A Brief History
On January 25, 1924, Chamonix in the Southeastern part of France hosted the first iteration of the modern Olympic Winter Games. The ancient Greeks had held Olympic Games from about the 8th Century BC and continued to hold the games until the 4th Century AD. The Olympic Games were revived in 1894, with the establishment of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the first Modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece in 1896. The holding of a separate Winter version of the Olympic Games finally became a reality with the inaugural Winter Olympics in 1924.
Since 1896 the Olympic Games have been held every 4 years, with the exception of 1916, during World War I and 1940 and 1944, during World War II. Starting in 1924, the Summer and Winter Olympics were held during the same year, every 4 years, until a decision reached in 1986 rescheduled the upcoming 1992 Games as Summer Olympics only, and the Winter Games to be held in 1994. Since that time, the Summer and Winter Games are still held at 4 year intervals, but the Summer and Winter Olympics occur on even numbered years with a 2 year span between each Summer and Winter Olympics.
The first Winter Olympic Games in 1924 would hardly be recognizable to television viewers today, with only bobsleigh, curling, ice hockey, Nordic skiing and ice skating. (Skiing included Military Patrol, Cross country, Ski jump, and Nordic combined, while ice skating included speed skating and figure skating.) Many of the familiar sports we are now used to seeing every 4 years would be introduced over the decades, and include such fan favorites as Snow Boarding, Luge, Ice Hockey and Curling. Alpine and Free-Style Skiing are popular events, and “Military Patrol” skiing has been replaced by Biathlon. A few other winter sports have been held as “demonstration” events, a temporary addition to the Games.
Among the many great Olympic athletes that have excelled in the Winter Olympic events, the athlete that has won the most Winter Olympic Medals is Ole Einar Bjorndalen, of Norway. This incredible King of the Biathlon has won 8 Gold Medals, 4 Silver Medals, and 1 Bronze Medal over the course of the 6 Winter Olympic Games he has competed in (1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014). Not surprisingly, given the Norwegian terrain and climate, the second highest Winter Olympic Medal winning athlete is also from Norway, Cross-Country skier Bjorn Daehlie, who has amassed 8 Gold Medals and 4 Silver Medals in his chosen sport. Norwegians dominate the top medal winning ranks, along with other Northern countries such as Finland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Canada, The Netherlands, Russia/Soviet Union and Sweden. The country boasting the second highest total number of Winter Olympic Medals? The Good Old USA! The top Medal winning American Winter Olympian is Speed Skater Apolo Anton Ohno, with 2 Gold Medals, 2 Silver Medals and 4 Bronze Medals in his trophy case. (Note: The author of this article has been to Norway and can attest to the extreme beauty of the land and the people there.) Some American Winter Olympians have become favorites of the American public, including Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Brian Boitano and Scott Hamilton from Figure Skating, Lindsey Vonn from Skiing, and Shaun White, the greatest Snowboarder of all time. (Americans seem to really, really dig figure skating!)
The next Winter Olympic Games are to be held in Beijing, China, in 2022. Beijing will then become the only city to ever host both a Summer and a Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, as with the Summer Games, politics often casts a shadow over the Olympic Games, though the 2018 Winter Olympics held in South Korea went off surprisingly well with the participation of athletes from North Korea. Also, as with the Summer Olympic Games, the Winter Olympics has been plagued by athletes testing positive for banned substances, most notably those representing Russia, leading to a suspension of the Russian Olympic Team, although some Russian athletes have been allowed to compete.
Questions for Students (and others): What are your favorite Winter Olympic events? Do you prefer the Summer or Winter Olympics? Who is your favorite Winter Olympian?
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For more information, please see…
Jenner, Marc. Inside the Winter Olympic Games: History of the Winter Olympics. Amazon Digital Services, 2012.
Macy, Sue. Freeze Frame: A Photographic History of the Winter Olympics. National Geographic, 2006.
The featured image in this article, a Swedish photograph of Gillis Grafström, who won an Olympic gold in Chamonix, is in the public domain in Sweden because one of the following applies:
- The work is non-artistic (journalistic, etc.) and has been created before 1 January 1969 (SFS 1960:729, § 49a).
- The photographer is not known, and cannot be traced, and the work has been created before 1 January 1949 (SFS 1960:729, § 43).