Olympic History: The youngest athletes to shine at the Olympic Winter Games

 The history of the Olympic Winter Games is filled with examples of young athletes - boys and girls who devoted themselves to sport from an early age - who succeeded on the world's biggest stage. 

By Ilya Yashynin

The concept of the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) was first introduced in 1998, with the official debut of the multi-sport event taking place in 2010 with the Summer Youth Olympic Games of Singapore, followed by a Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck in 2012.

However, decades before the idea of the YOG had even come about, young athletes under the age of 18 participated alongside their senior competitors at the Games, with several winning Olympic medals. We went back through the annals of Olympic Winter Games history to learn more about these sporting prodigies.

Scott Allen (USA)

Age at Olympic debut: 14 years 355 days
Olympic record: Bronze medallist (Innsbruck 1964)

Scott Allen is the son of Swedish figure skating champion Sonja Fuhrman, who evidently passed on her passion for skating to her son. At just nine years old, Allen made his national debut in the novice division at the 1959 U.S. Championships, winning silver.

In February 1961, Allen's coach was preparing to take the young skater to Prague so he could watch the best skaters on the planet compete at the World Championships. But the trip was cancelled at the last minute due to a change in the coach's schedule - a change, as it turned out, that saved both of their lives.

The flight that the pair should have been on - Sabena Flight 548 - crashed on approach to Zaventem Airport in Brussels, killing all 72 people on board and one person on the ground. The entire U.S. figure skating team were tragically among those killed.

At the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Allen honoured the memory of his compatriots with dignity, winning the bronze medal in the men's singles competition just two days before his 15th birthday. In doing so, he became the youngest male medalist in the history of the Winter Olympics. At 19, Allen retired from skating, graduated from Harvard and later became a vice president of a clothing company.

Kim Yun-Mi (KOR)

Age at Olympic debut: 13 years 86 days
Olympic record: Two-time gold medallist (Lillehammer 1994, Nagano 1998)

Kim Yun-Mi is immortalized in Olympic short track speed skating history. In 1994, a young athlete from the Republic of Korea won gold in the 3000m relay at the Lillehammer Olympic Winter Games. Kim was only 13 years old, meaning that no one will ever beat her record as the youngest gold medalist in short track speed skating at the Olympics. Why? After the Games in Lillehammer, the International Skating Union set the minimum competition age limit to 15 years old.

At the next Winter Olympics in Nagano, Kim Yun-Mi celebrated a victory in the team relay again as the Republic of Korea broke the world record in the discipline.

Due to injury, Kim Yun-Mi didn’t take part in the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City and focused on academics. After completing her education, she came back to short track in a new role as a coach.

Alain Giletti (FRA)

Age at Olympic debut: 12 years 161 days
Olympic record: 4th place (Cortina d'Ampezzo 1956, Squaw Valley 1960)

Alain Giletti received a great honour at the 1952 Olympics in Oslo as he was chosen to carry the French flag at the opening ceremony of the Games.

Giletti also competed in the men's singles figure skating competition in Oslo, finishing seventh.

“Young skaters are often more relaxed during major competitions,” Jacqueline Vaudecrane, Giletti's coach, explained to INSEP.

Giletti would compete at the next two Winter Games, but on each occasion he just missed out on the podium, finishing fourth.

Despite the absence of Olympic medals, the Frenchman was one of the strongest figure skaters of his generation. He won the French Championship 10 times, took nine medals in the European Championships and won the 1960 World Championships while on leave from military service.

Sonja Henie (NOR)

Age at Olympic debut: 11 years 295 days
Olympic record: Three-time gold medalist (St. Moritz 1928, Lake Placid 1932, Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1936)

11-year-old Sonja Henie came to the 1924 Olympics in Chamonix as the Norwegian figure skating champion. She finished eighth in her Olympic debut, but would go on to win three consecutive gold medals in the women's singles competition at the Games, as well as 10 consecutive World Championship gold medals.

Sonja Henie on the ice at Chamonix during the Winter Olympics

Henie performed in innovative costumes that stood out among the other competitors and set the fashion for white skates. She also began to use elements of dance choreography in her performances, and dramatically increased the popularity of figure skating. After the 1936 Olympics, the skater moved to California to pursue a career in cinema. Henie succeeded in this ambition as well: She starred in 12 films produced by the world-famous 20th Century Studios.

Cecilia Colledge (GBR)

Age at Olympic debut: 11 years 73 days
Olympic record: Silver medallist (Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1936)

Cecilia Colledge became interested in figure skating during the 1928 World Championships, which were held in London. She became enthralled by the performances of Sonja Henie, who won the women's competition. Just four years later at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics, Colledge's idol became her competition.

Colledge finished eighth at those Games (out of 15 skaters), but did supplant Henie in the record books as the youngest athlete in Winter Olympic history.

Colledge won her only Olympic medal in 1936, claiming silver in the women's singles competition. A gold medal was within reach, but Henie's experience proved to be the difference as she won her third Olympic gold medal.

Cecilia Colledge waiting to compete in the British Amateur Skating Championships.

The following year, Colledge won gold at the World Championships as she entered the primer of her career. But the dream of Olympic gold was shattered by the start of World War II. During the war, Colledge worked as an ambulance driver and helped the wounded. In 1980, Colledge was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame.

Colledge remains an icon in figure skating, and, in addition to her medal record at the World Championships and Olympics (not to mention her service during the war), she is recognized as the first woman to perform such elements as the double salchow jump, layback spin and camel spin in competition.