The first Winter Olympics ever took place Chamonix, France, in 1924, with a slate that included bobsleigh, curling, hockey, skiing and something called “military patrol.”
But of all the original Winter Olympians, none have captivated us quite like the glorious skaters who thrilled the world in the shadow of Mont Blanc.
Just as today, figure skaters were the A-Listers of the Winter Games, as this beautiful Art Nouveau poster demonstrates. Among their ranks included a lifelong competitor with skating in her blood, as well as a pre-teen girl who would grow up to change the sport forever.
The first woman to win a gold medal for skating at the Winter Olympics was Austria’s Herma Szabo, widely considered the best skater of her era. Ice skating was in Szabo’s blood – she was the daughter of two of Austria’s most famous skaters, and her uncle built the world’s first artificial ice rink, which Szabo practiced on from a young age. Despite her lineage, Szabo had no problem breaking with tradition: At Chamonix she became the first female figure skater to perform in a skirt cut above the knee, thus giving her more flexibility while competing.
Szabo’s skating career came to a sudden end three years later, when she quit the sport out of spite after coming in second in the World Championships. (The panel, she thought, was prejudiced in favor of her Norwegian rival, as three of the five judges came from Norway.) The woman she lost to also skated at Chamonix, and though she flew under the radar in 1924, she soon became the future of the sport.
Norwegian skating prodigy Sonja Henie was only 11 years old when she took to the ice at the 1924 Winter Olympics, where she came in last place. But her ascent to the sport’s upper echelon was swift: Henie revolutionized the sport with a graceful, dancing style, and in 1927 she beat Szabo at the figure skating world championships, beginning a string of 10 consecutive first-place finishes at worlds. She captured the gold medal in the 1928 Winter Olympics, and then again in 1932 and 1936.
After her last Olympics, Henie retired from amateur competition and moved to Hollywood, where she hoped to become a movie star. The plan worked: She was one of the most popular stars of the late ’30s, appearing on the cover of TIME and earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This didn’t stop her, though, from being periodically dogged with rumors about her relationship with Adolf Hitler.
Speed skating, too, had its share of forceful personalities. Finland’s Clas Thunberg, seen here a few years after the 1924 games, is the most successful Olympic athlete of all time – at least by one weird measure. At Chamonix, he won 18% of all the events on offer, the highest percentage ever recorded. According to one writer, Thunberg “led a somewhat rowdy life as a compulsive smoker and drinker before he concentrated fully on his sport.”
Thunberg dominated the 1924 speed skating events, winning three gold medals. The English team, seen here, was left in the dust.
The American speed skaters, seen here checking their skates during Olympic tryouts, fared slightly better. Charles Jewtraw became the only man to beat Thunberg at the games, grabbing the gold in the 500 meter. Since this sport was the first event of the games, the American thus went down in history as the first Winter Olympics gold medalist ever.
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