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February 4, 2014

At last, Winter gets its own ‘Games’

CHAMONIX, FRANCE — A ragtag parade down the center of town marked the opening ceremonies of the first Winter Olympics.

Looks quaint, doesn’t it? Look closer and you’ll see just how quaint: Many of the athletes — they really were amateurs back in the day — are lugging their own equipment: hockey sticks, skates, skis and such. Then again, by 1924 standards, it was considered quite a pageant.

Ninety years after its original publication, the AP is making its original report on the opening ceremonies of the first Winter Olympics available.

The whole shebang at Chamonix in 1924 cost less than $28 million in today’s dollars, and set the tone for the winter games that followed. Unlike their bigger, brassier and traditionally much more expensive summer counterparts, they’ve been generally modest affairs ever since. But there are oligarch-sized ambitions to flip the script this time around.

When the world gathers in Sochi this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his countrymen better have plans up their sleeves for something with a little more oomph. Otherwise, they’ll have $50 billion — more than has been lavished on any previous Olympics — worth of questions to answer for.

Sochi was known once for the tea grown in the        region, and later, as the site of state-run, Neoclassical-styled sanatoriums and Joseph Stalin’s favorite dacha. The plan now is to turn the summer resort town alongside the Black Sea into a staging ground for the most spectacular winter games ever, and in the bargain, turn Sochi into a destination for the ski and private jet-set.

Putin has hinted he will accept nothing less — despite repeated construction delays, reports of widespread corruption, environmental damage and unrelenting criticism over a Russian law banning “homosexual propaganda.” And even those problems seem pale in comparison to security concerns heightened after recent bombings in Volgograd and Dagestan believed to be the work of Islamic insurgents in the nearby Caucasus region.

“The result expected by us,” a defiant Putin said recently, “is a brilliant Games.”

The expectations for those first games, on the other hand, were simply to improve on a winter sports festival that had taken root in Sweden in 1901.

Fans and organizers of the Nordic Games had managed to shoehorn a figure-skating competition into the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, but they kept lobbying for games of their own. The International Olympic Committee finally went along in 1924, granting the French officials who staged the 1924 Summer Games in Paris a chance to try their hand at six winter sports — alpine and cross-country skiing, figure skating, ice hockey, Nordic combined, ski jumping and speed skating.

Sixteen events were contested over 11 days, drawing 258 athletes (including just 11 women) from 16 nations and exactly 10,004 paying customers. American speedskater Charles Jewtraw won the opening contest, the 500 meters, prompting the Boston Globe to slap the headline “Our Flag At Top Of Olympic Mast” atop The Associated Press story.

Read a few paragraphs into it and you’ll learn that the swinging-arm style that has become mandatory for sprinters since was considered revolutionary when Jewtraw and U.S. teammate Joe Moore (who finished 8th) unveiled it before a handful of “gaping” Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish coaches.

But it didn’t take long to figure out why those traditional Nordic powers were so eager to get their own Olympics.

Cross-country sensation Thorleif Haug won three golds, enabling Norway to top the medals table with 17 total. In what turned out to be a historical footnote, Haug was also awarded the bronze in the ski jump in 1924; but 50 years later a scoring error was confirmed and the medal was finally delivered — by Haug’s daughter no less — to its rightful owner, American Anders Haugen.

Finland finished second with 11, thanks to Clas Thunberg’s speed-skating haul of three golds, a silver and a bronze. The 28 medals by Norway and Finland were more than all the rest of the competing nations combined. The United States and Britain finished tied for third with four medals each. Canada won only one medal, but served notice it was a hockey power to be reckoned with by scoring 122 goals and allowing just three en route to the gold.

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