1924 : The first Winter Olympic Games
A story that begins in 1892
It was in 1892 that the first pair of skis arrived directly from Norway, in the baggage of a Chamoniard traveller… maybe a Tairraz, or a Couttet, or a Simond or then again a Charlet… In any event it was a local who brought the skis to Chamonix.
These planks were interesting to look at, but left the population rather perplexed. What were they for? How did one use them? Come what may, local craftsmen immediately got to work producing replicas, anticipating that these wooden planks could provide a means of locomotion during the long winter months. Four years later it was for professional reasons that Doctor Payot, aged 24, was using them to travel the valley. Thanks to the skis, he was able to visit more sick people each day and to provide assistance to women in labour. He was officially the first skier in the valley. Doctor Payot developed a passion for the sport!
In 1907, immediately after having founded the Club of Alpine Sports, which counted a considerable number of good skiers, Doctor Payot organized the first local race. It took place on 12th and 13th January, "with splendid weather, ideal powder snow, a temperature of -5°C and glorious sunshine".
Thirty-six racers met on the superb slopes which led into the Brevent couloir. A dense crowd filled the sidelines. There was one rule: to go up and come down as quickly as possible. Luge and ski jumping were also on the programme. Out of twenty-five contestants, nineteen landed in the undergrowth! Nevertheless the day passed smoothly and without a single accident. The success was total - it was time for something bigger.
So the following winter, again thanks to the good Doctor Payot, Chamonix hosted the second International Competition, founded in Montgenèvre the previous year. This time the media were present and the chroniclers went into rapturous eulogies:
"No summer sport is its equal for perfect sensuality, sheer force, satisfaction and joviality!" wrote the newspaper L'Illustration.
Alas, despite the general euphoria, this International Race ended on a sad note. Dr Payot was suddenly stricken with bronchial pneumonia, presumably contracted whilst waiting to greet the Norwegian team at Chamonix station in glacial temperatures…
A VISIT TO SWITZERLAND
Following the success of this meeting, Chamonix, the world-famous summer destination became a "winter resort".
The Hoteliers' Union and the Alpine Sports' Club got together to reflect upon "ways to improve the evident shortcomings of facilities and the organization of Competitions within the valley".
The impetus was provided by the rail company, PLM (Paris-Lyon-Marseille) which had every incentive to encourage the development of the resort. It proposed a reconnaissance of the renowned Swiss ski resorts like Saint Moritz and Davos.
So it was that on 13th February 1908, a delegation comprising of the owners of the two biggest Chamonix hotels and two PLM inspectors left Chamonix station at 5pm and arrived in St Moritz at 4pm the following day!
"Being used to our incomparable sites, our glaciers and peaks, not to mention the magnificence of the Mont-Blanc range and the grandness of our valley, we found that from no point of view did the mountains, which were quite low, present the beauty and charm of those which we possess». Such were the first impressions which appeared in the report. But the rest undoubtedly shows their great admiration for all the « superb and meticulously maintained facilities…"
Nothing escaped the Chamoniard delegation. They learned a lesson from everything: access to the resort, the development of hotels, prices, signs, techniques for maintaining ice-rinks, ski and bob-sleigh runs. They attended competitions and noted every detail: logistics, safety and time-keeping.
The PLM inspectors were astonished to count seven trains a day bringing passengers not only from Basel, Lucerne and Zürich, but from London and Paris, whilst only three trains per day reached Chamonix. According to the hoteliers, the trains were not fast enough... The creation of Express trains would be one of the principle propositions at the end of this reconnaissance tour.
THE WINTER SPORTS WEEK
Lausanne, June 1921: Paris was the city selected for the «Celebration of the VIIIth Olympiad of the modern era in 1924 » It goes without saying that at the time these were summer games. However, on Sunday 5th June 1921, members of the International Olympic Committee seriously considered adding Winter sports to the Olympic programme. They considered that, "apart from the Nordic countries, there are certain central and eastern European nations who are in a position to organize a competition of sports on snow and ice, which, by their robust and splendid demonstration of modern physical activity, would be worthy of a place in the Olympic games agenda". The Scandinavians, so proud of their "Northern Games" which they had been organizing for several years, were stubbornly obstructive of this new initiative. Consequently, The IOC decided that, without incorporating the “Winter Games” as an integral part of the Olympic programme, they would offer them their patronage for the organization of the event during the VIIIth Olympiad… The event would be named the "Week of Winter Sports", an obscure formula to acknowledge the birth of the first Winter Olympics!
It remained to decide where the Winter Games should be held. Several resorts were candidates, but certain practical and climactic conditions necessary for the organization were imposed: a top-quality ice-rink; snow in sufficient quantity for the ski and bobsleigh races and adequate accommodation facilities.
Chamonix,with its significant hotel infrastructure, added to the fact that it was the only French resort directly accessible by train (since 1901), was a natural choice. The town was selected.
A contract was signed between the IOC, the French Olympic committee and the municipality of Chamonix on 20 February 1923. On November 1st the ice-stadium was to be delivered, that is to say an ice-rink of over 36,000 m2 capable of holding two ice-hockey pitches, and two open areas for figure-skating ; a 400m speed-skating rink and a curling stadium. It was to be the biggest in the world, surpassing even that of Davos.
