Today’s Winter Olympics program includes biathlon, which was first contested at the Games in 1960, but inklings of the sport started to appear decades earlier. The very first Winter Olympic Games at Chamonix in 1924 featured one of these precursor events: Military Patrol.
Much like biathlon, military patrol consisted of cross-country skiing and shooting — though that’s where the similarities ended. Military patrol was a four-person team event, with teams consisting of different military ranks–and those ranks had different weapons (some didn’t even shoot during the competition). In biathlon, athletes shoot at a disk-shaped target 50m away, while in military patrol, that target was a full 250m away–and it was a balloon.
Of course, this competition had its share of unforeseen circumstances. The unpredictable weather of these Games played a big role in making the competition tough. Illness also plagued many of the competitors, but enough managed to survive to achieve total victory.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an Olympics without some colorful characters, and from this competition that includes Vaino Bremmer, the Finnish officer who competed in modern pentathlon in the 1924 Summer Olympics and was known for his aviation exploits.



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4-Chamonix 1924: The Military Patrol Competition

Jill: Hello, Olympics and Paralympics fans, and welcome to Keep the Flame Alive’s Games History Moment, where we look at past editions of the Games. All year long, we will be looking at Chamonix 1924, which is billed as the first Winter Olympic Games and is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2024.

I am your host, Jill Jaracz, joined as always by my lovely co host, Alison Brown. Alison, hello. Hello, how are you?

Alison: Hello. I am so excited about this one because it is a sport that has been forgotten, but not forgotten. Military patrol. What is this? Okay. So many people think of this as the forerunner to biathlon because you have skiing and you have shooting, right?

It’s definitely biathlon in a different font. So let’s, let’s just start with kind of where Olympic historians put this in the. cosmology, because there’s actually a lot of controversy about it. The status of military patrol is, is it its own sport? Is it biathlon? Is it something else? Should it be on its own?

Because military patrol was designated as a demonstration sport. In 1928, 1936, and 1948, some historians have said the 1924 race should be considered a demonstration sport, not a full medal sport. However, other historians will say nothing was a full metal sport in 1924 because it wasn’t even called the Olympics that moment.

Right? Because as we’ve talked about before, they didn’t refer to it as the first winter Olympics until two years after it finished. So would everything be a full metal sport? So the IOC has declared that military patrol in 1924 is its own sport. The 1924 competition is a full event. And the medalists, which will we get to, are not demonstration medalists.

They are full medalists with any other sport. Let’s just, we’ll just put that aside, cover that, that moment of it.

Jill: I can only imagine the controversy and the discussions that happened with whether or not it’s demonstration.

Alison: So when you look at the Journal of Olympic Historians, which I did a little bit for this only in the controversy, lots of articles about should it be called a demonstration sport?

Should it be a full participation? So this was, you know, when you get into really niche areas and professors argue about this stuff. And they get incredibly passionate military patrol brings us out of Olympic historians. I know what to bring up at the Olympic historian cocktail party to really get it going,

but back to the competition. So six countries competed Switzerland, Finland, France, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Poland. Each team consisted of four men, an officer. A sergeant or non commissioned officer, depending on which article I looked at that, that was referred to both ways. And then two soldiers or privates, again, they were referred to in, in different ways.

They skied together as a team for 30 kilometers with full military uniform, their weaponry and their backpacks. Oh wow. That had to be heavy. The officer carried a pistol and the other three carried a rifle. Okay. You stop at the midway point where three of the team members, so not the officer with the pistol, everybody who’s got the rifles, would shoot at balloons at a distance of 250 meters.

Jill: Wow. That is a long way to shoot. And did they describe the balloons?

Alison: They did not. I don’t know. I, from the pictures, I mean, we’re not talking a latex party balloon. I think it was more like a, like the balloon you would go up in a basket, like something a little heartier. Okay.

And you got 18 shots. And for each successful shot, 30 seconds would be deducted from the team’s final time. That’s significant. It is significant. But it’s also

Jill: a very

Alison: hard shot. Well, I don’t know why the officer carried a pistol when he never used it. He didn’t do any of the shooting. Um, but maybe for authenticity, because obviously the officer would have a weapon when you went out on military patrol.

So as we’ve discussed pretty much with every story, whether it was warm and rainy in the weeks leading up to the games, the ice rink melted, the snow was all slush. But then in the few days before the games. We had a huge snow storm. The sun came out. Temperatures dropped well below zero. I saw, contemporary reports where they were saying 15 below.

Holy cow. In Fahrenheit. So it was cold. And because of all of this, the skiing course was icy, uneven, and some teams really considered it treacherous, particularly the Italians who could not finish the race because of the conditions. Interesting. But this is

Jill: military patrol. So you would think the military doesn’t get to choose what terrain it has to go patrol.

