How did the Winter Olympics begin? We’ve got the story for you in our new Games History Moment (GHM) show, which for 2024 will focus on the first Winter Olympics that took place in Chamonix, France, in 1924.

The origin story has drama, competition, backtracking, and throwing people under the bus–which goes to show that the International Olympic Committee has had telenovela-esque situations since its early days.

Alison explores how winter sports were an element in some of the very early Summer Olympics and how World War I impacted the introduction of even more winter sports. The Nordic Games–and its instant success–was also a key factor in how the Winter Olympics came to be, as was a marketing scheme put together by the organizers of the Paris 1924 Summer Olympics.

Sources for this episode:

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


Photo: Project Gutenberg

TRANSCRIPT

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Games History Moment (GHM): Chamonix 1924: The Story Behind the Winter Olympics

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Jill:

Hello, Olympics and Paralympics fans, and welcome to Keep the Flame Alive’s history moment where we look at the 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, Alison Brown.

Alison, hello, how are you?

Alison: Bonjour. Bonjour. Comment ça va? Bien. Yes, so we’re talking Chamonix. Oui. And we’re going way back in time. So I’m going to mention sources a little bit. Um, for this time around, we’ve got Olympedia, olympics. org, and a great little article I found called, Isn’t it true that the top of Mount Olympus is covered in snow?

Pierre Couperdin and the Winter Olympic Games by Sebastian Kuhn will throw a We’ll link to that in the show notes, but we’re going back to how did we end up with a Winter Olympics? So Chamonix 1924 was technically not the first Winter Olympics. The Winter Olympics was not called that until, uh, the IOC meeting in June, 1925 and winter sports had appeared in the Olympics in London, 1908 with figure skating and ice hockey in Antwerp, 1920.

Okay. So what exactly was Chamonix 1924? Well, the idea of a Winter Olympics was part of the beginning, part of the very idea of the Olympic movement, and its first advocate was Victor Balck. He was a Swede, and he was part of the first Olympic Congress in 1894. He became very close to Pierre de Couperin.

So we’ve got a Swede and a Frenchman. Always a good start to a story. Balk was also president of the International Skating Union, and he pushed for skating to be added to the program from the start. It finally made it in 1908, not by any great lobbying, but because London had an artificial ice rink available.

Unlike previous host cities, but the skating competition took place in October, months after most of the rest of the competition had ended.

Jill: Oh my goodness. It’s just kind of like, oh, here’s an add on. We’ll call it Olympics.

Alison: Right. Because they had an artificial ice rink. It didn’t really work in June. Had to be a little chillier.

So it also seems from everything I read that de Couverton was not a huge fan of winter sports. He liked his competition to have a real world application. So he was a fan of Military Patrol, as it was called back in the day, which looks a lot like today’s Biathlon. But Luge and Bobsled, he called, quote, worthless and useless.

Really? He said they were useless.

Jill: Whoa. That is, that is a hot take, Pierre.

Alison: And every time the idea of let’s do a Winter Olympics come, came up, de Coubertin would say no. And if he’s saying no, you know, it’s going to not happen at this point in Olympic history. So Balk turned to his Scandinavian comrades and formed the Nordic Games.

It was first competed 1901, and it showcased winter sports and promoted tourism to Sweden. The idea that is that it would travel around the different Scandinavian capitals. And the first edition was extremely successful and Duke Couperton began to warm to the idea of including winter sports in the Olympics, which really 1908.

Yet, once he sees somebody encroaching on his territory, right, he starts looking at it different.

Jill: And shocking that the Nordic games were popular.

I mean, you get a bunch of Swedes and, and Norwegians and Finns just throwing snow at each other. That’s good times. And the Nordic Games were successful. Until politics came into the mix.

Alison: So Norway broke away from the Swedish crown and boycotted the 1905 edition. The Swedes, in turn, refused to invite the Norwegians to the 1909 edition. Full participation of the Nordic Games was to be restored for the 1913 edition. But there was still a lot of tension.

Jill: Meanwhile, Finland’s sitting over in the corner, just, we’ll be there.

Alison: We’ll show up. So Stockholm, if you remember, hosted the 1912 Olympics and that seemed like a great opportunity to include more winter sports or even organize a whole Winter Olympic edition. But Sweden did not want a Winter Olympics because it was holding the Nordic Games in 1913.

Oh, interesting. So many members of the IOC started to support the idea, but DeCouperton was still not keen. He was really worried about spreading the Olympic ideal too thin. He wanted the Olympics as they existed to really gain traction before we start doing other things.

Jill: You know, that’s not a bad line of thinking , because again, how many times are we, we running into, Oh, there’s an Olympics here.

Oh, I guess I’ll show up and play. Or the athlete who did not realize they were in the Olympics and won.

So instead for Stockholm, Jakob Burton added modern pentathlon. So useful, but it came from a. Useful idea as a soldier and an art competition. Which by the way, did Couperin won himself a medal?

