Chamonix 1924 | We Head to France to Time Travel Back to the First Ever Winter Olympics
The story of how the original Winter Olympics were held in a modern-day winter sports mecca...
There’s an ice hockey game on the night that we arrive in Chamonix for a week of powder hunting on the back of a “once in a generation” snowfall in the French Alps.
In front of a small but loyal crowd, local hockey team the Chamonix Pionniers lose 5-3 to the Rouen Dragons, who are top of the French league.
The game takes place at the local ice rink, which seats a maximum of 1900 people. Just across the road is the MBC, or ‘Micro Brasserie de Chamonix’, a hockey-themed micro brewery selling good food and better beer. In the couple of hundred metres between the two is a running track, which circles around what was once the ice rink of the Stade Olympique de Chamonix, the 45,000-capacity outdoor stadium at the heart of the first ever Winter Olympics – held in the famous French resort back in 1924, before Chamonix was the freeriding mecca it is today.
Each time the Pionniers take to the ice, they do so less than 200m away from where Canada once thumped America 6-1 to claim gold in front of thousands of paying spectators.
Canada had beaten Great Britain 19-2, Czechoslovakia 30-0, Sweden 22-0 and Switzerland 33-0 on their way to the final, racking up 104 goals in just four games in the process, and the final against their nearest rivals was described not only as “the highlight of the Games” by an anonymous article dug up by the Chamonix tourist board, but also as a match which somewhat “resembled a street fight.”
The article reads that “it ended with numerous injuries”, saying “the players did not wear any protection, no shin guards, no gloves, no helmets. Only an elegant beret or cap.”
“Teams were picked not only on past results, but on ability to get away for several weeks – you had to take a boat to Europe – and to pay your own expenses…”
Cut to the next morning and back to 2018. We’ve taken the Plan Praz gondola to 1999m and are wondering whether the person who built the lift did so with the specific intent of irritating people who like round numbers. We’re also very much enjoying the view from the slope above the station, reaching from the Grandes Jorasses at 4208m over to the shard-like peaks of the Grand Charmoz (3445m), Aiguille de Blaitière (3522m) and Aiguille du Plan (3673m).
There’s no lack of snow in the Alps this season anyway, but as Eric Fournier, mayor of Chamonix, recently put it, when your resort has slopes reaching 3300m, “if we will not be able to ski here, we will not be able to ski anywhere.”
We’re wearing, amongst other things, gloves and helmets, and are ready to clip into our skis, but there’s not an “elegant beret or cap” in sight. Perhaps the age of chivalry is dead after all.
Chamonix has become one of the most famous ski resorts in the world in the 125 years since a pair of skis first arrived in the French town from Norway in the baggage of a Chamoniard traveller. There are many reasons for this.
One of the reasons was the railway line that passes through the Chamonix valley, which was inaugurated in 1901, opening the town to winter visitors. Another, of course, was the attention drawn to the resort by the first ever Winter Olympics in 1924.
The aforementioned article told of how there would “be at least 200 journalists in Chamonix” for the Games, “who [would] be writing a minimum of 100,000 words.” It reads: “most dispatches will be sent off in the evening. It will, therefore, be necessary to plan on having not only a car which, in emergency, could take the telegrams to Annecy, but also two or three motor-bicycles. Moreover, it will be necessary to request the opening of the post-office until half past one in the morning and to make arrangements to have six telephone lines.”
The Plan Praz cable car which just carried us up to the slopes was one of the first connections to open in the resort. It was built in 1927, three years after the Chamonix Games, and followed by the connecting cable car to 2525m in Le Brévent in 1930.
The Aiguille du Midi cable-car on the other side of the valley, which provides dizzying views from the height of 3842m opened some time later in 1955, and the Flégère cable car was constructed in 1956. Put all that together and you’ve got something starting to resemble the current setup in Chamonix.
Of course, the real reason the town has become such a mecca for skiingand snowboarding, and the reason all those lifts were built, is the pure potential for winter sports, mountaineering and exploration in Chamonix.
The town is surrounded on every side by humbling peaks. There are 248 chairlifts in the valley between the five resorts of Les Grand Montets, Le Brévent, La Flégère, Le Tour and Les Houches, and the off-piste skiing, easily accessible from all of those lifts, is just as famous. From the Aiguille du Midi you can access the Vallee Blanche, which at 24km is the longest off-piste ski descent in the world.
All of this development has created an intense culture of winter sports in Chamonix. The resident population is about 10,000 but seasonal workers and tourists can add up to another 100,000 to the resort on a busy winter weekend. Whitelines Magazine calls Chamonix “the original home of alpine sport”. If you want to make the most of a powder day you need to be on the first lift or have some serious local knowledge, and the gondolas and chairlifts are a curious mix of beginners and intermediate riders ready to crowd the pistes and seasoned skiers kitted out with skins, transmitters and harnesses heading further into the snow.
Often lost amongst all this is the fact that the town hosted the first ever Winter Olympics. It’s grown so much since then and such is the buzz over the riding in the resort (and the après, which is far from lacking) that it wouldn’t be difficult to arrive ignorant of the fact that the first Games happened there and leave none the wiser.
But they did happen, and they were certainly a factor in the growth of the town of Chamonix, even if they didn’t bring quite the international circus to town that they would have done today.
“They weren’t nearly as big as they are now,” says Bill Mallon, a co-founder and later president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, and the man behind the wonderful Chamonix 1924 Twitter account.
“It was mostly a European event, with the USA, Canada, Australia, and Japan competing (the latter two in the summer games).”
It was when Paris was awarded the 1924 Games that the Olympic Committee seriously began to consider adding winter sports to their offering. Figure skating and ice hockey had already featured in the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium, but Nordic countries protested, and as such the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to offer winter sports as part of a different programme.