If you’re stuck with this, you’re stuck with

Alison: this. Well, the Italians said, no, we’re not doing this anymore. So Poland also had to withdraw midway through the competition because Cispan Witkowski fainted during the race. I don’t know at what point, that was a little unclear and he seemed to recover enough because the next day he competed in the 50 kilometer cross country ski event.

Okay. Did finish last of the competitors who finished, but to his credit, there was a good 10 competitors who did not finish that 50 kilometer cross country ski. we’ll get to that race in the coming months. That’s, that’s a whole, literally a whole other story.

And to add to the confusion, the entire French Olympic team, it was reported, was suffering from various levels of illness. It was reported that this was because the team had been housed in military barracks where the residents had had an outbreak of flu. Ooh. Ooh. Ooh. So, was the bedding not sanitized? Was the barracks not cleaned properly?

Probably not. So, all these athletes were, quote, coughing, spitting, handkerchiefs permanently in their hands.

Jill: Huh. They really got the authentic military patrol experience.

Alison: Yeah. And it wasn’t, it wasn’t just the military patrol team. It was several of the French Olympians because they were all being housed in these barracks.

And as we know, if you’ve ever lived in group housing, one person goes down. Everybody’s going down hard to fire a shot with your handkerchief in your hand while you’re spitting and coughing. Okay. So day of the race comes teams are sent out from the Olympic stadium at 3 minute intervals. Very similar to what we see in, in biathlon and cross country skiing today.

The Finns started first and they completed the ski first. The Swiss team left last from the stadiums 15 minutes after the Finns, but they managed to overtake France and Czechoslovakia and came into the stadium second. The Finns hit the balloon targets 11 times out of their 18 shots. The Swiss only hit eight, but their speed Save them. Switzerland wins the gold, Finland the silver, France in their depleted sixth state managed to eke out the bronze, even though they only hit two targets.


So the team from Finland has the most interesting characters. So Ville Matilla. Is often forgotten to history because he was a last minute replacement for another ill teammate, Marty Lapalainen. And I really do apologize with these Finnish names. I’m, I’m trying, I’m trying listener Manu, I’m trying. , so in some places you will see, Lapalainen’s name listed as the medalist.

Oh, interesting. Contemporary reports say no, Matilla was there. And when you look at photographic evidence. It seems like Matilla was the person who actually did the skiing on the day. Their officer, the Finns officer, Vaino Bremmer also competed in the 1924 summer Olympics in modern pentathlon where he finished ninth.

But that’s not the only interesting little fun thing about Bremmer. He was a captain in the Finnish air force and he led the first Finnish air acrobatics team. Whoa. He also attempted some daring long distance flights to, South Africa, to the Philippines. He was sort of the, , Charles Lindbergh of Finland.


Jill: It’s, it’s almost surprising that the IOC didn’t decide to award, an aviation medal. Right? Because,

Alison: you know, who cares if we compete at the Olympics? Though his end is a bit sad and probably ironic. He did, in fact, die in a plane crash, trying to land on Christmas Eve, 1964 in very poor conditions.

Several of the competitors that you see, you see their names popping up throughout Olympics in 28 and 32 competing in cross country, ski jumping, Nordic combined, though none ever won another medal.

Jill: Interesting. and I’m guessing none really ever competed in military patrol again.

Alison: Well, no, that’s actually not true because it was then a demonstration sport in 28.

And then came back in 36 and 48, though, again, the format was slightly different. I don’t think there were balloons. It was more target. I’m not, and they didn’t always have the officer sergeant to, to private, to grunt soldiers with them. Maybe the pistol was for if people got out of line. I don’t know.

Jill: I don’t know.

It’s, it’s such an interesting event that we. Don’t think about today, but again, as we talked about previously with figure skating and how that had a lineage, it sounds like this, you know, has a different lineage leading up to what we call biathlon today.

Alison: Right. A lot of people talk about biathlon now as being born out of biathlon.

the mountain patrols in Scandinavia, but it’s actually more complicated than that because even as early as the 1920s, we’d have this idea of competing with skiing and shooting. Interesting.

Jill: Well, this is another fascinating story from Chamonix. Let’s give a shout out to our sources.

Alison: So, we’ve got olympics.

com, Olympedia, Inside the Games, CBC Sports, Chamonix Mont Blanc, their official city site, which is so much fun if you want to see some great pictures, and as I mentioned, the Journal of Olympic Historians.

Jill: All right. Excellent. Thank you so much. And we will look forward to another story next month.