There are two essentials for staging a Winter Olympics—snow and ice. Old Man Winter can be fickle, however, and mild temperatures and a lack of snow have threatened to derail the Winter Games multiple times, particularly before the advent of climate-controlled arenas and artificial snow.
Weather challenges at the Winter Olympics have a history nearly as old as the sporting spectacle itself.
1928 St. Moritz Olympics
On Valentine’s Day in 1928, a freak blast of summer-like heat that could have melted a box of chocolates—let alone snow—struck St. Moritz, Switzerland, and wreaked havoc with the second Winter Games.
Temperatures hovered near the freezing mark when the 50-kilometer cross-country skiing race started at 8 a.m., but within an hour, a hot wind known as the föhn blew down from the Alps. The strong southerlies sent temperatures soaring to 77 degrees in the sun. The föhn, which had never arrived that early in winter, turned the cross-country event into a slushy slog and one of the slowest races in skiing history. Conditions compelled more than one-quarter of the skiers to quit, and Sweden’s Per Erik Hedlund won in a time more than an hour slower than that of the 1924 gold medalist.
Meanwhile at the outdoor speed skating oval, the ice was melting underneath the blades of the skaters in the 10,000-meter race. Each heat grew progressively slower as puddles formed on the thawing ice until organizers cancelled the race, with American Irving Jaffee in the lead.
1932 Lake Placid Olympics
Jaffee finally achieved his Olympic dream by winning two gold medals at the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, which had its own weather issues. Locals believed a heavy snowfall in early November 1931 to be a good omen. It turned out to be a tease. The Adirondack winter delivered an unprecedented lack of snow in December and January, and temperatures even topped 50 degrees on some days. For the first time in its 137-year history, the New York state weather bureau reported that the Hudson River had not frozen over.
The unusual winter weather hampered some Olympians’ training routines, but a pair of snowstorms that struck before the opening ceremony allowed organizers to breathe easier. No events had to be canceled, although mild temperatures caused some alterations. Bad ice caused four hockey games to be shifted from the outdoor rink to Lake Placid’s indoor arena. Ski jumpers competing on a 47-degree day soared above the barren countryside and splashed down in a puddle-laden patch of snow that had been trucked in from higher altitudes. The warmth also forced an adjustment in the 50-kilometer cross-country skiing course, which in spots was a mere strip of snow.
While wishes for an Adirondack blizzard were ultimately fulfilled, the snowstorm struck during the nighttime closing ceremony and left fans looking “like snow-white ghosts in the eerie half-light,” according to the official report of the third Winter Olympics.
READ MORE: Winter Olympics History
1960 Squaw Valley Olympics
The Winter Olympics returned to the United States in 1960 after Squaw Valley, California, representatives snowed the International Olympic Committee with the false claim that 35 feet of snow fell in the remote Sierra Nevada outpost every winter. With just weeks to go before the start of the Games, however, the winter had delivered California sun, but no snow.
Walt Disney, who served as pageantry chairman of the 1960 Winter Olympics and opening ceremony producer, was among the organizers concerned that Squaw Valley was anything but snow white. After hiring 10 native Paiutes to perform a ceremonial snow dance, clouds appeared—but brought only rain.
Disney next turned to meteorologist Irving Krick, who began his weather career providing long-range predictions to movie studios setting location schedules before joining the team of forecasters who advised Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower to delay D-Day from the target date of June 5, 1944.
Krick boasted that not only could he forecast the weather, but he could change it as well by seeding clouds with silver iodine. When clouds appeared around Squaw Valley less than six weeks before the start of the Games, Krick fired up 20 cloud-seeding generators. Whether it was coincidence or not, days later three feet of snow fell on Squaw Valley with seven feet in the mountains.
Snow remained a concern on the morning of the opening ceremony—but this time due to too much of it. Squaw Valley awoke to a raging Sierra Nevada blizzard that snarled traffic and delayed the arrival of Vice President Richard Nixon to open the Games. The near-zero visibility meant that Americans tuning in to the live broadcast would see nothing of Disney’s production.
In a scene that could have been ripped from a Disney fairy tale, however, the snow stopped and the sun broke through just as the flag holder for Greece entered the Olympic stadium to lead the parade of athletes. As soon as the ceremony ended, the snow resumed. The press dubbed the fortuitous timing the “Miracle of Squaw Valley.”
1964 Innsbruck Olympics
Snow was once again at a premium four years later in Innsbruck, Austria. When the winter resort hosting the 1964 Winter Olympics experienced one of its longest snow droughts on record, organizers enlisted the Austrian military to save the Games.
A force of 2,500 soldiers lined the bobsled and luge courses with 20,000 ice blocks they harvested from a nearby valley. In addition, troops hauled 88 million pounds of snow, in some cases basket by basket, to alpine skiing courses where soldiers and volunteers packed down the slopes with their hands and feet.
Temperatures remained mild throughout the Winter Games. While reporters joked that the Olympic flame was a fire hazard in the drought conditions and sunbathers in swimsuits waved to cross-country skiers practicing on narrow ribbons of snow, all events were completed. After seven snowless weeks, flakes finally fell four hours after the closing ceremony, forcing flights out of the city to be grounded.
Vancouver, Sochi and Beijing Olympics
When organizers of the 2010 Winter Olympics pledged to make the Games in Vancouver, Canada, the “greenest on record,” they didn’t expect Mother Nature to deliver on their promise with springlike temperatures that brought blooming daffodils, drenching rains and no snow for nearly two months leading up to the opening ceremony.
Artificial snowmakers, which first appeared at the 1980 Winter Olympics, were powerless amid the warmest January and February on record in Vancouver. In order to stage the freestyle skiing and snowboarding competitions, organizers employed a fleet of dump trucks and even helicopters to transport snow from locations as far as 150 miles away.
Even with modern snowmaking equipment, future Winter Olympics could see past weather challenges repeat themselves if global temperatures keep rising and the Games continue to be awarded to cities that are either subtropical—such as 2014 host Sochi, Russia—or have an arid winter climate similar to 2022 host Beijing, China.