A Brief History of the Winter Olympics

If you think that it seems like the Summer Olympics only just finished and so it seems a bit soon to be welcoming the Winter Games, then you’d be correct. Due to the pandemic the Summer Games were postponed pushing the two seasonal events closer together.


Having said that, did you know that it has only been around thirty years that the two events were not held in the same year?!


Further, how old do you think the winter games are compared to the summer games?

While the Summer Games began in 1896 the Winter Games, as a separate event were not held until 1924 – 28 years later.

This image has become synonymous with the 1924 Games in Chamonix (Olympics.com)

Figure skating became the first winter sport to be included in an Olympic Games when it was part of the 1908 games and in 1920 both figure skating and ice hockey were included however at each meet the sports were held months outside of the main event. This meant they were not physically part of the actual games even though they were included in the medal tally and history of the games.


Winter Sports at the 1908 and 1920 Games

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.


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. Magda Mauroy-Julian won gold in the ladies’ event for Sweden and interestingly was three-four months pregnant at the time. (Pictured here at the 1920 Games). To read more about here click here


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.


The Establishment of the Winter Olympics

Though the “Winter Olympics” were not introduced until 1924 there was a pre-cursor to these games – the Nordic Games which were held between 1901 and 1926 featuring mainly, you guessed it, Nordic countries. While there was initial interest to include winter sports in the Olympic Games there was concern that this would detract from the Nordic Games which had become a sporting staple.


Event poster, 1924 (olympics.com)

Eventually the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would host winter sports, in what was initially not known as an Olympic event. This took place in Chamonix, France between 25 January and 5 February 1924.


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.


What designates a sport as a winter event? According to the Olympic Charter it is those “which are practised on snow or ice”. Pretty simple!


The 1924 event featured nine disciplines:

  • 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.

Figure skaters at the 1924 winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, 30th January 1924. Left to right: Herma Planck-Szabo of Hungary, Ethel Muckelt of Britain and Beatrix Loughran of the U.S.A. Planck-Szabo won gold, with Loughran and Muckelt taking silver and bronze respectively. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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.


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 by a landslide claiming victory in three of the five events. Three of the fourteen competitors were unable to complete the pentathlon after a serious crash during the downhill skiing discipline.


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 1928 skijoring (pictured below), 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.

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

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 each 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, Olympics.org)


For more on this event check out my Winter Olympic Page, click here

To learn more about the gold medal winning dog click here




Top Winter Olympic Nations

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).


At the top of the "turning up list" is Nepal who has technically won a medal but it isn’t counted. 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.

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

To read more about the Winter Olympics check out my Winter Olympics Fun Facts and History Page, CLICK HERE

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