Brief History of the Winter Olympic Games

The first time that a winter sport was included in the Olympic games was during the 1900 summer Olympics. Figure skating was included in the original program, but the competition never took place. In 1908, figure skating events were held at the London summer games and in 1911 an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member proposed that the Swedes include winter sports in the Stockholm games. The Swedes saw the idea as a threat to their own Nordic Games and rejected it.

Figure skating and ice hockey were both included in the summer Olympics held in Antwerp in 1920, though they were staged ten weeks before the regular events. Finally, in 1922, over the objections of the founder of the modern Olympic movement Baron Pierre de Couberin, the IOC agreed to stage an “International Sports Week” in Chamonix, France, in 1924. This event was a great success and was retroactively named the first Olympic Winter Games. The first gold medal was awarded to Charles Jewtrew of the United States for the men’s 500-metre speed skating event. The Canadian ice-hockey team won all five of its matches, outscoring its opponents 110 to 3.

After the Chamonix Olympics, the games were held in 1928 at St Moritz, Switzerland, where figure skating sensation Sonja Henie of Norway made her debut at age 15. She defended her crown in 1932 at Lake Placid, New York. In 1936 the games were held in the Bavarian towns of Garmisch and Partenkirchen. Some 500 000 spectators were bused to the events on the final day. Alpine events were held for the first time. Henie won her third gold medal and Great Britain upset Canada in ice hockey. The first games held after the Second World War, again at St Moritz, belonged to Canadian figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, who took home a gold medal. At Oslo in 1952, Canada won its fifth gold medal in hockey and the first cross-country ski events were held for women. The games in Cortina, Italy, in 1956 marked the first appearance of a team from the Soviet Union, which quickly outdistanced all others and ended Canada's domination in hockey. These were the first games to be televised.

In 1960 at Squaw Valley, California, the Americans refused to build a bobsled run. The biathlon was added for the first time, as was women’s speed skating. The American hockey team upset the favoured Soviets for the gold medal. The 1964 games at Innsbruck, Austria, were threatened by a serious lack of snow. The Austrian army was pressed into service, carving out 20 000 ice blocks from a mountain and moving them to the bobsled and luge runs. Some 40 000 cubic metres of snow had to be carted to the site of the alpine skiing events. The 1968 Grenoble Olympics belonged to Jean-Claude Killy, who swept the men’s alpine events. In 1972 in Sapporo, Japan, Canada refused to take part in the hockey competition to protest the hypocrisy of the eligibility rules. (Players in the Eastern Bloc countries were considered amateurs, though their governments paid them, while the best Canadian players were excluded because they were professionals.)

In 1976 the Winter Olympics were awarded to Denver, Colorado, but in an unprecedented move the voters of Denver decided against the use of public funds. The games were moved to Innsbruck, where Canada's Kathy Kreiner won the giant slalom by 72 hundredths of a second. The ice-dancing competition was held for the first time. The 1980 games in Lake Placid were an organizational disaster, with spectators stranded in the freezing weather, but were a triumph for the home team. Eric Heiden won all five speed-skating events and the American hockey team won its “miracle on ice” by defeating the heavily favoured Soviet team and going on to win the gold medal.

The only time the games were held in a socialist country took place in 1984, when they were hosted in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. The highlight was generally held to be the free-dance performance of the English ice dancers Torvil and Dean. By 1992 fighting during the civil war had reduced the Olympic site to ruin. The 1988 Calgary Olympics were popular among the athletes and spectators, though there were poor conditions at some of the venues. As at the Montreal summer Olympics, Canada failed to win gold on its home turf. The games were held in 1992 in Albertville, France, and then only two years later in Lillehammer, Norway. The change of timing was made so that the winter and summer games would take place in different years. The extremely successful Lillehammer games were marred only by the media frenzy over the sordid Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal. Canadian Miriam Bédard won two gold medals in biathlon. The weather wreaked havoc with the skiing at the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan. Despite being able to use professional hockey players, the Canadian hockey team failed to win a medal. The awarding of the 2002 games to Salt Lake City was marred by the biggest scandal in Olympic history as it was revealed that IOC members sold their votes to the highest bidder.

For Canadian athletes, Salt Lake 2002 was the most successful Winter Games in Olympic history. Canada placed a record 4th in the medal standings behind Germany, the United States and Norway with a total of 17 medals. Canadian athletes won 6 gold, 3 silver, and 8 bronze medals. The crowning achievement for Canada was the gold medal victory for both the women's and men's hockey teams. Pairs figure skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier shared double gold medals with Russian skaters Bereznaya and Sikharulidze after a controversial judging scandal.Aerialists Veronica Brenner and Deidra Dionne became the first Canadian women to win Olympic medals in freestyle skiing, winning silver and bronze respectively. Canadian speed skaters were the most significant contributors to the total medal count, winning a total of eight medals. Speed skater Marc Gagnon became the most decorated Canadian Winter Olympian of all time when he won gold in the 500m, gold in the 5000m relay with teammates Jonathan Guilmette, Francois-Louis Tremblay and Mathieu Turcotte, and bronze in the 1500m. Gagnon's total of five Olympic medals from 1994 to 2002 exceeds Gaëtan Boucher's record of four medals. Speed skater Clara Hughes won the honour of being the first Canadian athlete to win a medal at both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games. In 1996 at Atlanta, Hughes won two bronze medals for cycling.

The Canadian Encyclopedia Copyright © 2007 Historica Foundation of Canada