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AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING
William Oscar Johnson
December 26, 1983
Though most stars of the first Winter Olympics are gone, a few of them—like Herma Szabo-Plank (left)—can recall when, young and innocent, they met in Chamonix
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December 26, 1983

As It Was In The Beginning

Though most stars of the first Winter Olympics are gone, a few of them—like Herma Szabo-Plank (left)—can recall when, young and innocent, they met in Chamonix

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The parade meandered onto the rink that was to be the central ceremonial spot in town. Mont Blanc loomed five miles to the south like an alabaster version of Olympus itself. The crowd of 2,089, which only half filled the grandstand at the rink, gave one of its greatest ovations to Henie, who, in pleated skirt and a club blazer too large for her, skipped alongside the blond giant carrying the Norwegian flag.

Chamonix, which had a population of 5,000, was picked for the Games primarily because the International Olympic Committee then believed that it was preferable to hold the Winter Games in the same country as the Summer Games. Since the Summer Olympics of 1924 would be in Paris, a locale in France was sought to host the winter events. A wealthy crowd from England and France had been dabbling in wintertime recreation at Chamonix since before World War I. Accordingly, in '24 it was one of the few villages in the French Alps that was served by the railroad, and it also had plenty of hotels, restaurants and even a few casinos. The village was still remote, but the idea of the common man attending spectator sports in winter was even more so. As Roger Frison-Roche of Chamonix, now 78, an author of novels about nature and mountaineering and a member of the local organizing committee in 1924, recalls, "Only the rich could afford to come. Workers didn't have vacations. These Olympics attracted a clientèle de luxe."

A cumulative total of 32,863 people were present at the 11 sessions, but that included athletes, coaches, the press, trainers, officials, etc. Only 10,044 tickets were sold during the Olympic period from Jan. 25 to Feb. 5—an average of 913 a day. Elis Sandin, now 82, was a member of the Swedish ski team and he recalls: "Tourists in Chamonix seemed more interested in the social whirl than in the Olympic sporting life."

Among those who attended the Games was Baron Pierre de Coubertin, then 61, the French aristocrat who had been the driving force behind the creation of the modern Olympics in 1896. Arguments in favor of holding a Winter Games had arisen in the IOC as early as 1911, and, oddly enough, there had been a figure skating competition in the 1908 Olympics in London, and in the Antwerp Games in 1920 figure skating and hockey were included. The baron, however, opposed the idea of a separate Winter Games because he felt that the Games would cause disunity in the Olympic movement because warm-weather countries would feel left out. Moreover, the Scandinavian countries were opposed to Winter Games for fear that the Olympics would relegate their own quadrennial spectacular, the Nordic Games, to second-class status, which, of course, is just what happened. Nevertheless, in 1921 a well-organized pro-Winter Olympics faction in the IOC voted to allow a winter sports program to be held each Olympic year under the "patronage" of the IOC. De Coubertin surrendered unconditionally in a speech at the closing ceremonies in Chamonix. He praised winter sports for their "purity" and he declared that they would hold a "definitive place" in all "Olympic manifestations" from that day forward.

The real Olympic manifestations in Chamonix began two days after the parade. In the morning, there was Jewtraw's fairy tale. Then in the afternoon, Thunberg, a 30-year-old construction worker from Helsinki, began to put his mark on Olympic history. That first morning he'd tied for a bronze in the 500-meter speed skating race, and in the afternoon he won the gold medal in the 5,000; in the next two days Thunberg won a gold in the 1,500, another gold for combined results and a silver in the 10,000-meter race. He would win two more gold medals in the 1928 Olympics.

Thunberg was a strange and moody bird, the edges of whose personality were as sharp as those on his skates. Before the 1924 Olympics, the Finnish skaters trained briefly in Switzerland. Thunberg, who hated the Swiss food, particularly the sausages, confronted the team leader and snapped, "This eating of boiled snakes has got to stop!" Thunberg was mollified only after the Finnish ski team agreed to share the precious cache of black bread, butter and pork that it had brought all the way from Helsinki. In Chamonix, Thunberg provoked such a fierce quarrel with the skaters' trainer that the man refused to call Thunberg's lap times during his races.

After Chamonix, Thunberg returned home to brass bands and adoring crowds. The 1924 world speed skating championships were to be held in Helsinki within the month. It seemed a time tailor-made for Thunberg to cut a place for himself forever among the Finnish gods of sport. But with characteristic obtuseness, he skated in one race, then pleaded fatigue and refused to compete anymore. Unfortunately, the same night he dropped out he was seen in a restaurant with his wife. The Finnish press ripped him to ribbons.

In 1925 the American promoter Tex Rickard brought Thunberg to the U.S. for a tour during which he amazed large crowds by shattering five world records. A worshipful press dubbed him The Nurmi of the Ice Rink. This accolade infuriated the thin-skinned Thunberg, who believed that Paavo Nurmi should have been called The Thunberg of the Running Track.

Thunberg retired from skating in 1935 and made a comfortable living for the rest of his life from a building-cleaning firm he founded in Helsinki. He died at 80 in 1974. His last years weren't without honor. In 1967 he was given the gold cross of the Award of Merit of Finnish Sport. It is an order open to only 12 living Finns at a time. Of course, Nurmi had been a member since 1947.

The Finnish speed skaters dominated their sport in the 1924 Games, winning four gold medals, two silvers and two bronzes. By contrast, Finland's crosscountry skiers, who had long assumed themselves to be the crème de la crème of their sport, produced only a single individual medal—a bronze. It was won by one Tapani Niku, now a thin little man of 88 who's still fit and bright. The story behind his lowly bronze medal maybe more heroic—more morally heroic, if you will—than any tale of how Niku came by the multitude of other trophies he has won in his long life.

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