Chamonix 1924: Inventing the Winter Olympics

One hundred years ago, 258 athletes from 16 countries and 10,000 spectators flocked to the French Alps for an event that would go down in international sporting history: the first Winter Olympics! In the run-up to Paris 2024 and the 2030 Winter Games, which will also be held in France, we take a look back at twelve days of sports and diplomacy.
© Archives municipales de Chamonix-Mont-Blanc

On January 25, 1924, bright sunlight flooded the village of Chamonix and the Mont Blanc massif. One international delegation after the next took to the stand for the opening ceremony of the first Winter Olympics. The American flagbearer, who had just arrived from the United States with his compatriots, was still seasick. Clutching his banner, firmly planted in the ice rink, Clarence “Taffy” Abel took the Olympic oath, “for the honor of our country and for the glory of sport.” His rudimentary French amused the crowd, but the hockey player laughed it off: “I would rather trip in my […] delivery than when shooting a goal!” History proved him right; by the end of the competition he had scored 15 times.

The International Winter Sports Week

Chamonix was not chosen at random. Nestled between the Aiguilles Rouges and the Mont Blanc at 3,395 feet of elevation, it is one of the highest towns in Western Europe. A mountaineering hotspot since the late 18th century, Chamonix is also where skiing made its debut in France after being imported from Norway in 1892. Wealthy English and American tourists had long frequented the resort’s hotels, but the locals, known as Chamoniards, were surprised to see several hundred “Sammies” arriving on leave from the front in 1918!

In 1921, the International Olympic Committee was pondering whether to include winter sports in the program. While the Scandinavians, whose Nordic Games had been held since 1901, vehemently resisted this change, the French campaigned for a more “inclusive” competition. After eliminating the potential host towns of Gérardmer in the Vosges and Luchon-Superbagnères in the Pyrenees for logistical reasons, France opted for a baptism of fire in Chamonix. One year later, thanks to the impassioned French campaign, the IOC granted its support to the “International Winter Sports Week,” a prelude to the Paris 1924 Summer Games.

A race against the clock began – not unlike the preparations for Paris 2024. The stakes were high and threefold, revolving around public health, geopolitics, and infrastructure. Five years after the armistice, the Chamonix valley was still in the grip of a major Spanish flu epidemic, which the new hospital was unable to contain. Like Russia today, Germany was excluded from the competition as retribution for its role in the Great War. But above all, the little Alpine resort was far from ready! Work began on May 31, 1923, just eight months before the start of the competition. (Hosting the Summer Games in the same year as the Winter Games, in the same country, was a challenge that has been repeated only twice; by the United States in 1932 and Germany in 1936.)

The Majestic Hotel in Chamonix hosted the French Olympic Committee, official representatives, and international sports federations during the 1924 Games. © Archives municipales de Chamonix-Mont-Blanc

Mountain guide Roger Frison-Roche was secretary of these first Winter Games. Fifty years later, the emblematic local figure and author of the First on the Rope saga wrote that “even now […], such a project would seem unfeasible!” But thanks to the help of its 3,000 inhabitants, the town rose to the challenge: “Day and night, they dug and ploughed tirelessly, drawing admiration from specialists and virulent criticism from those who had not yet grasped just how important the Games were for the future of Chamonix.”

The resort built a ski jump, a bobsleigh track, and a 387,500-square-foot skating rink – a world record! To bring people to the top of the slopes, Chamonix inaugurated the first version of the current Aiguille du Midi cable car, described by The New York Times as “the world’s greatest aerial funicular railway.” America, however, was worried about where its athletes would sleep. “[The] French city [is] too small,” wrote the newspaper. Its concerns were understandable; 65% of the hotels had already been reserved for the IOC and the press, and there was no Olympic village. As a result, local authorities began searching for additional accommodation. Years before Airbnb, Chamoniards were even asked to open up their homes to visitors!

Snow Lights the Powder Keg

Just as the preparations were nearing completion, disaster struck. A storm, the likes of which even the locals had never seen, dumped almost six feet of snow on the valley in 24 hours. “Chamonix is cut off from the world!” wrote The New York Times two weeks before the start of the event. Just like the 45,000 volunteers mobilized for Paris 2024, all available men were requisitioned to clear the roads, sweep the ice rink, and prepare the ski slopes. It took a week – and the intervention of the French army – for everything to be ready on time.

