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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

How did the Winter Olympics originate?

By Paul Niemann

[FEB. 16, 2006]  The very first Summer Olympic Games took place in 776 B.C. in Olympia, Greece. The very first Winter Olympic Games took place 2,700 years later in the French Alps near Chamonix, France, in 1924.

The organizers of the 1916 Berlin Summer Olympics tried to introduce a Winter Olympics, but it was canceled when World War I began. At the time, World War I was known as the Great War since no one knew there would be a second one. The first Winter Olympics wasn't called the Olympics until two years after the competition; the event was originally known as the "International Winter Sports Week."

My favorite team -- the Jamaican bobsled team -- made its debut in 1988 at the Calgary (Canada) Olympics and, surprisingly, finished higher than the U.S. men's team did in the Lillehammer (Norway) Olympics six years later, when the Jamaicans finished in 14th place.

On a similar note, I still can't figure out why curling is an Olympic sport while "sweeping the floor with a push broom" is not. Here's a brief account of the origins of three of the Winter Olympic sports:

Ice hockey

Modern hockey originated in Canada, with the first official game played in 1886 on a rink that had a grandstand in the middle of the ice. The original puck was actually a lacrosse ball cut into the shape of a square.

Ice hockey made its Olympic debut during the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. Four years later, in the first Winter Olympics, the dominant Canadian team won the gold medal as they outscored their five opponents by a combined score of 88-3, beating the United States in the gold medal game.

The obvious highlight in Team USA's hockey history occurred at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., when the American amateurs beat the Soviet team and then Finland to win the gold medal. There will probably never be another "Miracle on Ice" like that one because Olympics men's hockey now allows professional players to compete.

Skiing and snowboarding

The earliest form of skiing was discovered when a Russian artifact showed a hunter on homemade skis alongside reindeer as many as 6,000 years ago. Fast forward to the inaugural 1924 Winter Games, when an American named Anders Haugen became the oldest Olympian to win a medal, at the age of 83. It's a true story, but what happened was that he was originally denied a medal due to a math error in calculating the scores. The error was discovered 50 years later in 1974, and he was awarded the bronze medal in a special ceremony.

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Skiing includes snowboarding, which traces its roots beck to the late 1960s, when surfer Jake Burton invented the Burton Board in the Vermont barn where he lived. Here he manufactured his boards with the help of a few friends he hired. He sold 300 of his Burton Boards in his first year, and he doubled his sales every year for the next 15 years. Snowboarding was first included as an Olympic event in the 1998 Nagano Olympics and is now on its way to surpassing skiing in popularity.

Figure skating

Like ice hockey, figure skating traces its roots to the Summer Olympics. It made its debut at the 1908 London Summer Olympics. Eleven-year-old Sonja Henie of Norway was the youngest figure skater to participate in the 1924 Winter Olympics, and as a 15-year-old she became the youngest skater to win a gold medal in the 1928 games in St. Moritz, Switzerland. She defended her title in 1932 and in 1936. Since then, no woman has won three gold medals in figure skating, and she remained the youngest gold medal winner until Tara Lipinski won the gold in the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

Today there are 85 countries competing in the Winter Olympic Games in Torino, Italy, and there are 78 different events.

This completes your Olympic update. I have to go sweep the floor now; I'm trying to make the 2010 Olympic curling squad.

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at You can learn more about this week's story by visiting the official Invention Mysteries website.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2006

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