Ninety Years and Counting: A Short History of the Winter Games

Posted by Lindsay Krasnoff
February 8, 2014
Women's Cross-Country Skiatholon at 2014 Winter Olympics

Ninety years ago, a week-long winter sports “prelude” to the 1924 Paris Summer Games was held in Chamonix, France, a commune tucked away in the southeastern French Alps. This celebration of snow and ice was later renamed the first “Winter Games” by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The father of the modern Olympic movement, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, wanted the Olympics to incorporate as wide an athletic field as possible. Games played on snow or ice, however, initially presented a challenge. By 1909, technological advances enabled the production of artificial ice. Yet, de Coubertin felt that it was unrealistic to expect science to produce artificial snow of sufficient quality and quantity to last long enough to permit ski competitions over multiple days. “Thus, ice skating,” he wrote, “is the only one of the three big winter sports that could have a place within the Olympics.”

One world war later, this viewpoint changed. In 1921, the IOC decided to include winter sports in the Olympic fold. The following year, Chamonix was selected for its resort capacities: facilities, communications lines, and a guarantee of snow. Despite several weather- and construction-related setbacks, the games opened on January 25, 1924. Over the next 11 days, 258 athletes from 16 nations competed in 16 events.  U.S. speed skater Charles Jewtraw was the first champion of the games in the 500m race. Figure skater Beatrix Loughran was the first female American athlete to medal at a Winter Games, and one of just eleven female athletes to participate at Chamonix.

View of the Olympic Stadium at Chamonix, France, where the Winter Olympics were held in 1924. [AP File Photo]

While the Olympic movement still stands as a symbol of international peace, much has changed since then. Each successive Olympiad is larger than the preceding one. Today, over 3,000 amateur and professional athletes compete for medals in dozens of events, whereas in 1924 all participants were amateurs. The increased presence and reach of international media enables most corners of the globe to watch the festivities and competitions.

During the twentieth century, mediatization of the Olympics politicized the Games. Countries since the 1920s have used the quadrennial competitions to make statements or advance their domestic or international agendas. Athletes at times utilize their moment in the spotlight to advance a political cause. Joy has mixed with tragedy. However, Ssome of the more memorable Olympic moments are unrelated to winning the gold medal. Sometimes they are the excitement of watching compelling competitions. Sometimes they are illustrations of an athlete -- or a country -- overcoming personal or physical hurdles. At the end of the day, the Olympics offer us the chance to better understand other countries and cultures through the shared commonality of sports and the intersection of the human mind and body -- sports diplomacy at its most fundamental level.

About the Author: Lindsay Krasnoff is a historian in the State Department's Office of the Historian. Her academic research focuses on sports history.

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Comments

Aaron C.
|
Texas, USA
February 9, 2014
Victoria Nuland should be fired or forced to resign. She is an embarrassment to the United States. Her stance regarding Benghazi was bad enough. Her attitude toward the EU is unforgivable. I am an American citizen who has lived in Europe and studied European history and diplomacy when I was at Georgetown. I cannot believe such an inept career diplomat has risen to her level. Do what is right and get rid of her -- now.
Greg J.
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Georgia, USA
February 19, 2014

This article is filled with information I never knew. I've been glued to my TV for the past week or so loving every minute of the Winter Olympic Games. For some reason I thought that they have been around for as long as the Summer Games. Now I know. Those black and white photos are such a huge difference compared to the high definition TV I am watching today. How things change over the years. My favorite events to watch are the downhill skiing. Those are just some amazing performers. Not sure why people are so into curling lately. The whole thing is just too slow for my taste. Thanks for the great read. Cheers!

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