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History of Winter Olympics Told in New Book

The 2006 Winter Olympics opened in Turin, Italy on February 10, with some 2500 athletes representing about 85 countries. The Winter Games are a tradition that dates back to 1924, and author Sue Macy recounts the highlights, low points and changes that have taken place since that time in a new book called Freeze Frame: A Photographic History of The Winter Olympics. Aimed at young readers, the book was published by the National Geographic Society.

The same stately theme music is heard at both the Summer and the Winter Olympics, but the two events differ dramatically in other ways, says Sue Macy, and not just because the Winter Games feature cold weather sports. "There are only about a quarter the number of athletes and events in the Winter Olympics as there are in the summer, so there is a much more intimate feeling. You're able to focus more, I think, on individual athletes because in the Summer Olympics you're just bombarded with one amazing feat after another."

The Winter Olympics are also newer than the Summer Games, which were first held in 1896. Figure skating was featured at the Summer Olympics as early as 1908, but it was not until 1924 that a separate winter festival was held in Chamonix, France. More than 250 athletes took part in what was, by today's standards, a very informal event. "In the opening parade the athletes carried all their equipment," Macy says. "So you have people dragging their teammates in a bobsled and people carrying their skis and their hockey sticks."

The 1924 games also became the scene of a scoring error that went undetected for half a century. "In the ski jump someone did the math wrong, and for 50 years the wrong person had the bronze medal," says Macy. "It wasn't until 1974 that a bunch of Norwegian historians got together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Winter Games, and one of them looked at the statistics in the ski jump and realized that an American, Anders Haugen, had actually won the bronze medal, and a Norwegian had gone to his grave thinking he had won. But Haugen was still alive--he was 85--and he finally got his bronze medal."

In those early years, the Winter Olympic matches were all held outdoors, and Sue Macy says that made them especially vulnerable to weather crises. "No matter how perfect you think this venue is going to be for the Winter Olympics, the weather always goes wrong. Either it snows too much, or it doesn't snow at all, or it's too warm."

The weather went especially wrong in 1928, when the Winter Olympics were held in St. Moritz, Switzerland. "There was this sudden rush of warm air down the mountains, and the temperature had been minus 18 degrees Celsius at 8:00 a.m. when the 50 kilometer cross-country racers set out, and by the time they finished in the afternoon, it was 25 degrees Celsius. So the snow was melting, and they were slogging through. And in the 10,000 meter speed skating races, the ice started melting, so that event was never finished."

In more recent years, indoor arenas and artificial ice and snow have helped offset such problems, although weather conditions can still cause delays. The games have evolved in other ways as well. Sue Macy notes that only about a dozen women took part in the first Winter Olympics, and all were skaters. "It wasn't until later on that more and more sports started holding competitions for women," she says. "Now the only event women don't take part in is ski jumping, and I've heard that there may be a time pretty soon when women start ski jumping also."

Sue Macy says the Winter Games have become more geographically diverse as well, with competitors now representing countries around the world. "In the beginning, it was all Western Europe, the United States, and Canada. Then Japan fairly quickly got involved, and now you have the Jamaican bobsled team, which has been famous through the years. Still, the last Olympics in 2002 was the first time a black athlete won a gold medal, and that was Vonetta Flowers, who was the U.S. bobsledder."

Freeze Frame also recounts the controversies that have beset the Winter Olympics. There have been debates over whether professional athletes should be allowed to compete, over whether athletes can display the logos of brand name products, and over the fairness of the judging.

At the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, officials belatedly awarded a second gold medal to a pair of Canadian figure skaters, following revelations of judging bias. Sue Macy says that led to changes in the way skating events are scored. "It's much more computer driven, so that hopefully now judging can't be corrupted as easily. But the other side is the obvious things like jumps and spins end up being rewarded, so skaters who may be more graceful and less athletic might not get as many points as the athletic skaters."

Sue Macy says the Winter Olympics have also expanded to include more so-called extreme sports like free style skiing and snowboarding. "The newest sport this year is called snowboard cross, and it involves four snowboarders competing at the same time, down the same course," she says. "It's very acrobatic, with jumps and spins and all kinds of moves. There was a clear decision by the International Olympic Committee to try to attract a younger audience, and to go for these sports, which televise really well. And I think they've revitalized the games and interest in the games."

But if the sports, the judging and the athletes have all changed over the years, Sue Macy ends Freeze Frame noting that many competitors continue to say their primary motivation is to face a new challenge. In the words of U.S. Olympic snowboarder Tricia Byrnes, "That's your reward in the end, when you overcome a fear or you do something that you didn't think you could do."