The Winter Olympics: The Early Years

The freeriding and off-piste mecca of Chamonix hosted the International Winter Sports Week in 1924, an event which saw 16 nations compete in events including skating, ice hockey, curling and Nordic skiing. It was this week, which has been retrospectively called the first ever Winter Olympics. Prior to 1924, sports such as ice hockey and figure skating were included in the quadrennial Summer Games. Figure skating was the major attraction in these early games, and was the only sport to include women; though there were just 13 female athletes to 245 men. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Scandinavian countries dominated, with Norway winning 17 medals.

The Athletes take an Oath at the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix (1924)

Although Nordic skiing was included in these early games, skiing as we know it now was yet to be popularised. Sir Arnold Lunn, founder of the Kandahar Ski Club and President of the Ski Club of Great Britain, had a major role in developing alpine ski racing and drove for it’s inclusion in the Olympics. In 1922, Lunn set a slalom course, where for the first time, skiers were judged on speed rather than style. It was only in the 1936 that Alpine skiing would be included for the first time and the Winter Games was changed forever. The skiing programme consisted of a single event – the Combined – where the results of a Downhill run and a Slalom run were added together.

Jeanette Kessler competes for Great Britain at the 1936 Winter Olympics

Politics has long punctuated the Winter Games. In 1936, in a tense political climate which saw the war break out just three years later, the Games was held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria, Germany. With Hitler in the stands, anti-Jewish signs were temporarily removed from view, just two weeks before it began.

Adolf Hitler oversees the athletes and spectators at the opening ceremony of the 1936 Garmisch Partenkirchen Olympics

With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the Winter Olympics had a 12-year hiatus returning only in 1948. Known as the Games of Renewal, the Olympics returned to St. Moritz, Switzerland, a neutral territory, with skiing an intrinsic aspect..

The return of the Winter Olympics after WWII, St Moritz 1948

Yet the political atmosphere was inescapable, with Germany and Japan not invited to participate. It was only in 1952 that both countries returned to the Games. The 1956 Games were also political; in the early years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union were keen to present a dominant team; they were successful, immediately winning more medals and more gold medals than any other nation. They continued to dominate the medal tables for almost 40 years.

Italian legend Tony Sailer takes to his home slopes at the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Olympics

Italian legend Tony Sailer takes to his home slopes at the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Olympics

The Winter Olympics: A New Era

With the Winter Olympics well and truly a part of the sporting calendar, so came an avalanche in technological advancements which only helped improve its popularity. 

Slalom at the 1952 Oslo Winter Olympics

The 60s saw the rapid growth of television coverage of the Games, and subsequently its global profile. The 1960 Games in Squaw Valley brought about the introduction of ‘instant replays’ to sport, with officials needing to review skiers who may have missed gates in men’s racing. By 1964, over 1,000 athletes from 36 different countries were competing in 34 events. Skiers, both men and women, could now compete in three disciplines: Slalom, Giant Slalom and Downhill.

Biathlon at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics

In 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, artificial snow was used for the first time due to poor conditions. Britain gained plenty of attention in Calgary 1988, as ski racer turned ski jumper Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards flew into the public eye, becoming the definition of ‘it’s the taking part that counts’. Super G (Super Giant Slalom) was added as a new Alpine skiing event, while short track speed skating, curling and freestyle skiing were included as demonstration sports.

Eddie ‘The Eagle’ soars above Calgary

Two Winter Olympics were held in rapid succession in the 90s, as the decision was made to hold winter and summer Games in an alternating four year cycle. The 1992 Winter Olympics were staged in Albertville, however the skiing events took place across a variety of venues. Moguls made their official debut while Ski Ballet, which had been an exhibition event, fell by the wayside. The disintegration of the Soviet Union spelled the end of Soviet dominance of many sports and more countries than ever competed.

Ross Rebagliati took Snowboarding’s first Olympic medal at Nagano 1998

With over 2,000 athletes competing, Nagano’s 1998 Olympics saw the official introduction of snowboarding as a discipline. At the Salt Lake City in 2002 snow sports such as snowboarding, freestyle moguls and aerials garnered more public attention than ever, as an ever-growing television audience were drawn to these spectator-friendly sports.

Skiing and snowboarding has continued to experience considerable growth since 2002, as more sports are added that reflect the evolution and diversification of skiing and snowboarding disciplines. Snowboard Cross and Ski Cross were introduced at Torino 2006 and Vancouver 2010 respectively. Sochi 2014 marked a major change as Halfpipe skiing and Slopestyle made their Olympic debut. While Alpine skiing continues to be dominated by traditional ski racing nations in the Alps, Scandinavia and the USA, these new freestyle sports offer many countries genuine medal contenders. Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics drew over 3 billion television viewers worldwide. In Sochi 2014, Britain won their first medal on snow with Jenny Jones making history and winning herself a bronze in Slopestyle.

Jenny Jones makes history winning Britain’s first on snow Olympic Medal