The Best of Winter - Silver Medal: Squaw Valley 1960

The aerial view (picture: www.tahoebest.com) makes it perfectly clear what these Games where about: They were the most compact ever, both Summer and Winter. It took visitor's only a few footsteps from Blyth Arena to the speed skating rink, the bottom of the ski jump created by German expert Heini Klopfer and the finish line for the alpine ski events. The only events that took place away from the centre were the cross country ski races at McKinney Creek. The bobsleigh events had been cancelled before mainly due to the high costs.

1960 also marked the birth of an idea often copied later: a business effort to develop a ski ressort by landing the Olympic Games. New York lawyer Alexander Cushing had the genius to promote the by this time almost unknown ski resort in the Sierra Nevada mountains - and it worked. Squaw Valley was the first place on earth to be put on the global map only by hosting Olympic Games.

This film gives a nice overview of the Games:

Squaw Valley also marked the first time that television covered the Games on a wider scale. A few hours of footage has survived in the CBS archives.

The most stunning result of Squaw Valley was probably the triumph of German nordic combined athlete Georg Thoma, the first man from outside scandinavia to win the marquee event of nordic skiing. 34 years later, his nephew Dieter Thoma was part of the Gold medal winning German ski jumping team at the Lillehammer Games. By that time Germany (both East and West) already had developed a big tradition in the combined events.

Also a place in th history books gained the United States hockey team. 20 years prior to the miracle of Lake Placid, the crew stunned the Soviets 3-2 and took the Gold medal. The last player to have been cut from the team before Squaw Valley was Herb Brooks - the coach who later made the miracle of Lake Placid come true. A documentary about the 1960 team was published in 2009 with the fitting title "Forgotten Miracle":


The Best of Winter - Bronze Medal: Oslo 1952

Norway was, is and always will be the home of winter sports. In no other country are people so enthusiastic and respectful about it, especially when it comes to endurance sports. It is a little surprising that it took the IOC 28 years since the inaugural Winter Games to come "home" to Oslo. The main reason: In the pre-war years, the Winter Games were always linked to the host nation of the Summer event (except for 1928).

The 1952 Games were by far the biggest in Winter Games history, concerning the number of spectators, the atmosphere and also the number of participants. Germany (West) and Japan were allowed to take part for the first time after the war. The "Olympic family" was reunited and almost complete, except for the USSR, that appeared a few months later at the Helsinki Summer Games.

To Norwegians, the undisputed hero of Oslo was hometown boy Hjalmar Andersen, winning the three long distance speed skating events.

When Andersen won his final Gold medal in the 10,000 meter event, a Norwegian newspaper heralded him by simply putting his winning time in the headline: "16:45,8". The scene of his triumph, Oslo's famous Bislett Stadium, is now decorated with a statue of "Hjallis" - like Paavo Nurmi greeting in front of Helsinki's Olympic Stadium (photo: NRK).

Germany re-entered the Olympic arena with a big, fat boom. Putting together a bunch of Bavarian super-heavyweights, the won both gold medals in the bobsleigh.

No wonder, the sports authorities "invented" a weight limit after this experience...


The Best of Winter - 4th Place: Sarajevo 1984

This is an emotional pick for different reasons. As everybody knows, the city of Sarajevo was the only Olympic host city ever to be destroyed by civil war. It happened only a decade after the flame was extinguished.

But these Games were unique for many different reasons. They were the last Games before the expansion era, when the festival was stretched over three weekends. They were the only Games ever held in a non-alligned state. And it was the only time between Lake Placid 1980 and Calgary 1988 when all sport super powers were present.

Many remember these Games for the fabulous "Bolero" by Jayne Torvill an Christopher Dean. Memorable to me is mainly the downhill gold medalist Bill Johnson. The California native was a one hit wonder of alpine skiing, dominating the downhill scene only for the winter of 1983/1984. Johnson broke up cars as a youngster, he was sent into a ski facility by a judge. After his triumph at Mount Bjelasnica,...

...Johnson vanished from the scene as fast as he had appeared. His life went downhill from there on and ended tragically just a few weeks ago, after suffering from multiple diseases.

