Thanks to a group of enthusiastic French organizers the future of the Olympic Games was about to be changed by a week of winter sports competitions in Chamonix.
On 26 January 1924 history was made when Charles Jewtraw flashed across the finish line in the 500m speed skating event at Chamonix. His time of 44.0 seconds was enough to claim both first place and the first gold medal to be won at Chamonix’s Winter Sports Week.
Organized by the French National Olympic Committee, with patronage from the IOC, the Week was actually a twelve-day celebration of winter sports that would be filled with many more memorable results and festive moments. Whether it was the touches of formality at the Opening ceremony, the performances of athletes or the handing out of medals at the Closing ceremony, each moment was destined to make history.
The day before Jewtraw’s victory the Sports Week had gotten under way with an Opening ceremony reminiscent of the Olympic Summer Games. There was a parade of athletes, the competition was declared open, each flagbearer swore an oath on behalf of their team and there was even music. Then there was a lull, a time when visitors explored Chamonix, athletes practiced, and a sense of anticipation filled the air. When the skaters and skiers finally took to the ice and snow Jewtraw’s sprint to gold on that first day of competition was just the opening act for the performances of the athletes who were to follow.
Still on the speed skating rink, Finland’s Julius Skutnabb traded successes with his team-mate Clas Thunberg. Skutnabb came away from Chamonix with one medal of each colour as he finished first in the 10,000m, second in the 5,000m and third all-around.
In ski jumping it was Jacob Tullin Thams of Norway who leapt to gold. What would make Jacob’s performance unique though was the fact that he would later combine it with an Olympic silver medal in the eight-metre class of the sailing competition in 1936 in Berlin. The double that started in Chamonix would set Thams apart as one of the few Olympians to take away medals from both the Winter and the Summer Games.
With performances such as these it was not surprising that when the Winter Sports Week ended even Pierre de Coubertin had lost some of his resistance to the idea of holding such an event. The definitive nod for holding a separate cycle of Olympic Winter Games, however, would not come from the IOC until 1925. It would take until 1926 for the Winter Sports Week to be retroactively designated as the I Olympic Winter Games.
For Charles Jewtraw, his medal became all the more memorable with that decision. It was a decision that elevated him beyond the top step of the podium to a place that only one athlete could claim. His medal and commemorative diploma would remain unchanged with only references to winter sports and a link to the Games of the VIII Olympiad, but in the history books Jewtraw’s win would now be deemed ‘Olympic’. Thus, in 1926, Jewtraw became the first athlete to be given the title of Olympic champion at the Winter Games.
The history of the I Olympic Winter Games was not yet finished though. There was one more medal to be awarded, one more story to tell and one more revision to be made to the pages of Olympic history. A scoring error had been discovered in the results of the ski jumping competition. It seemed that Thorleif Haug was not the bronze medallist after all. It was the American Anders Haugen who should have received the medal.
Almost fifty years after Chamonix Anders finally did receive his medal when Thorleif’s daughter presented it to him in a special ceremony in Oslo.