The history of the Winter Olympics is filled with stories of stupendous human achievements in sports played on blankets of snow or ice. Held every four years, it is a mega multi-sport carnival that brings together hundreds of athletes from around the world.
The Winter Olympics is technically the winter equivalent of the Olympic Games — the reason the latter is often referred to as the Summer Olympics.
History of the Winter Olympics
A humble start
The London 1908 Olympics, the fourth Olympic Games, included figure skating among the 24 disciplines that were part of the tournament. Figure skating had four events, and Great Britain took six of the 12 medals in contention.
There were no winter sports in any other Olympic Games until the Antwerp 1920 Olympics. This was when figure skating returned and ice hockey was introduced. Great Britain’s hold on figure skating was reduced and the Nordic countries took home most of the medals.
By this time, the total number of disciplines in the Olympic Games had gone up to 28.
The birth of the Winter Olympics
On 5 June 1921, members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) discussed at the seventh Olympic Congress in Lausanne, Switzerland, the possibility of a winter sports version of the Games.
The idea was interesting and had backers in western European countries, but it was met with resistance from Scandinavian nations. Their concern was that the Nordic Games, which had been the most successful multi-nation winter sports tournament until then, would be overshadowed.
One of its most notable objectors was IOC President Pierre de Coubertin himself. According to him, the winter sports were “the snobbish play of the rich.”
However, following deliberations at the Congress, the IOC concluded that an “international week of winter sport” will be held as part of the Paris 1924 Olympics.
This led to another round of discussions in June of the following year in Paris, where the programme and calendar of events were drawn out.
Organisers zeroed in on nine sports: figure skating, ice hockey, curling, Nordic combined, speed skating, bobsleigh, ski jumping, cross-country skiing, and military patrol (the precursor to modern biathlon).
1924 Chamonix Winter Olympics
The IOC picked the town of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc in France as the first host city of the international winter sports week.
Chamonix-Mont-Blanc was chosen precisely because of its popularity among skiers as a resort destination at the foot of Mont Blanc in the French Alps.
The town constructed all the necessary infrastructure related to the Games within a year of signing an agreement with the French Olympic Committee (COF) on 20 February 1923.
On 25 January 1924, the opening ceremony was held at the Olympic rink in the town. The Chamonix town hall hosted the Olympic Parade of Nations and the opening speech was delivered by Count Justinien Clary, President of the COF.
“In spite of all sorts of difficulties, we are ready on the agreed day and at the agreed time,” he noted in his address.
A total of 16 countries participated in the inaugural winter edition of the Games. The nine sports played were sub-divided into 16 events.
Among the 258 athletes who took part, 13 were women and they participated in figure skating — the only sport open to women at the time. Among them was an 11-year-old Norwegian Sonja Henie, who finished last in her event. Henie would become one of the greatest Olympians and figure skaters of all time. She was also an acclaimed Hollywood actress.
Just over 10,000 paying spectators watched the tournament, which ended on 5 February 1924. The tremendous success of the event led to the IOC noting the future of the Winter Olympics. As such, at the 24th IOC Session held in Lisbon in 1926, the IOC retrospectively recognised the 1924 week as the first Winter Olympic Games.
The rise of the Winter Olympics
At the next edition — St. Moritz 1928 Olympics in Switzerland — the ban on Germany, following World War I, was lifted, and the country was allowed to compete. This was also the first Winter Games that witnessed the participation of an Asian country — Japan.
The 1936 Winter Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany was the first to have an Olympic flame. The Summer Olympics had already welcomed the flame in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. It was also the first time that women participated in a sport other than figure skating. This was Alpine skiing in a combined format, which was introduced.
World War II paused both the Summer and Winter Games. Following the end of the war, the Winter Olympics was back at St. Moritz in 1948, making the city the first to host the Winter Games twice. But neither Germany nor Japan was invited to the tournament.
Several notable firsts happened over the decades in the Winter Olympic Games. For instance, the Oslo 1952 Winter Olympics was the first to be opened by a woman — HRH Princess Ragnhild of Norway. The Games were televised live for the first time, and the Soviet Union made its debut at the Cortina d’Ampezzo 1956 Winter Olympics in Italy.
In Grenoble, France, in 1968, an Olympic mascot appeared for the first time in the Winter Games. Japan became the first country in Asia to host the Games in 1972 when it took place in Sapporo.
Until the 1992 edition, which was held in Albertville, France, the Winter Games and Summer Games were held in the same year. In 1986, the IOC decided to hold the two tournaments in different years. Therefore, the XVII edition was held in 1994 at Lillehammer, Norway, just two years after the XVI and the only time when such a difference occurred.
By the time the Winter Olympics reached Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea (South Korea) in 2018, it had become many times larger compared to the inaugural edition. A total of 92 teams made up of 2,833 athletes participated in the Games. Among them were 1,169 women. The total number of sports stood at seven, divided into 15 disciplines, which were further subdivided into 102 events.
According to official Olympics data, the number of volunteers alone was 22,400, and there were 10,898 broadcasters.
The XXIV Olympic Winter Games is the first Winter Games to be held in China. As the host city, Beijing is the first to have hosted both the Summer and the Winter Olympics.
There are 109 events, a record high for Winter Olympics, in 15 disciplines and seven sports. The disciplines are Alpine skiing, bobsleigh, biathlon, cross-country skiing, curling, freestyle skiing, figure skating, ice hockey, luge, Nordic combined, snowboard, ski jumping, skeleton, speed skating, and short track speed skating.
Among the events at the Beijing 2022 Olympics are seven first-timers. The most notable of these is the ski jumping mixed team event, which makes its debut just eight years after women were allowed to compete in ski jumping. Interestingly, it took 90 years for the IOC to open ski jumping for women.
Other events are short-track speed skating mixed relay, freestyle skiing mixed team aerials, snowboard cross mixed team event, women’s monobob, men’s freestyle skiing big air, and women’s freestyle skiing big air.
Norway has been the most successful in the Winter Olympic competition, having won a record 132 Olympic gold medals and 368 overall. Trailing behind is the US with 105 gold out of 307 medals and Germany with 93 gold of 240 medals.
South Korea is the most successful Asian nation with 31 gold medals, followed by Japan with 14 and China with 13.
Hero and Featured images: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP