Keep the Flame Alive logo, Chamonix 1924 and a picture of male athletes in formation.

Chamonix 1924: Military Patrol

Release Date: April 22, 2024

Category: Blog | Chamonix 1924

Every year, Keep the Flame Alive takes an in-depth look at a past Olympics and Paralympics. This year we’re exploring the Winter Olympics of Chamonix 1924, as it is the 100th anniversary of the very first Winter Olympic Games. 

Events in the Winter Olympics have changed over the last century, some coming in and some going out, and some evolving into new events. Military patrol is seen as a forerunner to today’s biathlon, but while the competition at Chamonix 1924 involved skiing and shooting, it had many more differences from modern biathlon.

 

In Chamonix, six countries competed: Switzerland, Finland, France, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Poland. Teams included four men, an officer, a sergeant or non-commissioned officer (referred to as both in different sources), and two soldiers or privates. The four skied together as a team across 30 kilometers in full military uniform with arms and backpacks. At a midway point in the course, all team members but the officer fired smallbore rifles at balloons at 250m distance. For each successful shot, 30 seconds were deducted from the final time. The officer carried a pistol but never fired during the race.

 

Mother Nature wasn’t kind to this event. Prior to the start of these Olympics, the weather was warm and rainy, melting the ice rink and turning snow to slush. Then the sun came out, but temperatures dropped to well below zero. The skiing course turned into an icy, uneven, and treacherous path that brought down even experienced soldiers. Many teams dropped out of the competition.

 

Italy did not finish the race because of the conditions. Poland withdrew because one of their soldiers, Szczepan Witkowski, fainted during the race. He recovered enough by the next day to compete in the 50km cross country ski (though he finished last among the skiers who completed the course). The entire French Olympic team suffered from illness, contracted when the French contingent was housed in a military barracks whose residents had a flu outbreak. Athletes were reported to be “coughing, spitting, handkerchiefs permanently in their hands,” according to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc.

 

At the start of the race, teams left the Olympic Stadium at three minute intervals. The Finns started first and completed the ski first. The Swiss team left last, 15 minutes after the Finns, but overtook France and Czechoslovakia during the skiing. The Finns hit the balloon targets eleven times. The Swiss hit eight, but that was not enough and Switzerland won the gold, Finland the silver, and France eked out the bronze, only hitting two targets.

 

The Finnish team included Ville Mattila, who is often forgotten to history because he was a last-minute replacement for ill teammate Martti Lappalainen. Depending on the source, Lappalainen is on the team roster instead of Mattila. The Finnish officer, Vaino Bremer, competed in the 1924 Summer Olympics in modern pentathlon, finishing 9th. He was a captain in the Air Force, leading an air aerobatics team and attempting daring long distance flights. Sadly, he died in a plane crash on Christmas Eve, 1964. Several of the competitors from across the teams returned to the Winter Olympics in 1928 and beyond, competing in cross-country skiing, ski jumping, and Nordic combined, though none ever won another medal.

 

Military patrol’s status as an Olympic sport is a controversial topic among Olympic historians. Because military patrol was designated as a demonstration sport at the Winter Olympics in 1928, 1936, and 1948, some historians also want to consider the 1924 race as a demonstration sport. Other historians claim that basically everything was a demonstration sport in 1924 since at the time it was not officially the Olympics, so military patrol results should be considered official.

 

Military patrol never appeared beyond 1948, and no international federation ever existed. The International Olympic Committee now considers military patrol as its own sport, and the 1924 competition an official event.

– Alison Brown