America’s First Winter Olympics

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Fear and apprehension gripped the officials at Lake Placid, New York, on the afternoon of February 4, 1932. Even New York’s governor, although grinning broadly, probably had a few reservations. Why had bobsledder Paul Stevens done it. Why had he asked the governor’s wife to try out the bobsled run. He must have known she would take up the challenge. He certainly knew that the previous week, during a trial run, the German bobsled team jumped the slide at Shady Corner going 65 m.p.h.; after landing in an 85-ft gully, most of the Germans went to the hospital with fractured skulls and broken wrists. Therefore, a great sigh of relief went up when Stevens’ bobsled whooshed to a safe stop at the end of the course. There, stepping out of the bobsled, taking off her leather helmet, flashing her toothy grin, was the governor’s wife — Eleanor Roosevelt.

In 1924, Chamonix, France hosted the first Winter Olympic events. Initially, these winter games were seen as a prelude to the more important summer games, but the Chamonix games were so successful that two years later the Olympic Committee bestowed the title “First Winter Olympics” on Chamonix ’24 and pronounced the ’28 games at St. Moritz, Switzerland, as the Second Winter Olympiad.

The first Winter Olympics on United States soil opened at Lake Placid, New York on February 4, 1932. President Hoover failed to attend because he was busy in Washington battling the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who announced his candidacy for Hoover’s job a few weeks before, opened the ceremonies in his capacity as governor of New York State. FDR’s wife, Eleanor, accompanied the governor, and it was during the opening day luncheon when Paul Stevens, one of the four bobsledding Stevens brothers, issued the invitation that could have marred the ceremonies if all had not gone well.

Thanks to the Olympics, Lake Placid, a new and little-known resort nestled in the Adirondack Mountains, 320 miles from New York City, became world-famous. Helping to spread that fame was the new technology of radio. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC), created in 1926, and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), created in 1928, both set up lines to transmit accounts of the Third Winter Olympics to the nation. NBC also broadcast eight of the events overseas through their shortwave station, WGY, in Schenectady, New York. Veteran sports announcer Clem McCarthy along with Ben Grauer, George Hicks, Edward Thorgersen, and Jack Filman described the first Olympics heard on radios down the street and around the world.

Because of the worldwide depression, many nations failed to send athletes to Lake Placid. Of the 65 countries invited, only 17 could afford to send teams. Happily, Norway, the top medal-winning country at Chamonix (16 medals) and St. Moritz (15 medals), sent their team, including the Olympics’ first ice queen — Sonja Heine.

The blond-haired, brown-eyed, 15-year-old Henie revolutionized skating at St. Moritz in 1928 with colorful costumes, short skirts that swirled above her knees, and a new skating style — Henie brought ballet to the ice and changed figure skating forever. The now 19-year-old world champion’s appearance at Lake Placid guaranteed big crowds. Scalpers got $50 a ticket. (Well over $500 in today’s money.)

Knowing Heine would be their top draw, officials at Lake Placid needed to protect the skating events from the weather. In 1924 at Chaminoix, a blizzard buried the rink, forcing crews to dig it out. Then a warming spell melted the ice, and only a quick freeze on the day before the opening saved the skating events. Lake Placid took no chances. They built an indoor arena at the cost of a quarter-of-a-million 1932 dollars to protect the Norwegian star’s performance venue.

Henie’s skating was superb. She captured the hearts and votes of all seven judges, winning the second of her three gold medals (’28, ’32, ’36). Henie’s teammates also did well. The Norwegian team captured 10 medals: 3 gold, 4 silver, and 3 bronze. But the Norsemen’s initial winter Olympic dominance ended as the Americans won their first and only winter Olympics with 11 medals: 6 gold, 3 silver, and 2 bronze.

Lake Placid resident Jack Shea took two gold medals in speed skating, one in the 500 meters and one in the 1,500 meters. Shea’s teammate, Irving Jaffe, also completed a double, winning the 5,000- and 10,000-meter speed skating gold.

The American bobsledders won two gold medals. Brothers J. Hubert and Curtis Stevens grabbed the gold in the two-man event; William Fiske drove the victorious sled in the four-man event. One of the members of the U.S. four-man sled, boxer Eddie Egan, had never ridden a bobsled until three weeks before the Olympics. As the winner of the 1920 Olympic light-heavyweight gold medal, Egan became the only man to win gold medals in both the summer and winter games. Fiske later became the first American killed fighting for England against the Nazis; his plane was shot down in August 1940, during the Battle of Britain.

Of course, the Canadians won the ice hockey gold, but had to wrench it from a plucky American team. In the opening game the Canadians beat the Americans 2-1. Late in the third period of the finale against the Americans, the Canadians knotted the score at 2-2. After three overtimes produced no goals, the Olympic Committee awarded the gold medal to the Canadians based on total points in all games: 11 to the Americans 9.

The 1932 Lake Placid Olympics drew $96,000 in receipts, $4,000 below projections. Yet the community felt they had made a good investment in the future. The publicity garnered by the radio broadcasts more than made up the difference. As for the broadcasters, they felt satisfied with their performance. Ben Grauer reminisced years later: “Generally, as a new breed of broadcast reporters, we were treated with great respect. With one exception. We invited Sonja Henie out with us for a beer. She came along. But so did her Daddy.”

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