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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Lightning struck Charlie Jewtraw on the morning of Jan. 27, 1924 in the mountain village of Chamonix, France. Jewtraw's bolt from the blue came on the first day of competition—in fact, it came in the first event of the first Winter Olympic Games ever held. Against all odds, Jewtraw won the gold medal (shown above) in the 500-meter speed skating race. He was 23 years old.

Now he's 83. Sitting in his modest apartment in Palm Beach, Fla., Jewtraw recalls the rapturous occasion: "It was like a fairy tale. I was a poor boy from Lake Placid. I'd been national champion, but I'd retired from skating. I wanted to move on. I was being tutored for Bowdoin College—I'd never finished high school, but I wanted my education. Then I got a telegram saying we would send an Olympic team to France. I hadn't trained at all. I didn't want to go. My tutor convinced me I should. I was so sick crossing the ocean that I kept praying the ship would sink. I wasn't even nervous the day of the race. Why would I be? I knew I couldn't win."

Jewtraw had never skated a 500-meter race, because the comparable sprint distance in the U.S. was only 440 yards. And he'd also never skated against the clock before, or skated in a one-on-one heat or been in a race in which the skaters changed lanes at the midway point. This was because all speed skating races in the U.S. then were run in five-or six-man heats. Jewtraw also had never been through a flag-drop start—pistols were used in the U.S. And, as he says, "I had never skated against such skaters as the Scandinavians who were there. They were the best in the world. I had everything against me."

Skating in the 13th heat at Chamonix against Charles Gorman, a Canadian he knew well, Jewtraw bowed his head before the start and said to himself, "For my country and my God, I'll do my best." He recalls the race: "I was always great on starts, but Gorman got the jump on me. He was going like a cyclone. I was in the outside lane, and I knew we had to change lanes somewhere down the line. I hadn't watched any heats before ours, so I couldn't figure out how it would happen. But somehow it did, and after we changed I was ahead. I have no idea how it happened. We were screaming along, and then I got a second wind. I didn't dare look behind to see where Gorman was. I beat him by a second and a half. He told me he was completely exhausted. I had emptied him out."

Jewtraw's time was 44 seconds flat—one-fifth of a second faster than that of any other skater in the field. Then came the postrace ceremony: "I stood in the middle of the rink, and they played The Star-Spangled Banner," he says. "The whole American team rushed out on the ice. They hugged me like I was a beautiful girl. Oh my God...." Tears fill Jewtraw's eyes as he remembers these things. "My teammates threw me in the air. The loudspeakers were booming out in French, 'Charlie Jewtraw of the U.S. of A. wins the first race in the first Winter Games!' Oh my God...." Jewtraw is weeping openly now. His voice is becoming thin and shaky. "I ask you, how many people have a moment like that? I did. I did.... Oh God, oh God...." Jewtraw covers his eyes with one hand, overcome again with the splendor of that morning when he was the first.

The first is now almost the last. We are within a few weeks of the 60th anniversary of those Games in Chamonix—the 14th Winter Olympics will begin in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia on Feb. 8—and the survivors of the 1924 Games are few and far-flung. Besides Jewtraw, only one winner of an individual gold medal is alive.

She's a sweet-faced, dainty Austrian woman of 82 years. Her name is Herma Szabo, though she was known during her skating days by her married name, Szabo-Plank. She lives alone in a gabled mountain house in the 1,000-year-old village of Admont, about 100 miles southwest of Vienna. She has been a widow for 15 years. She's lonely much of the time. She must use two canes to get about. Ah, but Szabo-Plank was once the most celebrated of figure skaters. She was repeatedly world champion during the 1920s. She was a member of a skating dynasty that included uncles, cousins and her beautiful mother, Christine, who once dazzled Czar Nicholas II with her balletic skating on the royal rink in St. Petersburg. At Chamonix, Szabo-Plank won her gold medal with an overwhelmingly superior performance against a strong field of competitors, one of whom was a dimpled sylph from Norway named Sonja Henie, then 11 years and nine months old, the youngest Olympic participant that year—or ever.

In all, 34 gold medals were awarded in 1924 to various individuals, pairs and teams. Besides Jewtraw and Szabo-Plank, two other winners survive, but they won their golds in concert with others. One, Szabo-Plank's cousin, Helene Engelmann, got her medal in pairs figure skating. She is 83, feeble and senile. The other, a Scotsman named Lawrence Jackson, was one of four men on Great Britain's curling team, which earned the gold with a 46-4 drubbing of France and a 38-7 victory over Sweden, the only other countries to enter the event. Jackson, who's in his 80s, is frail, shy and reclusive.

The rest of the Chamonix gold medalists are dead. The deceased include all nine members of the Canadian hockey team, which simply annihilated its opposition, winning all five of its games by the incredible combined margin of 110 goals to 3; the extraordinary Norwegian skier, Thorleif Haug who, as a brawny forerunner of triple-gold medalists Toni Sailer and Jean-Claude Killy, won three events; Clas Thunberg, the stormy Finnish superstar who was almost the Eric Heiden of his day, winning three golds, a silver and a bronze in speed skating; and all four members of the Swiss bobsled team who, oddly enough, lived to enter their 80s and then, beginning in late 1982, died within 11 months of each other.

The opening day parade on Jan. 25 was a happy straggle of folks making their way through the narrow streets of Chamonix. There were 294 athletes from 18 countries. One team member carried his nation's flag; the others carried the tools of their sports—skates, skis, hockey sticks, curling stones, even bobsleds. Intermingled with the Olympians were local mountain guides, players from local soccer, hockey and curling teams and fire fighters from the Chamonix volunteer brigade. The village council and the mayor marched, too, and there was bitter muttering among some in the crowd when Mayor Jean Lavaivre strutted by. Many Chamoniards had been irked when the mayor's son, Charles, a notoriously inferior athlete, had been made a member of the French Olympic hockey team. That was the kind of political cause célèbre that enlivened these Olympics.

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