The American hockey players, who were already in the Alps, were “disconsolate” at not being able to train after their long journey, and complained at length to the press. Meanwhile, in an ironic twist, their fellow athletes in the U.S. were dealing with the opposite problem. A lack of snow jeopardized the ski qualifying rounds at Briarcliff Manor, in the Hudson Valley. Unperturbed, the organizers had more than half a million cubic feet of snow shipped by train from the Adirondacks! “How very American!” wrote the French newspapers, amazed by this ingenious solution.

French figure skater Andrée Joly and her American counterpart Beatrix Loughran training in Chamonix, January 16, 1924. © Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“The Americans have made a considerable effort,” reported French correspondents in the United States with a mix of admiration and concern. Chamonix had become a state affair. New York State had training tracks built to official standards, and the national ice skating championships were postponed to accommodate the training of the “Olympic troops.” In the women’s team (13 female athletes took part in the figure skating event, the only discipline open to them), photos of the graceful Beatrix Loughran, “America’s prodigy,” were the talk of the town. “Brrr…” commented Paris-Soir. “Medals will be hard-won in Chamonix!”

The American press was more than happy to play up to the hype. On January 10, 1924, two weeks before the start of the Games, The New York Times dramatically declared that “the second contingent of America’s athletic army, which will invade France this year, has set sail.” After an eleven-day crossing, the athletes enjoyed a short stay in Paris, during which they laid flowers upon the statues of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and the Marquis de Lafayette. Finally, The Washington Post published the headline: “America is in Chamonix.”

Pedal to the Medal

On January 25, 1924, the opening ceremony of the first Winter Olympics drew 2,069 spectators (400,000 are expected in Paris on July 26 this year). The Chamonix mountain guides, the pride of the valley, opened the procession, accompanied by various local sports clubs, the fire department, and the town marching band. They were followed through the snow-covered streets by 258 athletes wearing sweaters, woolen pants, and hiking boots, carrying skis, skates, hockey sticks, and curling brooms. Sixteen world flags flapped in the wind.

The American banner, with just 48 stars at the time, was carried by Sault Ste. Marie native Clarence Abel. Years later, the hockey player (nicknamed the “Michigan Giant” by the French press) spoke of the historic significance of this moment. While “Taffy” was captain of his team and the first American flag bearer at the Winter Olympics, he was also the first Native American to participate in the Games. His Ojibwe heritage, which he kept a secret for his entire career, coupled with his refusal to give in to institutional racism, made him a twofold pioneer.

The U.S. delegation (including hockey player and flagbearer Clarence Abel) in Chamonix, January 25, 1924. © Associated Press
American speed skater Charles Jewtraw won the first gold medal at the Chamonix Games on January 26, 1924. © Lake Placid Olympic Museum

The very next day, American athlete Charles Jewtraw also made history by dominating the speed skating event and winning the first gold medal of the Winter Olympics. A particularly sterling performance after his grueling Atlantic crossing. In 1983, in an interview with Sports Illustrated, he revealed that he had initially refused to compete in Chamonix, as he was intimidated by the 500 meter event, a discipline he was unaccustomed to. “I was a poor boy from Lake Placid,” he said. His coaches convinced him to take part, but he remained pessimistic. “I wasn’t even nervous the day of the race. Why would I be? I knew I couldn’t win.”

And yet after a start that had the crowds on the edge of their seats, the man dubbed “America’s ice speed king” by The Chicago Tribune set a new record of 44 seconds! He also beat the Nordic skaters, who were considered invincible at the time. “It was like a fairy tale,” said Charles Jewtraw who made the front pages of the French newspapers, all delighted by the Scandinavian defeat. One Parisian paper went so far as to claim that the New York sportsman was actually of French origin: “His name was originally ‘Jutras,’ but like many French Canadians educated in the United States, he has anglicized it.”

The claim may be dubious, but it shows just how much this American victory meant. The local band played the U.S. national anthem, the skater’s teammates embraced him and lifted him into the air, while the loudspeakers blared out a phrase that has gone down in history: “Charles Jewtraw of the United States wins the first competition of the first Winter Games!” The American athlete, who donated his medal to the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. in 1957, always treasured his Olympic victory. “How many people get to experience a moment like that?”

Anti-Americanism on Ice

While the spectators in Chamonix were delighted with this first victory, the week that followed saw the rise of transatlantic tensions. Since arriving, the American hockey players had complained incessantly about France’s organization of the event. First and foremost, they were astonished by the layout of the Olympic rink, which was not surrounded by walls like in American facilities. This made the U.S. style of play, known for bouncing the puck, impossible. “We find solace in the fact that the Canadians are experiencing similar troubles,” said coach William Haddock to the press.

