100 Years of Winter Olympics

Written by Lindsay Cannon 27 November 2023

Last modified on 26 March 2024
First Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France First Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France

In Chamonix, in the stunning French Alps, we are celebrating! The first Winter Olympics was held in the town in 1924, and 2024 marks the 100th anniversary. At that time competitors were chosen not just on their past results, but on whether they could take several weeks off work. You were required to take a boat to Europe, and pay your own costs. 

For centuries the alpine and historic town of Chamonix has attracted mountain athletes. From the first ascent of the mighty Mont Blanc in 1786, the highest mountain in Western Europe at 4810m (15,776ft), right up to the World Cup events in climbing, mountain biking and skiing that are held today. 

The Winter olympics begin

In 1921 the International Olympic Committee gave the go ahead for the first winter event to be held in 1924 in Chamonix Valley between the 25th of  January and the 5th of February. Taking place in the shadow of the mighty Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe, seemed an appropriately majestic and inspirational choice of location. 

Chamonix equestrian stadium made the perfect location for the Winter Olympics - Photograph: AP

The initial aim was to hold a "International Winter Sports Week", but it was so successful, that retrospectively it was named the First Winter Olympic Games. Participants qualified not just on performance and past results, but also on whether they could take time away from work for the several weeks required to make the journey which for some involved taking a boat, and they had to pay their own expenses. 

This iconic event greatly contributed to Chamonix's international reputation, and the town took on a new dimension with a shift towards winter sports. A tradition that continues today, and which attracts people from all over the world to this stunning valley. 

OPENING CEREMONY

Today's Winter Olympics revel in the pomp and ceremony of the opening event, but in 1924 in Chamonix it was very different. The athletes marched through the town with their equipment on their shoulders, carrying skis, and ice hockey sticks etc. The rules of the time also stated they had to march in sportswear, something that no longer applies today. 

 

The American team arriving in Chamonix - Photograph: AP

THE FIRST Champions 

In total there were 260 athletes, with 16 teams, and 16 events. There were six sports represented, including speed-skating, curling, bobsleigh, ice hockey, figure skating, and, of course, skiing where only Nordic disciplines were staged and only men could compete.

It was an American Charles Jewtraw who became the first ever Winter Games champion when he won the first event to be held, the 500 metre speed skating. The athlete who collected the most medals was Finland's Class Thunberg. In the speed skating he took five medals, including three golds. 

Ice hockey was one of the sports represented, and the team from Canada scored 85 times in the first three matches without conceding a goal. They went on to win the tournament by scoring a staggering 122 goals, with opposing teams only managed a meagre 3 goals against the Canadians. 

The weather also provided a battle for the athletes, with the 50km cross country ski event being held in a violent and icy cold wind. The event was won by Norway's Thorleif Haig, who took 3h 44m to complete the course. The last ranked competitive finished 2h 30m after Thorlief. 

Charles Jewtraw took the first medal in speed skating - Photograph: George Rinhart

BEGINNINGS OF BIATHLON

One of the events held on the 30th of January 1924 is now regarded as the forerunner of the modern day biathlon event. The rifle shooting and cross-country skiing elements were similar to today's event, but the competition contained an additional element. This was the "military patrol" competition, where teams of four, which had to include one officer, had to complete a 30km ski race as a unit. Once the team race was over, the team members, minus the officer, took part in a shooting contest which earned them a 30 second timed bonus for every target hit.  

awards ceremony

By the time the awards ceremony was held on the 5th of February some of the athletes had already gone home, and the medals were presented to other members of their teams. In particular American Anders Haugen had to wait a long time to get his medal. Deprived of his third place because of an error in marking, he had to wait 50 years to receive his award. This only happened after he fought the result and eventually won his case. He received his medal in 1974 when he was 83 years old. Taking the phrase 'better late than never' to a whole different level!

The event in Chamonix was the beginning of a tradition of winter events, and the Winter Olympics were held in the same year as the Summer Olympics until 1992. At that point the current practice of holding the event in the second year after each Summer Olympics began. 

11 yrs old Sonja Henie of Norway, 8th in the figure-skating competition - Photograph: Rinhart/Corbis via Getty 

For Sonja, the youngest competitor in the 1924 Winter Olympics, it was the start of a brilliant career. She went on to claim 10 world championships,  six European championships, and was thrice an Olympic champion.

100th anniversary celebrations

This winter Chamonix will celebrate the centenary of the Winter Olympics with a programme of sporting events, cultural exhibitions, and ceremonies. 

Highlights

    • 2 December 2023 to 15 March 2025: Exhibition covering the invention of the Olympic Winter Games at the Maison de la Mémoire et du Patrimoine in Chamonix

    • 2 December 2023 to 29 June 2024: Exhibition of Champions at the Olympic Games at the Maison de village in Argentière

    • 18 to 21 December 2023: 7th edition of the “Micros d’Or (Audi-Visual Festival), on the eve of the Olympic centenary

    • 25 January 2024: 100 years after the opening ceremony of Chamonix 1924

    • 3 & 4 February 2024: Kandahar Alpine Ski World Cup, 100 years since the creation of the International Ski Federation (FIS) in Chamonix
    • 16 March 2024: Official ceremony in Chamonix of the 100th anniversary of the 1st Olympic Winter Games

    • 23 June 2024: Chamonix-Mont-Blanc welcomes the torch relay of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games 

COMING UP NEXT

In 2024 the Summer Olympics will be held in Paris, exactly 100 years after the first Winter Olympics were held in France. Tickets for the event went on sale on the 30th November, and what a great gift that would for family or friends make for the festive season. The next Winter Olympics will be held in Italy in Cortina d'Ampezzo in 2026, the town where we base our Italian Dolomites Snowshoe trip.  

If you would like to enjoy the 100th anniversary celebrations in Chamonix you might like to join our Chamonix Snowshoe Adventure in January, or our Snowshoe and Ski Break for beginners. 

For more information about cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking and trail running adventures with Tracks and Trails, speak to one of our expert team by calling +44 (0)20 8144 6442 or emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.