Keep the Flame Alive podcast presents Games History Moment: Chamonix 1924. Graphic features a picture of men climbing a mountain in the 1920s.

Chamonix 1924: Mountain Climbing Was an Olympic Sport

Release Date: February 20, 2024

Ski mountaineering will be joining the winter Olympic program for Milano-Cortina 2026 but this is not the first time mountain climbing will award Olympic medals. At the first Winter Olympics (though don’t call it that yet), members of the Olympic Congress decided to award medals for climbing the greatest mountains in the world, even though it wasn’t an actual Olympic competition that took place during these Games.

What?!?

Alison explains how and why the Olympics awarded medals in Alpinism, including the fact that the team who won this award was truly a mixed-country team, the likes of which we don’t really see very often in Olympic history.

Sources for this episode:

 

Thanks so much for listening, and until next time, keep the flame alive!

Photo: Project Gutenberg


TRANSCRIPT

Note: This is an uncorrected machine-generated transcript and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the audio. Do not quote from the transcript; use the audio as the record of note.

Games History Moment GHM: Chamonix 1924: Alipinism (GHM Episode 2)

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Jill: Hello Olympics and Paralympics fans and welcome to Keep the Flame Alive 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’m your host, Jill Jaracz, joined as always by my lovely co-host and a leader of this.

endeavor. Alison Brown. Alison, hello. How are you? Bonjour.

Alison: Bonjour. I know it’s like the one French word I can say with confidence. Oh, I know what snowing is and snowing is a big part of the story. So.

Jill: Excellent. What do you have for us?

Alison: Okay. So let’s talk sources. We got a lot of sources this time.

We got OnlyMadMed, Olympedia, olympics. com, the National Library of Australia, the Guardian, and the BBC. Oh, okay. We’ve got pieces from all over the place. So, we were just talking about ski mountaineering, and ski mountaineering will be joining the Winter Olympic program for Milan Cortina in 2026, but this is not the first time mountain climbing will award an Olympic medal.

Ha! Though! It will be the first time the competition actually takes place during the Winter Olympics.

Jill: Okay. Okay. Now I’m confused.

Alison: Perfect. From the first Olympic Congress in 1894, members discussed ways of awarding medals for climbing the greatest mountains in the world. That was a big thing happening among rich Europeans at the time.

It was never proposed to be a competition that would take place like a road race or a swimming event. And the first of these awards was presented at the closing ceremony during the Chamonix Winter Sports Festival, don’t call it an Olympics, to Lieutenant Colonel Edward Strutt. Also known as Bill, because, you know, Bill is a nickname for Edward.

You’ll see that name both ways in different sources. And he received a medal for alpinism on behalf of his climbing team. It’s unclear whether any other teams were discussed or nominated, or how many of Strutt’s team was present to receive their medals. Or even if there were multiple medals awarded.

Jill: I’m still so confused at how this came about.

Alison: Okay, so, in 1922, Brigadier Charles Granville Bruce led a team, that included Strutt, on three attempts to summit Mount Everest. The expedition did not reach the top of the highest mountain on Earth, and the third attempt proved tragic. A Nepalese guide, Tejbir Bura, and seven Sherpas were killed in an avalanche.

These names And those of the 12 Brits and one Australian climbers were all included as part of this Olympic medal. Okay. Research about the expedition suggests that over 160 people were involved, but most of those were Nepalese and Sherpa and Indians, so they were forgotten.

Jill: Also makes sense. Sad, but makes sense.

Alison: In 1924, the only names that were on the award were the Europeans. The others were added as part of our favorite Congress, which actually made it a Winter Olympics. So when you see the medal table for 1924, you see these 12 Brits, 1 Australian, 7 Indians, which is what the Sherpa were categorized at the time, and 1 Nepalese.

It’s referred to in the records as a mixed team. Okay. And that makes it the only time a mixed team was awarded a medal for a single event.

Jill: I’m still so confused.

Alison: So the idea was these people did this amazing thing trying to climb Everest. The Olympics celebrates the greatest of human achievement. We’re going to give these guys a medal

Jill: far out, and they didn’t even know they were going to get one.

Alison: Well, they did know they were going to get one once 1924 came.

Okay, the team was informed, and they knew, but we don’t know how many people of this team showed up what we certainly know that there’s you know 160 other Sherpa Nepalese and Indians who we don’t know their names, they should have been on the metal and they were part of the expedition. We only know the ones who were killed.

