The ‘First’ Winter Olympics
The year was 1924. The place was Chamonix, a French Alpine town just below the snowy slopes of Mont Blanc. There, a global sporting tradition began—albeit modestly. At the time, the event was called La Semaine Internationale des Sports d’Hiver — International Winter Sports Week. The following year, the International Olympic Committee retroactively christened Chamonix 1924 as the first modern Winter Games.
Nearly a century later, the Winter Olympics’ outsize influence is readily apparent. For 16 days every four years, winter sports — many of which attract only niche audiences during the other three years and 349 days — capture the attention of the world. These include the glamorized sports of downhill skiing, figure skating, and ice hockey — alongside the decidedly less–romanticized events of bobsled, biathlon, and curling.
Of course, today’s wall–to–wall NBC coverage of the Winter Olympics would probably be unfathomable to the small audience of 10,000 spectators in Chamonix. It begs the question—just how did these ice–themed Olympics come to be?
As it turns out, part of the answer lies in the story of a fierce competition between rival international sports championships—the Olympics and the little–remembered Nordic Games. In this fight, you could say that the Olympics took home the gold — and the Nordic Games didn’t even medal.
And to understand that conflict—we’ll have to go all the way back to Ancient Greece.
The Ancient Games
As is well–known, in Ancient Greece, athletes from rival city–states laid down their arms and traveled to Olympia every four years to compete in athletic games.
At these classical Olympics, the Hellenic athletes competed in events remarkably similar to some of the sports we still have today — track and field, wrestling, boxing, and chariot racing. (Well, maybe not chariot racing).
There were some key differences in how the old games were played, however. For one, the athletes were all men. Two — they all competed in the nude. Three — during the hot Peloponnesian summer, these athletes definitely weren’t speed skating.
The Olympic dream(s)
Fast forward two thousand–plus years, and interest in creating a new Olympic Games began to take hold across Europe.
In the middle of the 19th century, several national Olympiads were held in Athens to promote Greece’s newly–earned nationhood (having achieved its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832).
In 1866, inspired by the Greek Olympic revival, a British surgeon named William Penney Brookes spearheaded his own ‘Olympics’ in London, but wasn’t able to attract enough interest and financial support to sustain the event. Despite these setbacks, Brookes started to dream bigger—he wanted to start an international Olympics based in Athens. Still, the dream languished, at least until 1890, when the 81-year-old doctor invited a youthful, aristocratic Parisian to visit him in England.
The Frenchman’s name was Pierre, Baron de Coubertin. He had met Brookes to discuss his interest in a career of physical education—seemingly unaware of the dream he would adopt and claim for his own.
After his meeting with Brookes, however, Coubertin became a driving force in founding the Olympic Games—which would become his life’s work and legacy. In 1892, he proposed a new international Olympics at a Paris sports club—without acknowledging Brookes or the earlier Greek Olympiads.
By 1894, Coubertin had established the International Olympic Committee. The first event was supposed to be in Paris to coincide with a world’s fair scheduled for 1900—but that was six long years away.
To speed up the process, the IOC decided the first Games should be held in 1896—and fittingly, in Athens.
The first modern Olympics capitalized on Greece’s ancient past. From the ruins of a classical, all–marble stadium in Athens, an expensive construction project resurrected antiquity in the form of the Kallimarmaro (‘beautiful marble’) stadium, which hosted the first official Olympic Games in 1896.
At those storied games, German, French and American athletes dominated — to the chagrin of the host nation, Greece. But then came the world’s first marathon — in its international debut as an event — meant to retrace the path of a legendary runner of antiquity, Pheidippides.
In 490 B.C., Pheidippides supposedly ran about 26 miles (from the Plain of Marathon to Athens) to report that the Athenians had miraculously defeated the Persians in battle. After he went the distance and delivered the message, he died instantly. At least, that’s how the story goes.
To the benefit of the new Olympics’ growing mystique, the first modern marathon inadvertently created a new legend of its own. An unknown Greek “water carrier” named Spyridon Louis won the race handily, crossing the finish line seven minutes ahead of his rivals. In fact, Louis was so far ahead, that six miles before the finish, he stopped at a village to have a glass of cognac.
Louis became the pride of Greece, and the modern Olympics was born in spectacular fashion. But not without rivals.
The Nordic Games cometh
Important to note for our history of the Winter Games is that—in large part, Scandinavians were among the original pioneers of winter sports more generally. In the words of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard in The New York Times:
“The oldest ice skates that anyone has found so far were made in Finland 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, which is to say 800 years before the Trojan War depicted by Homer in the ‘Iliad.’”
So, whereas Greco–Roman civilization—and by extension the 19th century Western imperial powers who considered themselves its heirs—linked their lineage to the classical origin of Olympic track and field events, the development of ice–related sports was intrinsically related to the Nordic countries. And claim them they did.
In 1901, just five years after Athens 1896, the Swedish Central Association for the Promotion of Sports (SCFIF) launched the Nordic Games, which took place mostly in Stockholm and were usually held every four years. As such, the Nordic Games were initially invented as a winter sports–counterpart to the Olympics, but they were also created in the context of pan–Nordic nationalism.
In fact, the Scandinavian geopolitical situation at the time was quite removed from the ‘Bernie Sanders–touted paradise’ we are familiar with today. Sweden controlled Norway from 1814 (the end of the Napoleonic Wars) — to 1905. Finland was under Russian control until the Revolution of 1917. During all this time, Denmark was just, shall we say (for the purposes of this article)— chilling.
