The XXIV Winter Games start today, or rather, by now, they have already started. In the midst of a pandemic, with political squabbles overshadowing the host and their rivals, it might be called the Subdued Olympics. But this is an international competition invented by the subdued, invented by the Swedes and Norwegians. After all, Aloof is Swedish for “downhill.” It was only later co-opted by the IOC, the Alpine chalets, the X Games, and every stir-crazy athlete who suggested a new game just to get outside when it was five degrees. (I was kidding. Aloof is Dutch for windward, but I don’t think Hans Brinker was all that chatty either.)
So, as we prepare to cuddle up next to our screens and our apps, to see how the stones are pebbling and the skis are schussing, to watch the Salchows and the Double McTwist 1260s, it’s the perfect time to pause and consider how the games got here.
Victor vs the IOC
The engine behind the idea of a winter games was Victor Balck, a Swedish sports enthusiast who was an original member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Balck also spearheaded the original International Skating Union (ISU) and brought the summer Olympics to Stockholm in 1912. But his biggest legacy is probably the first rival to the Olympics, the Nordic Games of 1901. At the time, the summer event was still finding its way, having had one successful turn in Athens (1896) and an unsuccessful staging in Paris (1900).
The IOC and its president, Pierre De Coubertin, whose influence on the Olympics is well covered, was disdainful of a second international sporting competition in which there would be no Greek ancestors to inspire classical poetry. The IOC did include hockey and skating in the earliest Games staged in April and October. For example, the first figure skating medals were handed out in the London 1908 summer games. The IOC had no interest or bandwith to stage a second set of games in the snow, and Coubertin & Co. were especially skeptical when Sweden surrounded their 1901 competition with pageantry, opera, folklore, and a field trip to the newly-created, open-air museum in Skansen. It was too touristy!
Hence, the earliest competitors in the Nordic Games were only the Scandinavian countries: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland. While they endured their share of inter-country boycotts and political border disputes that would sound familiar to anyone today who can spell Uyghur, the Nordic Games were held eight times. Even though the Scandinavians didn’t attract other countries, they caught the eye of the Alpine skiing industry, which asked, What’s wrong with tourism?
The IOC, ever jealous of rivals, decided to stage an international winter sporting gala in 1924–between the years of the 7th and 9th Nordic Games. It was held in Chamonix, France and intended to be a companion to the 1924 Summer Games in Paris. Victor Balck strenuously objected, but was told it was simply an “international sports week,” not an Olympics. Funny, the town of Chamonix didn’t get that memo, because their organizers put up banners around the town, calling it the first winter Olympics.
Figure Skating, Always Controversial
Balck had another card up his sleeve, though, which was to advance the sport of figure skating. His idea was to turn the showy dance into a sport, and the original version included both one-footed “special figures” and a five minute free skate, with music and choreography. His ISU also governed speed skating, a sport keenly followed by the Dutch and Norwegians, and speed skating became one of the original Nordic Games and Olympic Games events held for over a century.
One fascinating footnote in figure skating was the early performance of British female skater Madge Syers. In the 1902 ISU World Figure Skating Championships held in London, there was only one event. While women weren’t supposed to compete, they weren’t explicitly barred from entering, so Syers entered and came in second. She was beaten by another famous name–Sweden’s Ulrich Salchow. By the time figure skating was added to the London summer Games in 1908, women were segregated. Syers won that as well, earning the first gold medal in Ladies’ Figure Skating.
The Scots Invent Yet Another Crazy-Assed Pastime
Skating (and hockey) weren’t the only icebound sports. One of the oddest was invented by the Scots. Since they also came up with golf, the shot put, water polo, and log-tossing, it’s clear that they find their chilly crag of a terrain strangely inspiring. Curling is pretty much the winter version of golf, so no wonder the Scots invented it, back in the 16th century.
People get snarky about curling. Even Wallechinsky & Loucky, who wrote THE books on the Olympics, begin their curling section by saying it was the IOC’s nod to “non-athletes.” I’d argue it only looks that way. In truth, the stone weighs 40 pounds, and the ice is slippery. If it’s not a sport, then neither is golf or shooting or archery. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t make it not a sport. In fact, curling as a team sport it requires a huge amount of strategy and technique.