Jill: Wow.

Alison: Which I guess is good that at least those names were recorded. Now you may argue with me about this mixed team thing, and people have because of the unified team in Albertville. And so those were considered mixed teams. The Olympics says no, that that was intended to be a single country, the Soviet Union.

Jill: Right. And they only had like six months to figure out what to do.

Alison: Not even. I think it was more like three months. so this battle for the winter Olympics is unique in that you’ve got Brits, Australians, Nepalese. Interesting. Interesting.

Story doesn’t end there.

Jill: Please, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that we didn’t really want an Olympic Games, but since we’re going to have a Winter Olympic Games, let’s give a medal for climbing mountains, and we’re not even going to make it a competition, we’re just going to award a medal post climulously.

Alison: And posthumously, in the case of the poor Sherpas. So, first of all, they did this two more times. Two more of these climbing medals. And awards happened, but that comes to an end in 1936. So we don’t keep doing this. Charles Granville Bruce didn’t make it to the 24 games to receive his medal, even though he was the leader of the expedition, because he was planning to go back to Everest in 1924.

Wow. Unfortunately, before reaching base camp, he was struck down with malaria and he never returned to the mountains. Aww. He’s not the only one. On this group, that’s got some things that I could not resist sharing with you. So the one Australian George Finch was on the 1922 team and he developed the oxygen system that was eventually used by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay when they reached the top of Everest in 1953.

And you will hear Hillary reference George Finch and the development of this system. However, Finch was not a favorite among the British climbing society. He was kind of a rebel. He didn’t go to Cambridge. He was Australian. So he was banned for further expeditions. So he didn’t go in 1924 and he quit climbing in 1931 and Focused his works as a scientist.

Wow! Oh wait, there’s more! Oh my! He also thought he was the father of actor Peter Finch. Famous for Network. Oh my goodness! I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. But it turns out George’s first wife Alice had had an affair when George was off fighting World War I and Peter Finch wasn’t his son.

Jill: Whoa! Holy cow!

Alison: George Finch’s climbing partner in the 1922 expedition, George Mallory, was lost on the 1924 climb. And his body was not found until 75 years later. Wow! When a team was specifically sent to try and recover his and his partner’s body. Because he had tried to climb but had been lost. There is some debate as to whether Mallory actually made it to the top.

Okay. There’s a good amount of evidence that said he did summit. But obviously because he never came back. We’ll never know.

Jill: Oh, wow.

Alison: We got more another one of the British climbers Henry Moore’s head Continued with his military and engineering service and he was murdered in Burma in 1931 under some crazy Wild circumstances.

There’s a whole book about this, which I am trying to get ahold of the life and murder of Henry Moore’s head. A true story from the days of the Raj. Whoa. By a descendant of his Ian Moore’s head.

Jill: Wow. Intrigue and mystery right there.

Alison: So yeah, it’s available in Australia, so Australians, if you can get your hands on the life and murder of Henry Mooreshead, please send it to me.

And the last little tidbit is Arthur Wakefield, who was the medic on the 1922 climb, did not return to Everest again. He ran a medical practice in England until his death in 1949. In 2012, Arthur’s grandson, Charles, loaned Arthur’s medal to Kenton Coole, British climber, who carried the medal to the top of Mount Everest, fulfilling a promise that Bill Strutt had made to de Couperton when he received a medal in Chamonix in 1924.

Jill: wow, just the whole, the whole story and these early mountain climbing expeditions just had to be so unbelievably. Wild and perilous. And then to get an Olympic medal, who knew?

Alison: And what’s really funny when you look at the records, because at the time, and I don’t know if this is still true, Sherpa, that, tribe does not use family names.

It’s just Sherpa. So when I first looked at the records, I see these seven Indians. named Sherpa winning an Olympic medal in the Winter Games in 1924. I was very confused, which is how I got down this rabbit hole.

Jill: Wow. Well, that was a fascinating one. And just, yeah, can you imagine people trying to? have an Olympic medal for mountain climbing today.

It would just be a total race. Although that could be an event you start at the beginning of the games and who gets to the top of their mountain by the end. Hmm. You never know.

Alison: Well, next time we’re going to get into the actual competitions that happened in Chamonix.

Jill: Excellent. Well, I will look forward to that.

And so I hope you too will look forward to that listeners and thank you so much for listening and until next time, keep the flame alive.

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