THE GREAT: Clas Thunberg (Finland)
The Chamonix Olympics of 1924 weren’t even officially the inaugural Winter Olympiad when they occurred, merely a footnote to Paris’ hosting of the Summer Games that year. Yet in terms of legends, the 1924 Games couldn’t have had a better storyline. Norway’s Thorleif Haug won two gold medals in the cross-country skiing events, he won another gold medal in the Nordic combined, and he was less than four inches away from snagging another medal in the ski jumping competition.
And yet he wasn’t even the best athlete of Chamonix. Instead it was Clas Thunberg, the dominant Finn, that stole Haug’s thunder. The speed skater would walk away with medals in all five competitions, punctuating the retroactively-inaugural Games in a way that upstaged Haug’s own greatness.
It all started inauspiciously enough, as it was Charles Jewtraw of the United States who won the first gold medal ever awarded for speed skating when he defeated the field in the 500-meter race; Thunberg would finish in a tie for third place with Roald Larsen of Norway. The rest was history, though, as Thunberg promptly claimed gold in the 1500m and 5000m races. His teammate, Julius Skutnabb, would relegate him to silver in the 10000m race, but Thunberg would finish as the overall champion (with another gold medal for the effort) of the Olympic speed skating tournament. Though 30 years old, it would be an Olympic legacy for Thunberg that still had much to be written.
- Thorleif Haug (NOR/3xGOLD in cross-country, 1xGOLD in Nordic Combined)
1928 St. Moritz
THE GREAT: Johan Grøttumsbråten (Norway)
Clas Thunberg would return to the first official Winter Olympics, four years after the Games in Chamonix, and claim two more medals in speed skating. While he would add to what what then a record haul of medals, he would also fall short of becoming the best athlete in two straight Olympiads.
Instead it was Norwegian skier Johan Grøttumsbråten that dominated the Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Like his compatriot at Chamonix four years earlier, Grøttumsbråten claimed gold medals in both cross-country skiing and the Nordic combined.
Four years earlier he had earned himself a silver and two bronze medals in the Nordic events. Now, without Haug back to defend his titles, Grøttumsbråten took advantage of his countryman’s absence to take a few steps up the podium.
In the 18-kilometer cross-country race, Grøttumsbråten crossed the line two full minutes ahead of fellow Norwegian Ole Hegge. In the Nordic combined race, he similarly built a lead in the skiing portion — and then extended it even further on the ski jump hill. With a pair of decisive victories, Grøttumsbråten outclassed his rivals both domestic and foreign en route to the double gold, and he would be back four years later to defend his crowns.
- Clas Thunberg (FIN/2xGOLD in speed skating)
- Bernt Evensen (NOR/1xGOLD, 1xSILVER, 1xBRONZE in speed skating)
1932 Lake Placid
THE GREATS: Jack Shea and Irving Jaffee (USA)
A hamlet in upstate New York welcomed the third Winter Olympiad, hosting the world despite the austerity measures of the Great Depression. At the 1932 Games in Lake Placid, it would also mark the first time where Americans had generated the standout performances of the tournament while taking advantage of an odd setup in in the speed skating races. (Instead of running two-man heats as we are accustomed to today, the skaters were started in bunch starts of eight skaters per heat.)
First it was 21-year-old hometown hero Jack Shea that took charge of the shorter races at Lake Placid. In the 500-meter race, Shea defeated defending Olympic champion Bernt Evensen of Norway in the mass start by a full five meters, tying the Olympic record of 43.4 seconds. He replicated that gap when he took the 1500m race as well, defeating the Canadian pair of Alexander Hurd and Willy Logan in a time of 2:57.5 as he became the first American to win two gold medals at a Winter Olympics.
His solitary place atop that list would not last long, as fellow New York native Irving Jaffee swept the longer speed skating distances. In the 5000m, Jaffee dueled with American teammate Eddie Murphy until the last seconds, pulling away to cross the line in a time of 9:40.8 and win by two meters over his compatriot. In the 10-kilometer race, the race was even tighter. Battling with Norwegian skater Ivan Ballangrud and Canada’s Frank Stack, Jaffee lunged for the line to claim a second gold.
Jaffee, a Jewish skater, would not attempt to defend his medals at Hitler’s Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen four years later. Shea was likewise convinced by a Lake Placid rabbi not to take part in Germany either. Thus the story of America’s first legendary Winter Olympians ended on home ice, with both men falling on hard times in the Depression soon thereafter.
