Image by Vytautas Dranginis

Winter Olympic History and Facts

Winter sports have been a part of the Olympic movement since the early twentieth century however they did not develop into their own individual event until the 1920s.  

On this page you'll find tid-bits of Winter Olympic History as well as links to other fun facts throughout this blog site. 

Image by Nicolai Berntsen

The First Winter Olympiad

On 25 January 1924 the first ever Winter Olympics began however at the time they were not considered to be an Olympic event. It was only after the success of the event that they were retrospectively called an Olympic gathering which meant that the 1928 St. Moritz event was the first to be attended by athletes knowing that they were attending an Olympic event.

The 1924 event was attended by 258 athletes from 16 countries and was held in Chamonix, France. The only non-European countries represented were the USA and Canada. Norway finished supreme at the top of the table (today they remain the top ranked nation on the all-time Winter Olympic table) followed by Finland in second with third placed Austria winning just 3 medals compared to Finland’s 11 and Norway’s 17.

Just 11 women participated in this 1924 event, of which all competed in the figure skating.

Following the success of the event the IOC adjusted the records to make it the first Winter Olympics. This made the 1928 Games in St. Mortiz, Switzerland the first officially held Winter Games but the second in history. From this point until the 1990s the Winter Games would be held every four years, in the same year as the Summer Games.

Image: 1924 Event Poster (olympics.com)

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Image by Nicolai Berntsen

Winter Sports at the 1908 and 1920 Games

The 1908 Olympics

Six months after the London 1908 Olympic Games a figure skating event was held featuring representatives of just six nations. Despite the small number of competitors, it marks the first time that a winter sport was included in the Olympic Games medals.

Four disciplines were competed in: Men’s singles, Men’s special figures, Ladies singles and pairs. Great Britain were victorious claiming six medals across the board including one gold, two silver and three bronze. Sweden, Germany, and Russia each took home gold medals.

This 1908 event was the only time that the Men’s Special figures discipline was competed at an Olympic Games.

The 1920 Olympics

Of the 2,626 athletes at the 1920 Antwerp games in Belgium just 65 were women. They competed in swimming, diving, sailing and figure skating. Twelve of the women took part in the figure skating competition that actually occurred four months prior to the rest of the Olympic Games, so they wouldn’t have participated in the “actual” game festivities.

The skaters at the event represented eight nations and competed in three medal events – men’s, women’s and pair’s skating. Sweden dominated the medals taking home two gold and one silver. 

The other winter sport competed as part of the 1920 Olympics, but again held prior to the actual games, was ice hockey. This event also became the first ever world championships of men’s hockey that is still held annually. Seven nations competed with Canada (the team comprising only members of the Winnipeg Falcons) defeating Sweden in the final.

 
Image by Nicolai Berntsen

What makes a sport specifically Winter?

Answer: 

According to the Olympic Charter it is those “which are practised on snow or ice”. Pretty simple!

The Original Winter Olympic Sports

  • Bobsleigh

  • Curling

  • Ice Hockey

  • Figure Skating

  • Speed Skating

  • Nordic Skiing

    • Military Patrol

    • Cross-Country

    • Nordic Combined

    • Ski Jumping

Interestingly all of these sports are still part of the modern games in one form or another. Military patrol became a demonstration sport at the 1928, 1936 and 1948 games before it developed into what is today known as biathlon which debuted at the 1960 games.

The bobsleigh event has been held every games’ since 1924, except for the 1960 California games when the organisers refused to build a bobsleigh run because just nine nations had indicted they would compete.

12 Feb 1928 Competitors in action during the Skijoering event at the 1928 Winter Olympic G

New Winter Olympic Sports

New sports have been added across the years with Skelton included in 1928 and 1948 before becoming a permanent fixture in 2002. Alpine skiing added in 1936, biathlon added in 1960, luge added in 1964, freestyle skiing and short track speed skating added in 1992 with snowboarding debuting in 1998.​

Demonstration Events

There have been a few different demonstration events held over the years, notably winter pentathlon debuted as a one-off event at the 1948 games. This event included cross-country skiing, shooting, downhill skiing, fencing and horse riding (yes not all were traditional winter sports). The Swedes took a clean sweep of the medals and notably silver medallist Willie Grut attended the Summer Games later that year where he won the Modern Pentathlon. (For more read the blog, click here)

Skijoring (pictured here)

In 1928 skijoring, basically translated from Norwegian as “ski driving”, was a demonstration event and whilst dogs could be used in the sport, horses were used at these games. In fact, this was one of the first-time horses were used. Prior to the introduction of horses to the sport reindeer were used as was the case at the 1901, 1905 and 1909 Nordic Games.