Jill: Right, right. But that’s really, he added the art competitions in order to like kind of stall the winter

Alison: games. That you have to read into his soul a little bit. Okay. But the idea of making it a bigger event was very popular. Okay. So let’s throw the art competition in, and by the way, here’s some art and poetry for the competition.

But I put it in anonymously. Now at this point, Bulk. He changed his mind about the Winter Olympics because he had created the Nordic Games and that was his baby. So he thought if they got sucked into the Winter Olympics, the Nordic Games would collapse, which is in fact what happened. The last Nordic Games were competed in 1926.

Oh. So We still haven’t given up. Organizers for Berlin 1916 proposed the skiing Olympia to happen in the Black Forest, but obviously that idea was canceled with the rest of those games because of World War One. So after the war when the IOC met in 1921. The idea of a winter sports festival came up.

Pierre is stubborn, but he sees the writing on the wall and he says, okay, you know what? This is an important discussion. We’re going to have a separate Congress to talk about this. And then it just never happened.

So in 1922, the French Olympic Committee, who would be hosting the Games in Paris in 1924, proposed an event to showcase skiing, skating, and ice hockey. So those federations got together with the French Olympic Committee and said, let’s do something. Let’s put on a show in the barn. And the Swiss and the Canadian Olympic Committee jumped on board and the IOC begrudgingly agreed to provide special patronage for the event.

The Swedes and Norwegians agreed to this, but only if the word Olympic would not be used and the medals would be distinct from the ones awarded in Paris.

Jill: Interesting. in a way, the Winter Games was really designed to kind of get people excited about Paris 2024, the Summer Olympics.

Alison: Exactly. And remember at this point we had St. Louis and London and these games that lasted months, you know, that weren’t happening in this 17 day span that we’re used to. So if you’ve got winter , events happening in January, February. Why isn’t that just part of the Paris games, but they had to distinctly call it this winter festival.

Interesting. So we get a name. You’re going to love this and you’re going to love my attempt at the French. La Semaine Internationale des Sports Divers de Chamonix. Ooh, la la. Or Chamonix Week of International Winter Sports. It ran from January 24th to February 4th, 1924. 260 athletes on 16 teams competed in 16 events, showcasing the best that winter sports had to offer at the time.

The festival looked much like the Olympics. There was an opening ceremony with a parade of nations, an athlete’s oath, there was a closing ceremony. There were medals that, when you look at them, really don’t look that different from the Paris medal. Except instead of a Greek god on it, you have a man wearing skis and holding skates and other winter things on it.

But it clearly is an Olympic medal. And despite their initial resistance, Norway and Finland cleaned up and talked to the medal table and estimated 10, 000 spectators paid for tickets. Not bad. There were many more free, , tickets available, so their people watched a lot of the events. They don’t have a precise count.

They just know how many tickets were sold. And the event cost 3 million francs, but those 10, 000 tickets are the only money they made. Wow.

Jill: That is some effort to put into advertising.

Alison: But it was considered a great success. So, of course, Pierre de Couperin had some lovely things to say at the closing ceremonies, and I quote, Winter sports are among the purest, and that is why I was so eager to see them take their place in a definitive way amongst Olympic events.

They will help us to keep a watchful eye on the athletic ideal. to keep it from all evil. In practice, there are, of course, great difficulties in carrying out this plan, but an initial experience like this one we have just had is a precious advantage. Wow.

So, at the IOC Congress in 1925, Pierre de Coupertin retired. He was succeeded by Henri de Bella Latour, and Count Bella Latour had no objection to the Winter Olympics, and the membership, because of de Coupertin’s retirement and kind of change of tune at the closing ceremony, decided to change the charter.

The Winter Olympics became official and would run the same four year cycle as the Summer Olympics until 1994. And the IOC retroactively proclaimed the festival in Chamonix, the first Winter Olympics, in 1926, at the same time that it awarded the second Winter Olympics. to San Moritz for 1928. Wow. One little note on that proclamation, which I just cannot pass up.

In the 1925 proclamation, they did not call Chamonix the first Winter Olympics. Wasn’t part of the notes. But they blamed the secretary, who was taking the minutes, saying that that was supposed to be in the proclamation. But the secretary made a mistake. Wow.

Jill: Throwing people under the bus since 1924.

Alison: So they basically just started referring to it. As the first Winter Olympics and in the proclamation for, , San Moritz, that was made in 1926. They said, Oh, this is going to be the second one kind of after the great success of the first one in Chamonix.

Jill: That is so interesting that they, that the IOC basically got forced into adding this event on their calendar

Alison: and at first it was going to be kind of part of the summer and the original intent was that it would always be hosted by the same country and we’ll see that happening a few times, throughout.

that changes as it goes along and the Winter Olympics becomes its own entity.

Jill: Fascinating. Well, I am excited to hear stories from this first Winter Olympic Sports Festival. Not quite an Olympics yet, but we’ll retroactively call them one.

Alison: And so next time we’re going to get into the competition, but not any competition that actually happened in Chamonix.

Jill: Ooh, I’m looking forward to hearing that. on that note, we will, , close this episode. Thank you so much for listening, and until next time, keep the flame alive.

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