SI Vault
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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Here's how it happened. Cocky as they were about their superiority as skiers, the Finns had never competed outside Scandinavia before. They got an inkling of the trouble that lay ahead the first day they trained on the Olympic 50-km course. "We found the uphill runs no problem," recalls Niku, "but there was a 700-meter downhill so steep and so icy that it was impossible to negotiate it on our birchwood skis. The gorges in the Alps were like nothing we had seen. The Norwegians had hickory skis with sharper cutting edges. This had always been true, but it had never mattered before."

The Finns complained to the organizers that the downhills were too dangerous. The Norwegians complained that they were too tame. The French agreed to change the course—by adding yet another "gigantic, steep ice slope," according to Niku. Only one of four Finns who entered even finished the 50-km race. He was seventh. The others, including Niku, fell on the fierce downhills. All three nonfinishers were hurt, two severely—one had a broken leg and Niku had two fractured ribs. The following day would be the 18 km, and the French promised they'd lay out an easier course. "They didn't keep that promise," says Niku. "Four of us started and two fell. I came in third, behind two Norwegians. My ribs felt as though there was a puukko [sheath knife] stuck between them."

As it turned out, Niku had a chance to turn his bronze to gold. The rules governing the 18 km had been vague. Inexplicably, that race also was being used as the cross-country skiing half of the Nordic combined event, which includes a ski jumping phase as well.

The two Norwegians who finished in front of Niku were entered as combined-event racers and not as competitors in the 18 km. The Finnish team captain told Niku the night after the race that if he appealed, he would almost certainly be upheld and awarded the gold medal. Niku calmly recalls his reply: "I said no. I thought it would be unsporting to appeal. I said that the Norwegians were clearly better on those tracks, and they definitely deserved the victory."

The Norwegian juggernaut, which won 11 of a possible 12 medals in Nordic skiing, was powered in large part by Haug, 29, a tough, stocky plumber from the town of Drammen. Not only did Haug win the gold medal in the oddly constituted 18-km race, but he got another gold in the combined and a third in the 50 km. He had a bronze medal in the ski jump, to boot. After his feats of '24 Haug's countrymen called him Skikongen—Ski King. He dabbled in designing ski bindings for a time, but mainly he remained a plumber until his death in 1934 of pneumonia at the age of 40. Today there's a statue of Haug in Drammen.

In a strange turn of fortune, one of Haug's 1924 medals was taken away from him 50 years after his death and given to an American bricklayer named Anders Haugen, who at 95 is almost certainly the oldest living athlete from the Chamonix Olympics. He lives in Yucaipa, Calif., near Palm Springs, and still walks a mile every day. Haugen attributes his long life to his athletic fitness—he was performing as a professional stunt ski jumper, leaping over cars and the like, at 63!—and to vegetarianism.

Haugen, who was born in Norway, came to America in 1908 when he was 20. He and his older brother, Lars, won 11 U.S. ski jumping championships between them, and Anders set three world records. When the American Olympic ski team was organized in 1924, Anders was 36 years old, and he was made captain. Lars warned him, "You may out-jump all of them, but you won't win. The judges won't let you." Today Anders looks back over six decades and says with a sigh, "Lars's words came true. I'm only glad I was prepared for what happened."

When Haugen jumped, he leaned radically forward over the tips of his skis. He was well ahead of his time—other jumpers of his era stood nearly upright as they flew through the air. As Haugen says, "I showed the way for modern jumpers to get low under the wind."

Haugen was tremendous at Chamonix, making the longest jump of the competition, 50 meters. The crowd shouted and whistled with admiration at his feat. The U.S. coach hugged Haugen and shouted in his ear, "You've got them all beat, Anders!" But Haugen knew better. As he explains it: "I was a Norwegian runaway to America and that was bad business. The judges were all European, and they resented me. The other jumpers were not gentlemen to me either. Only Haug was different. Yes, he took the bronze medal that was rightfully mine. But he had good manners, and he talked to me about the United States and other things. But my brother had been right. The judges would never let me win." Haugen was placed fourth even with the length of his jump because his form was ruled to be all wrong.

Despite the judges' machinations, Haugen had actually accumulated enough points for the bronze; a mathematical error cost him the medal. Following a long campaign by the Norwegian ski historian Jakob Vaage, justice was served in 1974. In a ceremony in Oslo, Haug's daughter, Anne Marie, presented Haugen, then 86, with the bronze medal he'd earned a half century before. A Norwegian newspaper headline read: LATE BUT GOOD.

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