Steamboat Springs Editor’s note: In the buildup to the Winter Olympic Games beginning Feb. 12 in Vancouver, British Columbia, the Steamboat Today has partnered with the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum on a series of articles that reflect on past Winter Olympic Games, beginning with the first Winter Olympics in 1924. This is the second installment in that series.
The fourth Winter Olympics Games — then referred to as IV Winter Olympics — were held from Feb. 6 to 16, 1936, in the market town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. It also marked the final year during which the summer and winter games were held in the same country, as well as the first time a symbolic torch was lit. A record 668 athletes arrived from 28 nations to compete in 17 events in eight sports. Australia, Bulgaria, Greece, Liechtenstein, Spain, and Turkey made their debut.
Although Alpine skiing made its first appearance as a combined event (downhill and slalom), the International Olympic Committee ruled that ski instructors could not compete in the games because they were professionals. Austrian and Swiss skiers boycotted the 1936 Winter Olympics, but some Austrians decided to compete for Germany.
The U.S. finished eighth in the medal tally with four medals (one gold and three bronze). The U.S. two-man bobsled teams were awarded gold and bronze medals. The men’s ice hockey team won bronze, as did Leo Freisinger in the men’s 500-meter speed skating competition.
Competing in the new Alpine skiing combined event was Richard (Dick) Durrance, who finished 10th. He was a 17-time national championship skier and one of the first American skiers to compete successfully with the Europeans. Although born in Florida, Durrance moved to Garmisch, Germany, where he learned to ski, and then returned to the U.S. during Hitler’s rise. Subsequent to competing in the 1936 Winter Olympics, he bought and operated the fledgling Alta resort in Utah, and then moved to Denver to design and test Groswold skis. After contracting with Denver’s Ernest Constam, inventor of the J-bar and T-bar ski lifts, Durrance sold his first T-bar to Aspen. In 1947, he began managing Aspen Skiing Co., helping to bring the 1950 World Championships there. He spent the rest of his life in Colorado.
An Olympic hiatus
The 1940 Winter Olympics were to be held in Sapporo, Japan, but were canceled in 1938 after Japan invaded China in the Sino-Japanese War. The 1940 games were then awarded to St. Moritz, Switzerland, withdrawn because of controversies, and finally given again to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. However, just three months later, Germany invaded Poland, and the 1940 winter games were canceled altogether.
Similarly, the 1944 Winter Olympics were given to Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, in 1939 but subsequently canceled because of World War II.
‘Games of renewal’
After a 12-year hiatus, the 1948 games were held in St. Moritz, chosen for its neutrality. Overcoming a lack of financial and human resources, the winter games were held from Jan. 30 to Feb. 8 and attracted 28 nations and 670 athletes for 22 events in four sports. Chile, Denmark, Iceland, Korea, and Lebanon debuted at these Winter Olympics; Germany and Japan were not invited to compete. Although these winter games were some of the most competitive in history, they also were steeped in controversy: Norwegian skiers had to borrow skis from the American team to compete, the 1920 Antwerp Olympic flag was stolen, two rival U.S. ice hockey teams arrived to compete, and a truck driver accidentally backed into a shed housing the U.S. bobsleds, which had to be repaired.
The downhill and slalom events were added to Alpine skiing, while the Nordic skiing events were the 18-, 50- and 4-by-10-kilometer cross-country, ski jumping and Nordic combined. France, Austria and Switzerland triumphed in the men’s Alpine skiing results, while in the women’s Alpine skiing events, Switzerland, Austria and the U.S. dominated. Norway, Sweden and Finland swept all Nordic skiing events.
The U.S. placed fourth in the medal tally, with nine medals (three gold, four silver and two bronze). Gretchen Fraser, the daughter of German and Norwegian immigrants and from Washington, won a gold medal in the slalom and silver in the Alpine combined events for the U.S., making her the first American skier to win a gold medal for skiing. The four-man bobsled team won gold, as did Dick Button, who competed in men’s singles figure skating and became the first American to win a gold in figure skating by completing the first double axel during a competition. The silver medals were awarded to John Heaton in men’s skeleton, as well as Ken Bartholomew and Robert Fitzgerald in men’s 500-meter speed skating, who tied. The two-man and four-man bobsled teams won bronze medals.
Steamboat Springs’ Gordy Wren finished fifth in ski jumping. He was a member of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. As the first American to qualify in all Olympic skiing events, Wren is a member of the National Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, as well as the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame.
1952 Winter Olympics
For the first time, the International Olympic Committee had to vote on a location, and Oslo, Norway, was given the 1952 Winter Olympics, beating out Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, and Lake Placid, N.Y. Thirty nations arrived, with a debut from New Zealand and Portugal and the return of Australia, Germany and Japan. Almost seven hundred athletes competed in 22 events. Although the combined Alpine event was dropped, a 10-kilometer cross-country skiing event was opened to women.
The U.S. went home with 11 medals (four gold, six silver and one bronze), placing second in the tally. In the Alpine skiing events, which included downhill, giant slalom and slalom, Austria, Norway and Italy swept the men’s results while Germany, Austria, Italy and the U.S. dominated the women’s results. In the Nordic skiing events (men’s 18-, 50-, 4-by-10-kilometer relay cross-country, women’s 10-kilometer cross-country, ski jumping and Nordic combined), Finland, Norway and Sweden won all the medals.
In the giant slalom and slalom, Andrea Mead Lawrence emerged victorious for the U.S., becoming the first woman to win two gold medals in these events. Dick Button and Ken Henry also were awarded gold medals for their performances in the men’s singles figure skating and the 500-meter men’s speed skating events, respectively. Silver medals were given to the two-man bobsled, the four-man bobsled, Tenley Albright in the ladies singles figure skating, and Karol and Peter Kennedy in the pair’s figure skating. The U.S. hockey team also won a silver medal, as did Don McDermott in the men’s 500-meter speed skating. James Grogan, who was coached at Broadmoor Arena in Colorado Springs, took home a bronze medal for the men’s singles figure skating.
Andrea Mead Lawrence, the first American to win double gold medals in a single Olympics, was born in Vermont to an Alpine skiing family. She made the national team at age 14 and became captain of the U.S. Women’s Ski Team for the 1952 Winter Olympics at age 19. Lawrence moved to Aspen in the 1960s where she became a member of the town’s planning board. She is the founder of the Andrea Lawrence Institute for Mountains and Rivers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental conservation and also a member of the National Ski Hall of Fame.