Photo: 12 Feb 1928 Competitors in action during the Skijoering event at the 1928 Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland.  Mandatory Credit IOC Olympic Museum Allsport

 
 
Image by Nicolai Berntsen

DOG SLEDDING AS AN OLYMPIC SPORT - 1932

There are many winter sports out there that include dogs, so it stands to reason that a few dogs have competed in the Winter Olympics.

In 1932 at the Lake Placid, New York Games; a sled dog race was held as a demonstration event. There were 12 entrants all from either Canada or the USA. The event saw two races of 40.5km with six dogs pulling each sled.

 

The winner was famed musher Emile St. Godard of Canada whose fastest time was 2 hours 11 minutes and 7 seconds. Second place went to Leonhard Seppala, pictured here at the 1932 games.

Interestingly, Godard is the only dog sled racer to be found in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame which is largely thanks to his Olympic win and his ongoing rivalry with Seppala as the two battled over six years for sporting supremacy.

Godard is pictured here (second image) with Toby, who was Godard’s lead dog and is probably one of the few doggos to have a Winter Olympic Gold to his name! He was a mixed breed husky/greyhound and lived to the age of 9, passing away in 1934.

There was one female in the field, Eva Seeley from Worcester, Massachusetts (pictured below). In 1929 she and her husband had overseen a sled dog kennel while the owner was in Antarctica and after he returned with financial difficulties, they purchased the kennel. Eva took an active role in the running of the kennel, changing the bloodline purchasing dogs from Seppala and breeding huskies and malamutes.

Eva entered the 1932 games with dogs from her kennel and though she finished in last place, in a fastest time of 3 hours and 28 minutes she remained a key figure in the sport as well as in breeding. During World War Two she trained US soldiers to work with the dogs for search and rescue missions with a number of her dogs seeing service during battle overseas.

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Above: Seppala at the 1932 Winter Olympics (olympics.org)

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Above: Godard with his lead
dog Toby (local media)

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Above: Eva Seeley and her huskies 
(Seppala Kennels)

 
 
Image by Nicolai Berntsen

WHO IS THE TOP WINTER OLYMPIC NATION?

The top ranked Winter Olympic nation remains Norway, leading the USA by over 60 medals.

 

There are 17 countries who have participated in the Winter Olympics but are yet to win a medal. Leading this list is Andorra, which is surprising given the nation is well known for its ski resorts! Andorra has made twelve winter appearances while Monaco has made ten and is also medal-less, (until the recent Summer Games Monaco won the showing up award at that Olympics as well).

NEPAL'S WINTER OLYMPIC MEDAL

Nepal has technically won a medal but it isn’t counted on the medal tally.

 

They have entered 17 Olympic games; 13 Summer and 4 Winter and as part of the 1924 inaugural winter games Nepalese man Tejbir Bura was awarded a gold medal in alpinism as part of the 1922 British Mt. Everest exhibition. As this was awarded by modern Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin and not in competition it isn’t classed as an official medal.

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Above: Mount Everest Expedition (of which Nepalese man Tejbir Bura was a member), 1922 (Unattributed source, likely taken by John Noel).

Image by Nicolai Berntsen

AUSTRALIA AT THE WINTER OLYMPIC GAMES

Australia isn't known as a winter sporting nation but these days we punch pretty well above our weight!

This wasn't always the case though with Australia not first being represented at the Winter Games until 1936. Since then Australia has been present at every games, except for the 1948 St. Moritz Games.