Work began on 31st May, five months before the deadline. A ski jump permitting 60 metre jumps and a bobsleigh piste also had to be constructed in very short space of time. Roger Frison-Roch, a twenty year old fresh from Paris, assumed the role of secretary to the Winter Sports in-resort committee. In 1974, he recalled his first impressions:
"Even nowadays, with the means of modern technology at our disposal - bulldozers, skyscrapers etc… such a project would appear to be impracticable! It soon became obvious that the stadium would never be ready on time because the autumn and the ice would be arriving. So round-the-clock shifts were instituted; day and night they dug, transporting the necessary hard-core with a tenacity that aroused the admiration of specialists and the virulent criticism of those who had yet to grasp the importance of the Games for the future of Chamonix."
Despite all these efforts, the stadium could not be delivered until December....and the opening ceremony was set for the 25th January! As soon as the major works were finished, the « ice team » set to work immediately. They hosed the stadium with water and the cold did the rest. The ice-rink had a sheet of ice perfectly smooth and hard. Meanwhile they began to lay-out the cross-country ski tracks as the snow fell steadily.
"Christmas was approaching, the winter visitors flocked to Chamonix, and the horse-drawn sleighs travelled the snow-covered streets cheered by the joyous sound of sleigh-bells. The town was bursting with excitement."
And just when Chamonix thought it was ready.....disaster! No-one in living memory had ever seen such a quantity of snow fall, more than a hundred and sixty centimetres of snow fell on the valley in twenty-four hours! It was necessary to clear the stadium, re-make the tracks.... consternation!!
"People were recruited from everywhere. Soon there were six hundred workers toiling day and night with spades to clear the snow off the ice. The snow was taken away with hand-pulled sledges. It had consolidated and offered more and more resistance. The work continued for the first three weeks of January".
As hope returned, another blow was dealt because the snow began to thaw! An avalanche above the town cut off the railway line, the ice-rink turned into a lake...The organization considered cancelling the Games, but in extremis, the cold temperatures returned at last. Huge sighs of relief....
THE FIRST WINTER GAMES WOULD TAKE PLACE!
On 24th January 1924, it was cold enough to split rocks in Chamonix. A radiant sun illuminated the valley as Gaston Vidal, Under-secretary of State, formally declared the solemn words:
"I proclaim these Winter Games of Chamonix, held on the occasion of the VIIIth Olympiad, open"
Some 300 competitors from 16 nations experienced the adventure of what observers at the time were to describe as "virile and stimulating duels, combining strength, agility, youth and friendship"!.
The flags flew in the wind of the stadium and the parade of participating nations commenced in alphabetical order: at the head Austria with only skaters, (downhill skiing was a complete unknown), then Belgium with its hockey players, Canada, Estonia, the United States, Finland, France, Great Britain, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.
Roger Frison-Roche described with emotion that this parade would be forever engraved on his memory, down to the finest detail. One particularly moving sight in the Austrian delegation, next to a "blond giant", was a small girl of about twelve, "so delicate in her little pleated skirt and her blazer in club colours" - it was the ice-skater Sonia Henie.
In 1924, there were six sports in the Olympic programme :
Hockey, speed-skating, figure skating, curling, bobsleigh and, of course, skiing, where only Nordic disciplines for men were proposed.
The strong Chamonix team partook in the five races of the day: the great nordic (50km), the Nordic (18km), ski- jumping, the combination (ski jump + Nordic) and the military race of 30kms in teams of four .
Captain of this first French team, the Chamoniard Alfred Couttet confided honestly:
"I wasn’t able to confirm whether or not I was an effective trainer because, being lodged in a barracks where an entire battalion had been decimated by flu, the French racers presented themselves at the start line for the nordic race, coughing, spitting, handkerchief permanently in their hands. They were in such a sad state that they were unlikely to perform well."
The French had to be content with three bronze medals, thanks to the patrol race, (a sort of team biathlon), the figure-skating couple, Joly and Brunet, and the curling team. The Norwegians and the Scandinavians dominated most of the races and notably Thorleig Haug who was to become the first triple Olympic champion in history, winning the 18 kilometres, the 50 kilometres and the combined!
Contrary to the figure-skating, which received a muted welcome, the hockey tournament was an immense success. The final between the United States and Canada would be memorable. 2,003 paying spectators crowded in to watch the famous Canadians, who had previously thrashed Great Britain (19-2), Czechoslovakia (30-0), Sweden (22-0) and Switzerland (33-0!!).
This ferocious final resembled a street fight! It ended up with numerous injuries. In fact the players did not wear any protection, no shin guards, no gloves, no helmets, only an elegant beret or cap. The Canadians finally dominated the Americans in fists and in points: 6-1 ! This would be the highlight of the games.
On 5th February, the games finished, although the general euphoria persisted, with not a cloud on the horizon. Baron Pierre de Coubertin made a solemn speech. It was clear that the Winter Games had been accepted into the heart of the Olympic family.
"… among the numerous spectators, are many who have discovered sports whose beauty they had never suspected. They have perhaps been astonished to find these sports so physical and aggressive. This is because people have been misled by hygienists and pedagogues who confuse physical education with sport. The first is a good thing for all, the latter is much more; it is a school of audacity, energy and will-power"!