Despite these geopolitical differences, there was a nationalist idea that the Scandinavians shared a common background and culture. As historian Per Jørgensen summarizes:
“Its basic elements were a nostalgic belief that the Nordic countries had a common glorious past, that the Nordic peoples had a special moral quality and that a splendid future would result when the Nordic ‘tribes’ forgot the bickering and squabbling of former times and stood together, shoulder to shoulder.”
In turn, the Nordic Games sought to promote this form of Scandinavian solidarity through a display of the region’s top–flight winter sports talents. These Sweden–based championships included many of the traditional winter sports events we know from the modern Winter Olympics—featuring downhill skiing, ski jumping, speed skating, and ice hockey, but they also incorporated some downright oddball events.
According to historian Ron Edgeworth, the list of idiosyncratic events included “skeleton sleighing behind horses, skiing behind reindeers, different forms of military sports, car racing, motorcycle racing, ballooning, kick–sled and pulka racing.”
(In case you are wondering: ‘kick–sled’ was a type of sled that worked kind of like a Razor scooter—propelled by an athlete’s legs—and ‘pulka racing’ was a form of dog–sled racing).
A Swedish military officer named Viktor Balck—in some ways, a foil to the IOC’s Coubertin—was the instrumental figure behind the Nordic Games. In 1912, he secured Stockholm as the location of the 5th Olympiad. No winter sports were involved, however, as the Olympics were meant to complement the Nordic Games—and definitely not replace them.
The Nordic Games even attained an edge against the Olympics in the 1910s due to a very important reason: neutrality.
Sweden, Denmark and Norway were neutral during the First World War. So while the 1916 Olympics were cancelled for ‘inclement war conditions,’ the Nordic Games went on strong. By 1922, a large contingent of non–Swedes competed for the first time — this group included the recently–independent Finns and nearby Norwegians, but it also involved Austrians, Czechoslovakians, the French, Germans and Romanians.
And so it seemed that the Nordic Games were on track to become an institutional counterpart to the Olympics. Their success, however, was put to the test — and eventually ‘iced out’ — by the IOC’s growing ambitions.
The Olympic expansion
For the first several Olympics, the games themselves were somewhat ‘lost in the shuffle,’ since they were held alongside worlds’ fairs in Paris and St. Louis. But the Games steadily gained in popularity. And despite Scandinavian objections, the Olympics gradually added winter sports to their program. At London’s 1908 Games, a figure skating competition was held, and ice hockey was added at Antwerp in 1920.
Then came Chamonix.
In late January 1924, ahead of the summer Olympics to be held in Paris — the aforementioned “Winter Sports Week” took place in Chamonix.
Bobsled, cross country skiing, curling, figure skating, ice hockey, the Nordic Combined, ski jumping, speed skating and “military patrol” — similar to modern biathlon — were the chosen events.
While still recognizable today as a winter sports championship, writing in Slate in 2014, Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo noted some of the stylistic differences of a winter games held in the Roaring Twenties:
“Competitors’ attire was less slick and aerodynamic than we see today, with the look perhaps best described as Great Gatsby on Ice.”
All told, 250 athletes from 16 countries participated. Eleven women competed in the only winter event they were yet allowed to — figure skating. (Over the course of Olympic history, various sports have gradually admitted female competitors, though not in a systematized way until the 1990s. One of the longest holdouts — ski jumping — finally allowed women in 2014.)
Still, the female competitors of Chamonix included the eleven-year-old Norwegian Sonja Henie, who, despite finishing last in the 1924 standings — later became one of the most celebrated figure skaters in history.
Other curiosities were on display at Chamonix — during the ‘Opening Ceremonies’ parade, athletes were required to wear or carry their equipment—which meant lugging their heavy skis, poles, hockey sticks, and skates.
And so, despite some of the eccentric qualities of the events, a tectonic shift in winter sports had begun. After the conclusion of the 1924 Games, Coubertin praised the Chamonix events, explaining that it was the intrinsic ‘purity’ of winter sports’ that motived him to “nurture them in this Olympic environment.”
In 1925, basking in the afterglow of Chamonix’s success, the IOC amended its charter to include a provision for a continued Winter Games in tandem with the Summer events, as well as to recognize Chamonix as the first official Winter Olympics.
This blow to the Nordic Games was compounded in 1928, when Balck, the main promoter of the Nordic Games, died, and with him — nearly all ambition for the Nordic Games’ continuation. The subsequent 1930 Nordic Games were abruptly cancelled due to poor weather, and World War II doomed a prospective 1942 revival.
And while the Olympics returned after World War II as the 1948 London Games, the Nordic Games never did.
The games of winter
While the Winter Olympics started many years after the Summer Games, in truth several Olympic traditions joined the fold later than many realize—the famous torch relay wasn’t incorporated until the 1936 Berlin Olympics (otherwise known as Hitler’s Olympics). 50 years after that, the IOC decided to separate the Winter and Summer Olympics so that they would occur on alternating four–year cycles—thus maximizing international attention.
In the future, the nature of the Winter Games may change yet again, as The New York Times reported earlier this year that, due to climate change, many former locations of the Winter Games may be too warm to host winter sports by 2050.
Whatever the case may be, our modern Winter Olympics owes some debt to its early conflict with the Nordic Games — and the unprecedented success of a little winter sports week in Chamonix.