When he requested that the matches be played in 15-minute periods, instead of the 20 customary in Europe, the organizing body refused. The temperamental coach threatened to withdraw his team from the competition. “The incident may seem trifling to the home folks, but it is a question of principle,” he told American newspapers. And, he added, it was a “reaction” to the rudeness of the French. Despite these disagreements, the team remained in the competition and racked up victory after victory. The United States crushed Belgium 19-0, France 22-0, England 11-0, and Sweden 20-0. All eyes were then on the final against their historical rival, Canada.

The Canadian hockey team after their victory in the final against the United States, in Chamonix, February 3, 1924. © Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Spectators gathered around the Olympic ice rink in Chamonix, 1924. © Archives municipales de Chamonix-Mont-Blanc

However, William Haddock was back in the news. He was convinced that the European nations had joined forces against the U.S.A. to take revenge for their humiliating defeats. His suspicion was not totally unfounded: On February 4, under the headline “On patine, on potine” (“Hockey Pokey”), Paris-Soir reported that the French goalie had lent his cutting-edge equipment to his Canadian counterpart, with instructions to “not concede a single goal to the Americans.” Panicked by this European “conspiracy,” U.S. players were convinced that they would be defeated. A “thoroughly un-American” attitude, according to The New York Times.

However, the U.S.A. and Canada did agree on one thing; they were both concerned that the “continental” referee chosen by the IOC was “not conversant with the intricacies of hockey as played across the Atlantic.” Unsurprisingly, the match was merciless. In the “fast and furious” final, which had the press in raptures and drew thousands of spectators, the North American behemoths engaged in a savage battle. Players were sent off in droves, and many others were injured – aside from the goalkeepers, none of the players wore any protective gear! According to The New York Times, it was “the roughest hockey struggle ever played in Europe.”

Crowds gathered around the rink to watch the gladiatorial combat. As sociologist Sébastien Stumpp points out in Chamonix 1924: The First Winter Olympics (2023), this aggressive encounter was a testament to “the growing interest, in Western societies deeply affected by the violence of World War I, in brutal sporting spectacles featuring hateful attitudes and bellicose, virile rhetoric.” In the end, Canada emerged victorious with six goals to one.

After the Games

The first Winter Olympics were a success. Spectators flocked from France and abroad to discover sports they had never heard of before, including figure skating, Nordic combined, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, and military patrol, a forerunner of the modern biathlon. Those who didn’t attend still participated, enjoying daily updates from the some 200 journalists who covered the events and sent a continuous stream of dispatches from Chamonix to newsrooms across the world. In his closing speech, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the godfather of the modern Olympic Games and president of the IOC, praised winter sports as “a school of daring, energy, and perseverance.”

French jumper Kléber Balmat placed 15th at the Chamonix Games, February 4, 1924. © Archives municipales de Chamonix-Mont-Blanc

Meanwhile, the French press lambasted “the complete lack of decorum on the part of the Canadian and American teams, one of which overindulged in its celebration of the Canadian hockey victory, while the other simply drowned its sorrows.” These criticisms only intensified when American athletes arrived in the capital to meet their Parisian admirers. Before heading back to Prohibition-era America, the Olympians made a noteworthy appearance at the Folies Bergères cabaret. Chicago skater William Steinmetz fondly recalls his visit: “There were those nude girls on stage, and they would come sell you booze at intermission.” Charles Jewtraw confirmed the unique atmosphere: “I called all the girls Chérie, ” he said. “But I had made a solemn promise to my darling mother back in Lake Placid not to do anything with the girls in Paris.”

In 1925, buoyed by the success of its International Winter Sports Week, Chamonix was officially named the “first Winter Olympic Games in history.” The Games returned to France on several occasions, to Grenoble in 1968, Albertville in 1994, and soon the Southern Alps in 2030! However, this decision is already being challenged in light of the climate crisis and the threat it represents for snow and winter sports in general. “Remembering Chamonix 1924 is perhaps more necessary than ever,” says sports historian Julien Sorez. “In contrast with the oversized sensationalism that has taken over in recent decades, the challenge for the 2030 Winter Olympics will be to bring them as much as possible in line with the more perennial model invented by Chamonix 1924, halfway between innovation and respect for nature.”

Chamonix 1924: The First Winter Olympics, directed by Julien Sorez, translated from French by Michelle Onofrey, Glénat, 2023.

Article published in the January 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.