No stranger to hosting an international crowd and introducing them to unique sporting activities, the Swiss resort of St. Moritz made the task of welcoming the world look easy. On 11 February 1928 skates skis, ski poles, hockey sticks and athletic clothing were expected. Bobsleighs and sleds were not. Carrying most of the equipment for their sports, as they had been instructed to do by the Organizing Committee, the athletes of 25 nations created a colourful picture when they paraded through St. Moritz on their way to the Opening ceremony.
If any of the spectators lining the route from the Klum Grand Hotel to the stadium wondered why the athletes were dressed and equipped to compete, the answer quickly became clear. Less than one hour after the Games were declared open, some hockey players were already on the ice for the first match in the tournament whose format would be unique. Thus, with a mix of ceremonial pomp and sporting action, the II Olympic Winter Games got underway and history began to be made.
For eight more days athletes and spectators alike experienced all that St. Moritz had to offer. Horse drawn sleighs made the journey to the venues all the more special. If spectators wanted a break from the competitions, the Organizers were only too happy to introduce their visitors to other more unique winter sports options. Demonstrations of acrobatics on ice, where skaters jumped over long lines of barrels, and skijoring, a traditional Swiss event where skiers were towed by horses in fast paced and harrowing looking races, were just two of the options that proved popular with the watching crowds.
The festivities added to the atmosphere of the Games but did not overshadow the real reason that spectators had come to St. Moritz - to watch the official sports competitions and athletes from around the world in action.
The figure skating events, held at the Klum hotel, attracted capacity crowds who packed the stands and terraces surrounding the rink to watch as competitors spun, leapt and glided as well as they could over ice that was far from smooth. Most of the skaters rose to the challenge and turned in many noteworthy performances.
In the men’s competition, Gillis Grafström of Sweden was the athlete to watch. Despite skating on an injured knee Grafström still performed with dazzling precision and his performances earned him a third Olympic gold. Grafström had won his first medal in 1920 when figure skating was included as part of the Summer Games competition programme, and his second in 1924 at the I Olympic Winter Games.
When spectators had witnessed enough pirouettes it was easy to find another enthralling competition. Fans of the adrenaline rush of speed needed to look no further than the newly added discipline of skeleton, for example.
Skeleton’s inclusion was logical as St. Moritz was internationally famous for its Cresta run. The Cresta was a tobogganing piste highlighting ten icy curves carved out of the snow that guaranteed an exciting spectacle. Added to this was the fact that participants wore limited protective padding and showed little fear as they launched themselves onto sleds and hurdled down the run face first, sometimes barely clinging on.
Of those daring enough to commit their names to an entry form to participate in the men’s singles event it was the Americans Jennison and John Heaton that proved themselves most fearless. Familiarity also helped –the Heatons were no strangers to the Cresta having spent their winters in St. Moritz. Recording the fastest overall times put the brothers on top. Jennison became the first to win Olympic skeleton gold and John the first to win silver.
Despite its proven public popularity, skeleton would not reappear on the Olympic programme until the Winter Games returned to St. Moritz in 1948. It remains however, as one of the events that helped make the II Olympic Winter Games so memorable.