Australia’s first winter Olympian was Kenneth Kennedy a speed skater. (Pictured top)

Australia’s first Winter Olympic medal didn’t come until 1994 with a bronze in the men’s 5,000m short track speed skating relay. Steven Bradbury, who would win Australia’s first gold medal 8 years later was a member of this team. (Pictured bottom)

As you can see from the two photos the sport has developed considerably but it is interesting that Australia has remained involved at the elite level.

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#FunFact:

The first female flag bearer

The 1932 games saw the first female flag bearer, Mollie Phillips of Great Britain.

 

There were only just four members of the British team present for the games and all were women competing in the figure skating which meant that the flag bearer had to be a female but it is still a key step in the participation of women at the Olympic Games.

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ON THE BLOG

African Nations at the Winter Olympics

It may seem unlikely that athletes should come to represent Africa at the Winter Olympics, but it isn’t new for African nations to be represented at the Winter Olympics.

 

Of the 54 countries included in the African continent, at least 39 are yet to make a Winter Olympic debut but 15 have made appearances on the winter stage. Check out the blog for the full story!

 
Image by Nicolai Berntsen

The Paralympic Winter Games

Unlike the main Winter Olympics that were held in Beijing a few weeks before the Paralympics, there were significantly less events at the Winter paralympics, but within each there are a number of class categories. Athletes are competing in alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, Ice hockey, snowboarding and curling.

Forty-five nations are represented at these games. Israel and Puerto Rico are making their debut while a number of other nations who have participated in the past are not to be seen at these games (at the top of this list are Russia and Belarus who are banned).

It is interesting that for all their domination in Winter Olympic sports, Norway and many of the other Scandinavian countries are not that dominant in the paralympic sports. Having said that Norway remains second on the all-time Winter Paralympic ladder (behind Germany) but at these games the table is being dominated by the host nation China who has almost double the currently second placed Canada.

Throughout the games Ukraine reigned triumphant taking three podium clean sweeps in the Biathlon!


The men swept the sprint vision impaired, middle-distance vision impaired while the women swept the standing category.

So strong are Ukraine in the sport that the men took the first five places in the middle-distance category!


So far at these games there have been four clean sweeps, Ukraine obviously taking three while the fourth went to China in the Men’s snowboarding.

Congratulations to the Ukrainian Paralympic Team!

Women’s Middle Distance Standing 
1.I. Bui,
2.O. Kononova 
3.L.Liashenko

Men’s Sprint Vision Impaired
1.V. Lukianenko and B. Babar
2.O. Kazik and S. Kucheriavyi
3.D. Suiarko and O. Nikonovych

Men’s Middle Distance Vision Impaired 1.V. Lukianenko and B. Babar,
2.A. Kovalevskyi and O. Mukshyn,
3.D. Suiarko and O. Nikonovych  
4.I. Reshetynskyi and K. Yaremenko,
5.O. Kazik and S. Kucheriavyi

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African Nations at the Winter Paralympic Games

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Tofiri Kibuuka became the first African athlete to compete at the Paralympic Winter Games when he represented Uganda in cross-country skiing in Ornskoldsvik in 1976 (he later became a Norwegian citizen and competed for Norway).

Photo of Kibuuka (Olympics.org)

Paralympic Winter Sports

Just one discipline has entered and exited the Paralympic Winter Games.

This was Ice Sledge Speed Racing. ❄

Competed across 100m to 1500m competitors basically have to propel themselves as far as possible across the ice using two poles.

The sport was introduced to the paralympic winter games in 1980 and was then competed in at the games until 1998 when it was discontinued.

The 1980 event was dominated by Norway with the only other nations to take home medals being Finland and Sweden. This continued at the 1984 games however Great Britain also managed some medals this time.

In 1988 Norway of course dominated but Austria and Germany also managed some medals. In contrast the 1994 event was clean swept by Norway.

Norway managed to take a few medals home at the 1998 games but the dominate nation was the hosts Japan.

One of the reasons the sport was discontinued at the games was because it was competed outside of the paralympic games by both able bodied and paralympic athletes in the same competitions and hence was not specifically seen as a paralympic sport.

The races also took a toll on the ice rinks used with many host nations finding it costly to repair the tracks.

[Photos from Olympics.org]

 
Image by Bryan Turner

Read the Blog

Want to know more about the History of the Winter Olympics? This is the blog for you!