AP WAS THERE: At last, Winter gets its own ‘Games’

Undated view of the Olympic Stadium at Chamonix, France, where the Winter Olympics were held in 1924. (AP Photo)
Undated view of the Olympic Stadium at Chamonix, France, where the Winter Olympics were held in 1924. (AP Photo)

CHAMONIX, FRANCE (AP) – A ragtag parade down the center of town marked the opening ceremonies of the first Winter Olympics.

Looks quaint, doesn’t it? Look closer and you’ll see just how quaint: Many of the athletes – they really were amateurs back in the day – are lugging their own equipment: hockey sticks, skates, skis and such. Then again, by 1924 standards, it was considered quite a pageant.

Ninety years after its original publication, the AP is making its original report on the opening ceremonies of the first Winter Olympics available to its subscribers.

The whole shebang at Chamonix in 1924 cost less than $28 million in today’s dollars, and set the tone for the winter games that followed. Unlike their bigger, brassier and traditionally much more expensive summer counterparts, they’ve have been generally modest affairs ever since. But there are oligarch-sized ambitions to flip the script this time around.

When the world gathers in Sochi this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his countrymen better have plans up their sleeves for something with a little more oomph. Otherwise, they’ll have $50 billion – more than has been lavished on any previous Olympics – worth of questions to answer for.

Sochi was known once for the tea grown in the region, and later, as the site of state-run, Neoclassical-styled sanatoriums and Joseph Stalin’s favorite dacha. The plan now is to turn the summer resort town alongside the Black Sea into a staging ground for the most spectacular winter games ever, and in the bargain, turn Sochi into a destination for the ski and private jet-set.

Putin has hinted he will accept nothing less – despite repeated construction delays, reports of widespread corruption, environmental damage and unrelenting criticism over a Russian law banning “homosexual propaganda.” And even those problems seem pale in comparison to security concerns heightened after recent bombings in Volgograd and Dagestan believed to be the work of Islamic insurgents in the nearby Caucasus region.

“The result expected by us,” a defiant Putin said recently, “is a brilliant Games.”

The expectations for those first games, on the other hand, were simply to improve on a winter sports festival that had taken root in Sweden in 1901.

Fans and organizers of the Nordic Games had managed to shoehorn a figure-skating competition into the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, but they kept lobbying for games of their own. The International Olympic Committee finally went along in 1924, granting the French officials who staged the 1924 Summer Games in Paris a chance to try their hand at six winter sports – alpine and cross-country skiing, figure skating, ice hockey, Nordic combined, ski jumping and speed skating.

Sixteen events were contested over 11 days, drawing 258 athletes (including just 11 women) from 16 nations and exactly 10,004 paying customers. American speedskater Charles Jewtraw won the opening contest, the 500 meters, prompting the Boston Globe to slap the headline “Our Flag At Top Of Olympic Mast” atop The Associated Press story.

Read a few paragraphs into it and you’ll learn that the swinging-arm style that has become mandatory for sprinters since was considered revolutionary when Jewtraw and U.S. teammate Joe Moore (who finished 8th) unveiled it before a handful of “gaping” Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish coaches.

But it didn’t take long to figure out why those traditional Nordic powers were so eager to get their own Olympics.

Cross-country sensation Thorleif Haug won three golds, enabling Norway to top the medals table with 17 total. In what turned out to be a historical footnote, Haug was also awarded the bronze in the ski jump in 1924; but 50 years later a scoring error was confirmed and the medal was finally delivered – by Haug’s daughter no less – to its rightful owner, American Anders Haugen.

Finland finished second with 11, thanks to Clas Thunberg’s speed-skating haul of three golds, a silver and a bronze. The 28 medals by Norway and Finland were more than all the rest of the competing nations combined. The United States and Britain finished tied for third with four medals each. Canada won only one medal, but served notice it was a hockey power to be reckoned with by scoring 122 goals and allowing just three en route to the gold.

Here is the original dispatch from Chamonix, as reported by The Associated Press on Jan. 25, 1924.