The first Olympic curling event was staged in 1924, and a team from Scotland did win, officially listed as the British team, of course. It’s a bit of a Curling Controversy that the competition played in 1924 was labeled for many years as a demonstration sport, which meant that the winning team didn’t get medals. In 2006, after an inquiry by the IOC, the 1924 event was upgraded and the “British” team–from New Caledonia–received gold medals after all.
The sport is rising in popularity worldwide, and even more so in the U.S. after the men’s team pulled off a gold medal upset in 2018. Canada and Sweden have come to be the big dogs in curling, and the mixed gender competition is already underway. So far, the Italians are barnstorming the ice, undefeated after four matches, with the U.S. duo middle of the pack at 2-2.
On the Slopes
In the first few Olympiads, the ski events were all Nordic, all the time–different variations of cross-country skiing plus ski jumping. Biathlon, a combination of shooting with cross-country skiing, is always mentioned along with its use as a wartime skill, with the Finns or Norwegians fighting off the Russians…er.. the athletes from Russia, I should say. Because lead changes happen frequently, biathlon is one of the more exciting of the cross-country sports.
I’m less enamored of ski jumping, especially since of its long-term bias against women jumpers. While Scandinavian women were famous for jumping as early as their male counterparts–I mean, look at the poster!--they were banned from Olympic ski jumping until as late as 2012. Women still aren’t allowed to compete in Nordic combined.
Some of this came from the Norwegians, who were unexpectedly chauvinistic in their early sports history. One of their greatest multi-sport champions was Laila Schou Nielsen, who was told after winning both speed skating and cross-country events that it wasn’t really women (especially after she beat a few men). Getting the cold shoulder from the Nordic event community, she entered the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen games in the Alpine combined (downhill + slalom) and took a bronze. Afterward, she became a champion handball player.
Still, women’s participation in the winter Games has slowly been advancing, and most countries are as thrilled to see their women on the podium as the men–even Norway.
Make Way for the Young Folks
While the Olympics of yesteryear may have rested on the misty-eyed dreams of Greek wrestlers or even war veterans, reminiscing about WWII, the IOC has come to be keenly interested in the popularity of winter sports. The Games have had a problem with “gigantism” since the 1950s, and in order to combat having too-damn-many events, they have shifted to add whatever is new and popular. This has always been true, so there’s no use now claiming that they are pandering; the IOC only added the Alpine events when the games were first staged in the Alps. In the U.S., the huge popularity of X Games events prompted the winter contests to embrace an influx of X-Games winter versions, from the half-pipe to short track speed skating. I’m all for it, although I draw the line at snowmobile racing which, thankfully, is not an Olympic sport.
There are more than a half dozen new events this year, including several mixed gender team events which are incredibly exciting. Women’s monobob–one-woman bobsleds–have been added, mostly because women aren’t allowed to compete in four-person sled. (Don’t get me started.) Many of these new sports debuted in America, soTeam USA has slowly climbed ranks in the winter medal count as its athletes seemed to prefer perfecting fancy aerial ski tricks to racing through the woods on skis. Norway is still the country to beat in the winter, though.
Follow the Peacock
The worst thing about this year’s games for American sports fans is the time difference. Beijing is 13-16 hours ahead of U.S. time zones, so competitions will be over by the time they are aired in prime-time. But, so what? In today’s global environment, results are tweeted the instant they happen, so it’s nearly impossible to shield yourself from a live result.
Meanwhile, NBC Sports has slowly but surely built out nbcolympics.com and their offerings on Peacock so that you can dial up what you like. While there’s been grumbling that NBC’s crew will be announcing events from Connecticut rather than in China, the call of the action really isn’t hindered by it. Radio announcers used to call baseball games “live” by looking at ticker tape notes of the action, and listeners didn’t know the difference. It’s all in how you call it.
Lest you’re worried, the Super Bowl is also on NBC, so there will be no worry about competing events there. If anything, Sunday the 13th should be a marquee sports day because that’s when the Men’s 4x10K Cross-country team even takes place. That’s the “Super Bowl” for the Nordic Games, with Norway against everyone else, fending off challenges from Germany, Sweden, Finland, and sometimes–who’d have thunk it?–Italy! I can’t wait. Maybe I’ll even learn how to use that newfangled Twitter-thing and do some live tweeting. Of “both” Super Bowls.