SI Vault
Ezra Bowen
January 30, 1956
An introduction to the Olympic valley, the preparations, the trial meets, the runs, the outstanding competitors and the 24 gold-medal events that make up the most thrilling of all winter spectacles
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January 30, 1956

The 1956 Winter Olympics

An introduction to the Olympic valley, the preparations, the trial meets, the runs, the outstanding competitors and the 24 gold-medal events that make up the most thrilling of all winter spectacles

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The years of preparation are over. The months of trials and preliminary races have been completed, and the greatest winter spectacle of all—the seventh Winter Olympics—is about to begin. Over the past two weeks the finest athletes from an entry of 32 nations have packed into the host town of Cortina (SI, Dec. 26) in northeastern Italy. And in the last days before the opening ceremony, as the athletes stepped out to test the Olympic runs, there was the feeling of tense drama that only a Winter Games can produce.

For a Winter Olympics, unlike the Summer Games, means more than a race over a flat track or a carefully measured pool. The winter courses plunge dangerously down rugged, unfamiliar mountains. Before a man can beat his opponent, he must first master the mountains themselves. He must walk carefully along every foot of the course, studying each subtle bend, and then he must push himself to the limit in practice runs, aware that a hidden bump, a patch of slush or even a gust of wind can send him crashing off the trail and out of the Olympics.

This year the danger was dramatically emphasized by the worst snow conditions in the past four years. All over Europe the practice slopes were thin and icy. Months before the Games began, the mountains of Switzerland, Austria and Scandinavia started to take their toll. Finnish jumper Ossi Laaksonen and Katy Rodolph, America's No. 2 entry in women's skiing, were both knocked out before they reached Cortina.

In the Olympic valley itself the runs were just as dangerous. During the first three weeks of January, less than two feet of snow had fallen. The bobsled track became an icy chute that cost Charles de Sorger, a Belgian driver, a broken arm when his sled went careening over the retaining wall. On the ski slopes, Evi Lanig of Germany somersaulted over a bump and broke her arm. A day later three Russian skiers were carted off to the infirmary with, variously, a broken right leg, a sprained right ankle and a sprained left ankle. Even the figure skaters weren't safe, as America's world champion, Tenley Albright, discovered when she caught her skate in a tiny pothole and fell, slicing her leg just below the ankle.

As the accidents mounted, the authorities in Cortina planned some drastic action. They lined up 200 wagons and freight cars to bring more snow into the valley, with the understanding that 800 Alpine troops would spread it over the ski jump and slalom hills. For a while there was some talk of hiring a snow-making company to bring on an artificial storm. Cortina had tried this device during another thaw two years ago. The company produced snow, all right, but it blew into another valley. The suggestion this time was received with considerable restraint. Besides, the company was asking $12,000 for their Olympic storm. And so the committee turned back to the freight cars and the Alpine troops.

Meanwhile, in the hotels and inns and along the streets of Cortina, the excitement of the Olympics grew by the hour as the last arrivals streamed into the village. Russia, which had never before entered a Winter Games, came in with the biggest single team—128 at last count. At Oslo in 1952 the Soviets judged themselves unready and backed out at the last minute. This time they were at the Games to stay. From the Karelian Isthmus they brought heavy-shouldered, long-armed Vladimir Kusin, whose incredible strength and endurance have made him one of the finest cross-country skiers of all time. From Alma-Ata in the Urals, where a special training camp has been open since last summer, the skull-capped speed skaters arrived, setting a string of new world records in warmup races along the way. And from high in the Caucasians, where the air is so thin that, as one racer reported, "If we skied slalom over a minute long we got dizzy, and some of us passed out," the Russians brought the first team of alpine skiers ever to compete for the Soviet Union.

Each man on the team had been trained by a staff of experts. Under the eye of Soviet dieticians, a cross-country ace like Kusin has crammed down 5,000 calories of food a day (double the intake for an average person) in the form of veal cutlets, eggs, jam and syrup, soup, yogurt, fish and potatoes, salad, fruit and cake. And each of his cross-country teammates keeps a daily training log that includes a brief medical report.

To meet this kind of challenge, the U.S. arrived with a squad of almost equal size—125 men and women. Few of them were trained by scientists, but every one was ready. Tenley Albright and Hayes Jenkins (see cover) began practicing their Olympic routines last September on indoor ice at Boston and Denver. Skiers Buddy Werner, Ralph Miller and Tom Corcoran went all the way to Chile last summer to find enough snow to keep their reflexes sharp; and speed skater Don McDermott of Englewood Cliffs, N.J. has subjected himself to 25 miles of bicycle riding a day just to build up his chest and lung capacity.

The Winter Games, however, will not be a head-on clash between the two biggest countries. Sweden, strong in speed skating and cross-country, checked in with 113. Austria brought 95, including an alpine squad that has dominated every one of the pre-Olympic meets. Norway, traditionally strong in winter events, brought 90. And so it goes, down through the blond Finns, with their soaring jumpers and dogged cross-country skiers; the good-natured British bobsledders, who scuffle off down the mile-a-minute runs saying things like, "Look here, do you get in first or do I?"; on down to the defiant little Bolivian delegation that totals three men—one skier, one trainer and one masseur.

In all, 1,200 athletes have crowded into the village. With them, as grand overseer, came Avery Brundage (see page 43), president of the International Olympic Committee. And right behind Brundage was a hard-breathing mob of judges, coaches, trainers, political commissars, ambassadors (43 of these have come up from Rome alone), newspapermen (400 of these), former champions, relatives and an estimated 10,000 just plain spectators, to swell the population of the mountain town from 6,000 to a bulging 18,000.

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