With more than 2,800 athletes competing in nearly 100 events and a price tag surpassing $50 billion, the 2014 Olympic Winter Games bears little resemblance to the first Winter Olympics, held 90 years ago in a cozy winter resort in the French Alps. As the best athletes on snow and ice gather in Sochi, look back at the inaugural Winter Games, a humble sporting festival marked by two hockey teams that scored goals by the dozen, a Finnish speed skating sensation and the debut of a 12-year-old figure skater who would become of one history’s most decorated Olympians.
The snow-covered Alps sparkled in the sunlight that bathed the winter resort of Chamonix, France, on January 25, 1924. In the heart of the alpine village, 258 amateur athletes gathered for the ceremonial opening of the first-ever “International Winter Sports Week,” a frozen athletic festival organized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC had actually staged figure skating and ice hockey competitions at previous Summer Olympics, but in advance of the 1924 Summer Games in Paris, the organization decided to carve out a separate program of wintertime sports.
As a municipal band led the athletes on a parade from Chamonix’s town hall to the outdoor skating rink for the Opening Ceremony, a gloriously cold breeze fluttered the flags of the 16 participating countries and swept a sense of relief through the village. With all events scheduled for outdoors, organizers were at the mercy of Mother Nature, and just four days before, disaster had loomed as heavy rains and warm temperatures transformed the ice rink into a miniature lake and the ski jump into a muddy mess. The unseasonable thaw had disrupted training sessions and forced figure skaters, speed skaters and hockey players to practice side-by-side on the cramped curling rink.
The return of the chill, however, meant that the games could go on as planned. That was good news for both the athletes and the workers who had toiled 24 hours a day before the onset of winter to complete the three venues for the competition—a 19-turn bobsleigh track, a ski jump and a stadium featuring the world’s largest ice sheet, composed of two hockey rinks, two figure skating rinks, a 400-meter speed skating track and an adjacent curling rink. (Although Chamonix was encircled by Alps, alpine skiing was actually not on the program and wouldn’t be part of the Olympics until 1936.)
Unlike modern-day Olympians who wear patriotic outfits specially tailored by fashion designers into the Opening Ceremony, the winter athletes in 1924 paraded into the stadium in their sporting uniforms with their equipment in tow. Horses towed bobsleigh teams, and athletes resembled military drill units as they marched with their hockey sticks and skis on their shoulders. The curlers—dressed in coats and ties, plus fours and woolen Tam o’ Shanters—resembled a squad of chimney sweeps with their wispy brooms resting on their shoulders. Inside the stadium, the voice of the French Under Secretary of State for Physical Education boomed through the grandstand’s loudspeakers and reverberated off the towering mountains that loomed on high as he proclaimed the games to be opened. Happy to be back on solid ice, some of the athletes held an impromptu race around the rink at the ceremony’s conclusion.
The next day, the skating began for real with the staging of the first of the festival’s 16 events—the men’s 500-meter speed skating competition. By besting 30 other competitors in a time of 44 seconds flat, American Charles Jewtraw of Lake Placid, New York, captured the first gold in Winter Olympic history.
The United States hockey team roared to a fast start as well, although they had to adapt their playing style to the rink’s peculiar configuration in which the rectangular perimeter was marked only by wooden planks and not sideboards, which made play tedious as pucks constantly sailed and bounced out of play. In its three round-robin games, the United States outscored its opponents 52-0. Good, sure, but not as good as Canada, which blanked its opponents by a whopping 85-0. The two titans collided in the championship round in a de facto gold medal game, which Canada easily won by a 6-1 score.
Unlike in Sochi, there was no women’s hockey competition in Chamonix. In fact, fewer than a dozen women competed in the first Winter Games, and they were all figure skaters. Austrian Herma Szabo won gold in what the press dubbed “fancy skating,” but the skater who came in last, 12-year-old Norwegian Sonja Henie, would eventually eclipse her in fame by capturing gold at the next three Winter Olympics.
Henie’s countrymen dominated the cross-country skiing competition, and Norway topped the medal count with 17, followed by Finland, Great Britain and the United States. Finland’s Clas Thunberg was the competition’s star, claiming three golds, a silver and a bronze in speed skating. (Norway’s Roald Larsen also won five speed skating medals—two silvers and three bronzes.) Organizers awarded all the medals on the program’s final day, by which time some of the athletes had already returned home. One athlete even had to wait 50 years to get his prize. American ski jumper Anders Haugen had topped the field in Chamonix with a jump of 50 meters, but the judges’ style scores dropped him to fourth place. When a marking error was discovered a half-century later, however, the IOC awarded the 83-year-old Haugen a bronze medal in 1974.
More than 10,000 spectators watched the athletes perform in Chamonix, and the IOC considered the “International Winter Sports Week” such a success that it decided in 1925 to stage an Olympic Winter Games every four years. When it did so, it retroactively declared the gathering at Chamonix to have been the first Winter Olympics.