January 15, 2014
Winter Olympics – 90 Years On
The very first Winter Olympics were held 90 years ago this month in Chamonix, France. This year’s Winter Olympics, which are to be held in February in Sochi, Russia, will be a very different affair from those initial games. In Sochi there will be 98 events covering 15 winter sports. 87 countries are expected to take part. Major investment had to be made, not just in building the venues, but in bringing the transport and electronic systems, as well as infrastructure and communications, up to date in the local area. The organisers had an estimated starting budget of US $12 billion but, predictably, this has spiralled out of control and the latest “guesstimates” are that the total cost will exceed US $51 billion which will be the most ever spent on this event. Controversy has surrounded the 2014 Games from the beginning. There were allegations of corruption leading to the huge overspend. The Sochi Games are seen as a way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to help shape his legacy, but the leaders of several countries are threatening to boycott the Games over concerns about Human Rights issues. Security for the event is a massive problem for the Russians. After two suicide bombings in Volgograd, which killed 34 people, and threats from Chechen rebels to “use maximum force” to stop the Games, the security forces are on “combat alert”.
Contrast all this with what must have been a much more low key and laid back Games in 1924. Officially known as the “International Winter Sports Week”, the Games saw a mere 16 countries and 258 athletes take part in 16 events from January 25th to February 5th. The opening event, the 500-meter speed skating, saw American Charlie Jetraw win Gold, but the Games were dominated by Norway and Finland who took 28 of the 43 medals up for grabs.
One strange medal award came out of these Games. In 1974, an American, Anders Haugen, was awarded the Bronze Medal for the ski jump event at the age of 83! Fifty years after the Chamonix Games an error had been discovered in the scoring of Thorleif Hauf who had originally “won” the Bronze and the medal was given instead to Haugen who had finished fourth.
An equally remarkable story emerged from the ice hockey event where Canada, a country that had dominated the sport, swept the board destroying all opposition on the way. On their way to Gold (their only medal of the Games) they beat Switzerland 33-0 in the first game. They then went on to demolish Czechoslovakia 30-0 in the second game, beat Sweden 22-0 in the third then, in spite of conceding their first points of the tournament, hammered Great Britain 19-2. In the final, the Canadians took on their arch rivals the United States in a game which turned out to be a lot closer than the previous ones and emerged as victors with a 6-1 triumph.
All eyes will be on Sochi in the coming weeks and not just for the sports. But whatever happens, it should be the latest in a long line of thrilling Winter Olympics that began way back in France all those years ago.
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