It is a sad footnote to the otherwise harmonious 1984 Winter Games. Tragedy afterwards mainly struck the multicultural city of Sarajevo. The photo below shows the roof of Zetra Ice Palace (today Juan Antonio Samaranch hall) hit by a grenade during the civil war in 1992.


The Best of Winter - 5th Place: St. Moritz 1948

It's time to count down my personal favourite editions of both Summer and Winter Games, starting with number five on the ice and snow list. In 1948, St. Moritz not only became the first town to stage Winter Games for the second time. It was also the first time the Olympic flame was lit after World War II - after a twelve year break that started with Leni Riefenstahl's infamous "Lichtdom" in Berlin in 1936.

St. Moritz was totally different from the Nazi Games, being a kind of last look back into the dawning days of modern winter sports at the turn of the 20th century. The Swiss mountain resort was a meeting place for the rank, rich, and famous, their favorite sports of ski racing and figure skating being mundane physical exhibitions instead of mass media entertainment. One of the few real stars of the Games where figure skating champions Dick Button and Barbara Ann Scott, the rest of this year's Olympic champions being mostly forgotten today.

Controvery was scarce at this last idyllic mountain top Winter Games, had it not been for the scandal surrounding American hockey. The U. S. had sent two teams to Switzerland, one picked by the American Hockey Association (AHA), one by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). After endless discussions, the AAU team supported by Avery Brundage got the honor of marching at the opening ceremony, but a few hours later, the AHA (picture: Getty Images) team took to the ice. It finished fourth before being ruled out as well. The gold medal went to Canada, as usual.


In the beginning was the music

Music has been a key part of Olympic Games pageantry throughout the ages, starting in the ancienct arts contests. As Baron Pierre de Coubertin wanted to merge arts and physical culture when refounding the Games in 1896, he might have been looking for something really special to kick off each Olympics.

The Olympic Hymn by Spyridon Samaras, first performed at the opening ceremony of the 1896 Athens Games, might sound awkwardly bobmbastic to today's listeners. The lyrics by Kostis Palamas seem even more out of time. The literal English translation of the last verse (though never sung that way) for example reads like this:

Plains, mountains and seas glow with you
Like a white-and-purple great temple,
And hurries at the temple here, your pilgrim,
O Ancient immortal Spirit, every nation.

Hard stuff, but it has survived through generations - even more. The International Olympic Comitee made the song its official hymn as late as 1958. Since the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Games, it is sung whenever the flag with the five rings is hoisted.

But even much fanfare can sound mild and peaceful if it is performed in the right way. May personal favourite is the version by Norwegian singer Sissel Kirkeby at the start of the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Games:

The "Ancient immortal Spirit" seems to be rather down to earth in this tune.

What it's all about...

The history of the Olympic Games has always been about much more than purely sports. When I started to get interested in the Games, politics were dominating the sporting event. It was in 1980 and 1984, when the boycotts of first Moscow and then Los Angeles seemed to ruin the very heart and soul of the Games. But it was also the time, when private enterprise started to revitalize them - with all the good and bad things that came along with it in the following decades.

Since then, the Olympic Games have never let me go. Besides following them on TV every four or two years, I read as much as I could about them, watched the pictures and films of the days gone by and tried to get a picture as all-encompassing as possible about this fascinating phenomenon. I also had the luck to be able to write my master thesis in history at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz about this topic. It was an in-depth look at the notorious 1936 Games and their political and propagandistic effects on the United States.

In this blog, I would like to share my personal thoughts, ideas and memories about the Olympic Games from the beginnings up to the 2000 Sydney Summer Games, which many people consider to have been the famous "best Games ever". As you will see in one of my next posts, I don't share this view. But I truly believe that since the turn of the century the Games have gone in a direction that is highly problematic. The demons of modern sports - drugs, cheating, corruption, media overkill - are also a threat to the Games - combined with a tendency for chosing politically questionable host cities. These are not the same Games anymore as they were in the 20th century.

So let's look back - not in anger, not in nostalgia, but keeping in mind how the Olympics shaped the world and the world shaped them. I hope for pleasant and interesting reading and are always happy for feedback.