Olympic Games: The Anniversary - A week that broke the ice
75 years ago tomorrow the first Winter Olympic Games opened in Chamonix
Sunday 24 January 1999
Although figure skating was part of the summer Games in London in 1908 and ice hockey was added to the 1920 Games in Antwerp, the first time the International Olympic Committee gave reluctant official patronage to a "Winter Sports Week" did not occur until 1924. Two years later the event was given retrospective Olympic status. The Games opened in Chamonix on 25 January. De Coubertin was not best pleased. He had always been against fragmenting the Olympics. With accurate foreboding, he anticipated the long, bitter debates over professionalism and sponsorship. There was also opposition from the Scandinavian countries who wanted to retain the prestige of the World Championships.
It was intended that whenever possible the summer and winter Olympics would be allocated to the same country. That was another good intention quickly frozen out. Amsterdam won the right to hold the 1928 summer Games and searched high and low for some mountains, without success. So the second winter Games went to St Moritz.
Chamonix brought together 16 countries and 294 competitors but only 13 women, which temporarily weakened the argument that the winter Games would bring more women into Olympic competition. The programme did not include Alpine skiing, which was later to become the principal sport of the Games, but was not added until 1936.
As the opening day got nearer the weather got no colder; a familiar story, although a lot more worrying before the days of artificial snow and reliably refrigerated rinks. On 23 December there was no snow. By the next morning there was more than a metre.
Suddenly the problem was not one of too little but too much. All of the ice rink and its surrounds had to be cleared by hand. However, a week before the opening day the weather again became warmer. Rain fell and melted the ice. On the night before the start, temperatures dropped again and, mercifully, re-formed the ice.
The only non-European countries in the opening ceremony were the United States and Canada. Two competitors dominated the Games, Thorleif Haug, of Norway, and Clas Thunberg, of Finland. Haug, aged 29, won the 15km and 50km cross-country events and the Nordic combination, a skiing gold medal achievement not equalled until 1956 when in Cortina the Austrian Toni Sailer won the same number. Haug was also awarded the bronze medal in the ski-jumping. Fifty years later it was found that the results were wrong and that another Norwegian, Anders Haugen, who had emigrated to the United States and was representing them, had actually beaten him. In 1974 Haug's daughter presented Haugen, then 86, with the bronze medal.
Thunberg, who was unusual in that he kept in training throughout the year, won even more medals than Haug, taking three golds, a silver and bronze in the speed skating. But if those two captured the most medals, most hearts were won by a smiling 11-year-old Norwegian skater, Sonja Henie, who finished last of the eight competitors in the solo event. Nevertheless, she had taken her first steps towards a glittering international career both as a skater and film star. In Chamonix, though, she was outclassed by Herma Plank-Szabo, who represented the classical Viennese school of skating.
Henie went on to become world champion at 15 and to win three successive Olympic golds. She amassed a total of 10 world titles. Her artistic, gymnastic style changed the sport forever, also opening up the possibilities of professionalism. It brought her a lucrative contract with 20th Century Fox in Hollywood where she made 11 films. She died from leukaemia in 1969.
Among the events in Chamonix was the bobsleigh, although some still used the "Cresta boblet" in which they lay flat and sped down the course head first in the daring style of the original tobogganing. The Swiss second crew won after their first had crashed, and Britain took the silver to add to an ice hockey bronze.
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