CURATOR CORNER: January 2024
Centennial of the Winter Olympics

The Olympic Winter Games honors a significant milestone this year – its centennial celebration. To celebrate this milestone, in 2024, we are debuting a temporary exhibit panel in the Lake Placid Olympic Museum that examines the history of the Olympic Winter Games. We hope you can celebrate this year’s historic event with us, but on the chance you may not be able to, read on for a brief history of the Olympic Winter Games.

While the Olympic Winter Games did not start until 1924, two winter sports had an interesting start at the Olympics during the Summer Games. In 1908, London, England, hosted the fourth Olympic Games. Out of the 24 sports on the program that year, one sport stood out amongst the rest – figure skating. Figure skating debuted at the Summer Games; however, the competitions only occurred in October. There were four figure skating events in 1908: individual men and women, pairs skating, and men’s special figures. One notable individual men’s event athlete was Sweden’s Ulrich Salchow, the inventor of the famous “Salchow” jump.

Although there were no winter sports on the Olympic program for the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, Sweden, figure skating returned to the program for the 1920 Summer Games in Antwerp, Belgium. A second winter sport, ice hockey, was also introduced at these Summer Games. The figure skating and ice hockey events occurred in April, four months before the Opening Ceremony. There were three figure skating events in 1920: individual men and women and pairs skating.

Despite these two winter sports being included in the 1908 and 1920 Summer Games, another event had been taking place in Sweden since 1901 and is often thought to be the origin of the Olympic Winter Games. In 1901, Sweden began hosting the “Nordic Games,” an international winter sports competition that occurred every four years. Held in February, Nordic countries heavily participated in various traditional winter sports such as skiing, skating, and sliding and more uncommon sports like ice yachting and skate sailing. Wanting to protect the popularity of the Nordic Games, these countries initially opposed the idea of an International Olympic Committee (IOC)-sanctioned winter sports competition. Soon after the 1920 Summer Games, the IOC and the Nordic countries reached an agreement. In 1924, the first IOC-sanctioned Winter Sports Week occurred in Chamonix, France, and would later become known as the First Olympic Winter Games.

The First Olympic Winter Games welcomed 260 athletes from 16 countries to compete in nine sports: bobsleigh, cross country skiing, curling, figure skating, ice hockey, military patrol, nordic combined, ski jumping, and speed skating. Lake Placid native Charles Jewtraw was the first gold medalist of the 1924 Olympic Winter Games. He won the opening event, 500m speed skating. One unique aspect of the early Olympic Winter Games is the Parade of Nations. In 1924 and 1928, athletes marched into the Opening Ceremony carrying their equipment, which included skis, skates, curling brooms, and even bobsleds. In the early years of the Games, the International Olympic Committee required athletes to march in their sportswear, which, at the time, included their equipment.

Since 1924, the Winter Games have continued to evolve and grow in popularity. Over the years, the Olympic Winter Games movement has seen an increase in new sports and events, gender equality amongst competitors, and more countries involved with the Winter Games.

For instance, competitors participated in nine sports at the First Olympic Winter Games. 98 years later, at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, China, competitors participated in 12 sports. The 2022 sports included skeleton, short-track speed skating, curling, alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, luge, and snowboarding, which had not been on the 1924 Olympic program. Gender equality in the Winter Games will reach an important milestone at the upcoming Winter Games in 2026 in Cortina, Italy. According to the IOC, the “sports and event programme of the Olympic Winter Games Milano Cortina 2026 will include a record number of women’s events and be the most gender-balanced Olympic Winter Games edition to date, with 47 percent female participation.”

New sports and increasing gender equality are not the only ways the Olympic Winter Games have changed. Television viewership of the Winter Games in the United States has drastically increased over the years. According to a 2022 press release from NBC, the top three most-watched Winter Olympics in the United States include Lillehammer, 1994 at 204 million, Vancouver, 2010 at 190 million, and Salt Lake City, 2002 at 187 million.

The Olympic Winter Games will undoubtedly continue to evolve, but we can only truly appreciate them now by looking back to where it all started: Chamonix, France, in 1924.

Written by Julia Herman