There were only nine sports at the Chamonix Games – bobsleigh, curling, ice hockey, figure and speed skating, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, nordic combined (a combination of the cross-country and ski jumping) and military patrol (a sort of biathlon).
Though the 1924 Games were actually called the ‘Semaine Internationale des Sports d’Hiver’ or ‘International Winter Sports Week’ rather than the Winter Olympics, they were retrospectively named as such, and Bill tells us they were called as much by most involved at the time as well.
“It was basically always considered the first Olympic Winter Games,” he says, “even if the official title didn’t call it that. It was expected that there would be future Olympic Winter Games as well.
“It was the [same year as the] 1924 Olympics in Paris. Until 1994-96, the Summer and Winter Olympics were held in the same year. The Chamonix Games were not really on the back of the Paris Games though.
“The original intention of the IOC was to always contest the Summer and Winter Olympics in the same country and they did that in 1924, 1932, and 1936.”
The prestige of the Winter Games was strong enough to attract 258 athletes from 16 countries; 14 from Europe, plus Canada and America. Far more had planned on coming but were forced to withdraw. These were days after all when teams were selected not only on national championships, says Bill, but in some cases “on the ability to get away for several weeks – you had to take a boat to Europe – and ability to pay your own expenses.”
Sweden and Norway actually originally protested the establishment of the Winter Olympic Games for nationalistic reasons.
General Viktor Balck, a fierce Swedish nationalist and founding member of the Nordic Games – a winter sports competition between Nordic countries which started in 1901 and was held every four years after – campaigned against the inclusion of any ‘nordic sports’ in the Olympics. He knew it would likely see an end to the Nordic Games, and it did. The seventh and last edition of the Nordic Games were held in 1926.
The Nordic nations still turned up to top the medal table in Chamonix, though. Norway dominated with a final tally of 17 medals, a full six ahead of their fellow Nordic nation Finland in second place.
A total of 32,683 spectators attended the 1924 Winter Olympics, most of whom, Bill explains “were wealthy dilettantes who were holidaying in Chamonix. Few were there [specifically] for the Olympics.”
They would leave with a nice historical boast though nonetheless, however spontaneous or coincidental their attendance at the Winter Games.
During the Olympics the athletes were all housed in hotels around Chamonix. Bill notes the hotels, the pre-existing bobsleigh run and of course the remarkable mountains as some of the reasons the town was selected to host the Games.
The contract was first signed between the IOC, the French Olympic Committee and Chamonix on 20 February 1923. An ice stadium was to be built capable of holding two ice hockey pitches and two open areas for figure skating – the biggest in the world – as well as a ski jump that could handle 60 metre jumps. It all had to be built in less than a year. The opening ceremony was scheduled for 25 January 1924, and despite some serious concerns along the way, in the end, it was all delivered.
There was only one problem. The snow. Just when all the venues were built, a month before the opening of the Games, 160cm of snow fell in 24 hours.
Nobody had seen anything quite like it. 600 workers shoveled day and night to get the snow off the ice and remove it with hand-pulled sledges. The work continued through January, and when the snow thawed, thankfully the weather turned cold enough to freeze it. The conditions were, at last, ideal.
“It doesn’t sound altogether too dissimilar to what happened here a few weeks back,” remarks a Chamonix local on a lift up the mountain in Planpraz.
He’s referring of course to the unimaginable levels of snow that have fallen on the French Alps this winter. In Chamonix, lifts, resorts and roads were shut for days because of it. They were still working to get the highest lifts back open when we left. We’re told some locals and tourists based high in the resort couldn’t reach their accommodation and had to sleep in schools as they waited for the snow to thaw for a brief period in the weeks before our arrival. We see countless cars snowed deep into their own driveways.
Whoever is clearing the roads in the resort, however, is doing a splendid job, and now that it’s bluebird in Chamonix, all of that snow isn’t the worst thing in the world. Our first day on the mountain in Planpraz had been a slow start waiting for more lifts to open, but for the days that followed, in Le Brévent, around Les Grands Montets and in La Flégère and Le Tour in particular there was a lot of fresh snow to be found.
One small traverse from a lift in Le Tour allowed us to descend through a powder wonderland before returning to the lift through a flurry of trees – though the increasing presence of ice as the week went on made it clear that a new coat of snow was needed soon (and which we understand did indeed arrive a few days later).
When you spend a few days in Chamonix you quickly realise that there’s a special atmosphere. You wake up to the 4810m outline of Mont Blanc. You watch gear-heavy skiers queue at Midi on a ridge with near vertical drops on either side, at over 3800m, to get their chance to ride the famous Vallee Blanche. You become accustomed to each of the resorts in the town, what they have to offer on and off the piste, and you understand how something as globally significant as the first Winter Olympics could play as small a part in the modern day narrative of the town as they do today.
There’s a real feel of innovation and boundary-pushing in the resort. People pushing their own boundaries and those of the resort with it.
There’s talk in town of a skier who was recently saved with a 30m rope after falling down a crevasse near Midi the previous week. Just off the pistes speedflyers ride off cliffs with parachutes and leave ski tracks you have to be careful not to follow if you do stray out of the boundaries. In summer there is even more tourism from mountaineering and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, widely considered to be one of the most difficult ultra-marathons in the world, is raced over the unforgiving Chamonix terrain.
The mountains demand your utmost attention in Chamonix. There isn’t always a chance to glance back at the history.
The 1924 bobsled track is now lost in the forests under the Aiguille du Midi gondola. The hill of the ski jump remains in the town. And ice hockey is still played a stone’s throw from where that famous medal match took place between Canada and the USA 94 years ago.
The first ever Winter Olympics may not be remembered everyday in Chamonix, but it’s certainly a place as distinguished and ambitious as the host town of such a historically significant event should be.
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