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OLYMPIC ICE GAMES OPEN AT CHAMONIX

The Winter sports of the eighth Olympic Games were officially opened today with the customary Olympic ceremonies, presided over by Gaston Vidal, Under Secretary of State for Physical Education. M. Vidal received the oaths of amateurism by the athletes entered for the competition. The teams of all the nations represented, bearing their national flags and emblems, then paraded from the City Hall to the skating rink, where the actual competitions will begin tomorrow.

On the arrival at the rink Under Secretary Vidal declared the official opening of the sports. His voice, caught up by enormous amplifiers on top of the grand stands, was sent reverberating up the sides of the high mountains which give the Chamonix Valley its magnificent setting. At the words, the 150 athletes, awaiting the announcement, clapped on their skates, jumped on to the immense sheet of ice before them, and the eighth Olympic Games, in their modern revival, were on.

Jewtraw, United States; Gorman, Canada; Thunberg, Finland and Olsen, Norway, four of the fastest skaters here, hooked up in several turns around the rink in an impromptu race that brought the four or five thousand spectators to their feet cheering.

ATHLETES PASS IN REVIEW

Prior to the official opening of the games, when the competing teams with banners and their national emblems flying paraded from the City Hall of Chamonix through the streets of the city to the rink, they were reviewed by Count Clary, President of the French Olympic Committee: the Marquis de Polignac and Mr. Vidal.

The band of the Twenty-seventh Alpine “Blue Devils” played the national anthems of Austria, Belgium, Canada, Esthonia, the United States, Finland, France, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia as the group of athletes passed in that order.

The athletes of Belgium, Canada, the United States and France received the most enthusiastic welcomes. Clarence J. Abel, St. Paul, of the American hockey team, was the bearer of the Stars and Stripes, and Harry Drury, Pittsburgh, carried the American emblem. They took the Olympic oath, administered by Vidal, on behalf of the American athletes. Both swore that the American athletes would be “loyal competitors, and respect the rules and regulations in a chivalrous spirit for the honor of our country and the greater glory of sport.”

Abel stumbled over his French a few times in repeating the oath, but he told M. Vidal that he would rather be tripped up in his French delivery than while shooting for a goal in the hockey competition. This brought a cordial laugh from the Under-Secretary.

The worry over the weather, the mildness of which had threatened to prevent the starting of the games tomorrow, was dissipated today. Clear and cold conditions set in during the day and tonight the prospects are for colder conditions. It is considered certain the competition will commence tomorrow at 11 o’clock with the 500-meter race. At 3 P. M. the 5,000-meter event will be started.

Thousands of visitors have gathered in this small Alpine town on the slopes of Mont Blanc, which today, for the first time in a week, threw off its blanket of thick clouds, the peak glistening in the bright sunshine and providing a wonderful setting for the Olympics.

UNITED STATES STARS IN GOOD SHAPE

The condition of the American skaters who are to compete is all that could be expected after the difficulties they have encountered in training. They will take the ice tomorrow, fit to give stiff battle to the best skaters of any nation entered. Steinmetz, Jewtraw, Donovan, Bialis, Moore and Kaskey all expressed confidence of success today. They look for the most strenuous opposition from the Finnish team.

The American hockey players today got their second real practice since their arrival here Monday – a splendid work-out of an hour, at the end of which Manager William S. Haddock announced his present intention to line up the following team in the opening game against Belgium Monday: Alphonse A. La Croix, Boston, goal; Irving W. Small, Boston, right defense; Clarence J. Abel, St. Paul, left defense; Harry Drury, Pittsburgh, centre; Justin J. McCarthy, Boston, left wing; Willard W. Rice, Boston, right wing.

The players are a little below their best condition, owing to their enforced idleness of the last few days, but with hard work the next two days they expect to take the ice in tip-top form.

The athletes of all the nations took to the ice today with such vim and energy, stored up by reason of their, enforced idleness due to the warm weather, that their managers felt obliged to restrain their ardor. The American hockey players were called off the ice after a few minutes of exercise. William S. Haddock, Pittsburgh, manager of the team, fearing accidents because of the large numbers of skaters on the rink.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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