at the games competed in 16 events in 9 sports—Bob Sled, Curling, Ice Hockey, Military Patrol, Figure Skating, Speed Skating, Cross Country Skiing, Nordic Combined Skiing, and Ski Jumping.
In Figure Skating Sweden’s Gillis Grafström became the first—and last—individual to successfully defend a Gold Medal won at a previous Summer game, Antwerp in 1920.  He would go on to notch a third win in 1928 and a Silver in 1932.  On the distaff side 11 year old Sonja Henie skated for Norway.  She finished last but became the darling of the competition.  She would go on to win the next three consecutive Gold Medals, a career as one of the highest paid movies stars in Hollywood, and the first ice show queen.
Then there was Ice Hockey.  The Canadians, like Grafström defending Gold won at Antwerp, achieved the most devastating complete domination of an event in Olympic history, Summer or Winter.  They finished their qualifying round with 4 wins, and a total score of 110–3 against Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and Great Britain then breezed to a win topping the U.S.  This domination continued through most of early Olympic history.  The Canadians won six of the first seven Gold Medals.  Frankly, the whole country has had a swelled head and been a dick about this ever since.
All in all it was an exciting and successful week of completion.  Unlike the enormously expensive Summer games that year in Paris, the winter events even turned a modest profit.  They helped popularize winter sports in Europe and North America.  Not a bad debut.

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