Memorable Canadian Moments at the Winter Olympics (Part 1)
PART 1 – 1924 to 1956
The first Winter Olympic Games were held in the French Alps in Chamonix, France, in 1924. The original six sports included ski jumping, bobsled, curling, ice hockey, skiing, and skating. Today, it has become a major international, multi-sport event taking place every four years. The modern-day Winter Olympic Games now includes 15 different sports—such as snowboarding, biathlon, and luge—with more than 100 events.
Take a walk with us down memory lane to look back at the Canadian highlights from each of the Winter Olympics held between 1924 to the current 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
1924 Chamonix, France | Jan. 25-Feb. 4
Originally called Semaine des sports d’hiver (International Sports Week) by the French Olympic Committee, these winter sports competitions were held in the same year as the Summer Games in the small town in the Haute-Savoie region. The event was a great success, with 10,000 spectators paying admission. A total of 16 nations, represented by 258 athletes (11 women, 247 men), competed in 16 events, four of which involved skiing: cross country (18km, 50km); ski jumping; nordic combined (cross country & jumping); military patrol. Canada was represented by one speed skater, two figure skaters, and nine hockey players who won Canada’s only medal of the Games, a gold.
Interesting fact: The resort remained without snow until December 23, 1923, but a massive snowfall of 110 centimetres blanketed the area in the days leading up to the opening ceremonies. Olympic officials and town folks shovelled snow non-stop until a hard frost set in on the eve of the Games.
Canadian skiers were allowed to participate for the first time at the Olympic Winter Games of 1928. It was a joint decision of the Canadian Amateur Ski Association (CASA) and the Canadian Olympic Games Committee. The spectacular ski jumping and the challenging downhill sections of the cross country races were among the main attractions.
Interesting fact: Arriving late, the Canadian team was at an immediate disadvantage. It was cautioned not to begin training immediately due to the “…peculiar knock-out effect of the high altitude” (H.P. Douglas, Canadian Ski Annual 1927-1928). Many of the other teams had been training in Switzerland for a month and were already well acclimatized. The Canadians were also unaware of nuances in the technique of the Europeans, who were able to reduce their speed on the steeper downhill sections using their ski poles as brakes, by dragging the poles behind them in the snow.
1932 Lake Placid, New York (USA) | Feb. 4-15
The small town of Lake Placid hosted the lll Olympic Winter Games, opened by then Governor of New York State, Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was a difficult period as the industrialized world struggled to cope with The Great Depression. Nevertheless, in spite of the limitations imposed by the financial constraints, the Games were a great success with the enthusiastic participation of 17 nations. Canadian Amateur Ski Association (CASA) president, Allan C. Snowdon, had strongly urged all ski clubs to introduce programs to produce skiers of international calibre prior to the Games.
Interesting fact: Unlike the previous Olympic Winter Games, the COC, influenced by the Toronto Ski Club, ensured that the team had adequate time to acclimatize to its new surroundings. The Lucerne-in-Quebec Corporation made arrangements to accommodate the Canadians for a two week training period which aided the Canadians in adopting new techniques to improve performance. Unfortunately, limited funding meant that out of the 23 who qualified, only 15 Canadian skiers were sent to Lake Placid.
Photo: 1932 Canadian Olympic ski team at Lake Placid Club Course [L to R]: Sigurd Lockeberg (manager), Louis Grimes (coach), Jostein Nordmoe, Arthur Gravel, Kaare Engstad, John Currie, William “Bud” Clark, Arnold Stone, Robert Lymburne, Howard Bagguley, David Douglas, John Taylor, Ross Wilson, Jacques Landry, Leslie Gagne [Absent]: Harry Pangman, Walter Ryan – CSM# 79.9.1
Photo: 1936 Canadian Men’s Olympic ski team [L to R]: Harry Pangman (manager), Tormod Mobraaten, William “Bud” Clark, William “Bill” Ball, Norman Gagné, Karl Johan Baadsvick – CSM# 71.7.6Photo B. Johannes (Beckert) Garmisch-Partenkirchen
1936 Garmisch, Germany | Feb. 6-16
The twin towns of Garmisch and Partenkirchen in Bavaria, Germany, hosted the IV Olympic Winter Games. In spite of a heavy snowstorm, Germany’s Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler, presided over the opening ceremonies in the Olympic stadium. Alpine events made their debut amidst an altercation between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the ruling body of international skiing, the International Ski Federation (FIS). The IOC ruled that all ski instructors were considered professionals and were ineligible to compete, a decision that consequently led to a boycott of the Games by Swiss and Austrian skiers.
Interesting fact: The Canadian association was unable to conduct a fair nationwide search to select qualified women skiers to represent the country due budgetary and time constraints. Instead, it learned of four Canadian women living in Europe, each of whom had ski racing experience in the Alps, and invited them to represent the women’s ski team. The women’s team skied with determination and tenacity. Undeniably, Mrs. Gordon-Lennox became the most recognizable Canadian to the applause of the 30,000-plus crowds because of her fluency in the Viennese-inflected German language, unusual eye glass monocle, and great sense of humour.
1948 St. Moritz, Switzerland | Jan. 30-Feb 8
Untouched by the devastation of World War II, the town of St Moritz in neutral Switzerland was chosen to host the V Olympic Winter Games. With the bitter memories of war yet to fade, it was not surprising that Germany and Japan were barred from competing. The quality of the sites for competition and enthusiasm of both athletes and spectators alike, confirmed the Winter Games had emerged from a 12-year hiatus unharmed and with renewed interest.
Interesting fact: Before the Games even started, the Canadian alpine team suffered a disappointing loss. Twin sisters, Rhoda Wurtele and Rhona Wurtele, weren’t even allowed to compete in pre-Olympic races for fear they would get hurt. Unfortunately, Rhoda was injured during a training run and was unable to compete in Olympic competition, while Rhona suffered a head injury but was able to return in time to compete in the alpine events. Bill Irwin competed in a total of six skiing events. Even more remarkable, he had spent two weeks in the hospital prior to the Olympics, after a snow bridge collapsed on him during a training run.
Members of Canada’s Olympic ski team at 1948 St. Moritz Olympic Winter Games [L to R]: Pierre Jalbert, Hector Sutherland, Rhoda Wurtele, Rhona Wurtele, Harvey Clifford, Wilber “Bill” Irwin, Albert “Bert” Irwin. Alpine Canada Alpin.
1952 Canadian Olympic Women’s Alpine Ski Team [L to R]: Rosemary Schutz, Rhoda Wurtele, Franz Gabl (coach), Joanne Hewson, Lucile Wheeler. Canadian Pacific Railway / B-2401-15.
1952 Oslo, Norway | February 14-25
The VI Olympic Winter Games were awarded to a Scandinavian country, widely considered the birthplace of skiing even with some initial scepticism that Norway could host an event of this magnitude. However, such doubts were quickly dispelled; the organization and venues were excellent and the Games proved to be extremely successful. In November 1951, the Canadian Olympic ski team was officially named; alpine skiers Bob Richardson, Jack Griffin, André Bertrand, Gordie Morrison, Joanne Hewson, Rhoda Wurtele, Rosemarie Schutz, Lucile Wheeler, cross country skiers Claude Richer and Jacques Carbonneau; ski jumpers Jacques Charland and Lucien Laferté.
Interesting fact: Known for his flamboyant style, Lucien “Cowboy” Laferté endeared himself to a massive crowd of 150,000 (20% of Norway’s population at that time) watching the special jump competition. At the conclusion of his jump which ended in a fall with the loss of both of his skis, Laferté coolly sprang to his feet, smiling and bowing exaggeratedly to each section of the crowd. Canadian skiers placed far better than at the previous 1948 Games, finishing much closer to the winners’ times, largely due to the coaching skills of Harvey Clifford and Franz Gabl.
1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy | Feb. 5
World War II denied Cortina d’Ampezzo its first opportunity to host the Olympic Winter Games in 1944. Twelve years would pass before it was selected again. Trained under the guidance of the legendary Ernie McCulloch at Mont Tremblant, Quebec, the men’s alpine team was represented by André Bertrand brothers Andy and Art Tommy, along with coach Franz Gabl. The women’s team was coached by Pepi Salvenmoser and consisted of Anne Heggtveit, Carlyn Kruger, Lucile Wheeler and Ginette “Gigi” Seguin.
With a bronze medal in the downhill event, Lucile Wheeler became the toast of Canada, as the first Canadian skier to win an Olympic medal. Perhaps spurred on by Lucile’s performance, the women’s team results were exceptional overall, bettering anything achieved in previous Games.
Interesting fact: In a repeat of previous Olympic Winter Games, injuries plagued both alpine and nordic teams during training. Franz Gabl was hospitalized in Cortina after suffering an injured ankle and a concussion, and was replaced by Walter Clausing. Andy Tommy suffered a spiral fracture to his right leg, while brother Art Tommy pulled ligaments in his right knee, thus ending their Olympic hopes. Gigi Seguin suffered several injuries including torn ankle ligaments that required continuous treatment, but she courageously persisted through the pain during Olympic competition, as did ski jumper Jacques Charland who held back on his distances due to a sprained ankle.
Lucile Wheeler earned a bronze medal at the 1956 Winter Olympic Games, the first Olympic ski medal by a Canadian.