- Veli Saarinen (FIN/1xGOLD, 1xBRONZE in cross-country skiing)
THE GREAT: Ivar Ballangrud (Norway)
At Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Norwegian speed skater Ivar Ballangrud would become the first Winter Olympian to win medals at three consecutive festivals. In 1928, he had earned gold in the 5000m race and taken bronze at 1500m in Switzerland. In Lake Placid in 1932, he was at the losing end of Jaffee’s lunge to the line in the 10000m race, settling for silver. And as a 32-year-old at the top of his sport, more than doubling his career medal count in Germany in 1936.
With a return to individual heats against the clock after the pack racing in Lake Placid, Ballangrud lined up in the 500m — usually his weakest distance — and defeated countryman Georg Krog by a tenth of a second to claim gold. At 1500m, he improved on his bronze medal from eight years earlier with a silver-medal finish one second behind yet another Norwegian, Charles Mathiesen.
At the longer distances, Ballangrud was expected to face the stiffest competition from Finland’s Birger Wasenius. Wasenius had first broken on to the scene in 1933 with a silver at the European all-around championships. He consistently finished behind only the elder Ballangrud over the three winters leading up to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, but had yet to knock him off at a major international competition.
It would not happen in Germany, as Ballangrud’s strength at the endurance distances earned him two more gold medals and relegated Wasenius to silver yet again. The gap between the two at 5000m was 3.7 seconds; Ballangrud extended his lead out to 3.9 seconds in the 10-kilometer race. In the process, he became the first man since Clas Thunberg in Chamonix to win three gold medals at a single Olympiad.
- Ernst Baier (GER/2xGOLD in figure skating, becoming the only athlete ever to win singles and pairs gold at the Olympics)
- Birger Wasenius (FIN/2xSILVER, 1xBRONZE in speed skating)
- Oddbjørn Hagen (NOR/1xGOLD, 1xSILVER in Nordic combined/cross-country)
1948 St. Moritz
THE GREAT: Henri Oreiller (France)
Interrupted for two cycles by World War II, the Winter Olympics returned to a familiar place in 1948. With Switzerland one of the rare pockets of Europe not wracked by war, St. Moritz — host of the 1928 Games — once again welcomed the world’s winter athletes two decades later. The first post-war Olympiad also marked the first appearance of Alpine skiing in the winter sports program of the Games. The growing sport afforded the opportunity for one Frenchman to repeatedly make his way to the podium for medal presentations.
He would crush the downhill race on February 2, winning the gold medal with a time 4.1 seconds faster than silver medalist Franz Gabl of Austria. The downhill run also served as the first portion of the Alpine combined, setting Oreiller up with a big lead in that event as well.
Two days after winning gold in the downhill, he put together a consistent pair of slalom runs to win bronze in the event. His 68.0 seconds on the first run was good enough to place him just off the podium in fourth heading into the second of two runs. Faster conditions on the second heat favored Oreiller, who skied conservatively (finishing sixth in that heat’s times) and took advantage of the sloppiness of early leader Silvio Alverà to claim bronze 2.5 seconds behind hometown winner Edy Reinalter.
A day later, he returned to the slalom course with a big lead on Switzerland’s Karl Molitor in the combined standings after the downhill run. He once again skied conservatively on both of his runs, a tactician of the turns calculating what he needed to do to win the gold. While he would finish just fifth in the slalom portion of the combined, 7.4 seconds behind fellow Frenchman James Couttet’s winning time, he stayed two-tenths of a second ahead of main competition Molitor, expanding his lead in the final standings. The win would make him the only athlete to win three medals in St. Moritz despite the expanded program.
- Trude Beiser (AUT/1xGOLD, 1xSILVER in Alpine skiing)
- Martin Lundström (SWE/2xGOLD in cross-country skiing)
- Åke Seyffarth (SWE/1xGOLD, 1xSILVER in speed skating)
THE GREAT: Hjalmar Andersen (Norway)
Entering the 1952 Olympics being held in his home nation, Hjalmar Andersen had been the reigning world and European all-around champion for each of the past two winters. The man from Rødøy, far in the northern reaches of the Scandinavian nation, had conquered the speed skating world from his perch atop the globe. Less than a month shy of his 29th birthday when the Olympiad commenced in Oslo, he arrived in his nation’s capital with weighty expectations.
He lived up fully to the billing. Other than the 500m race, which as a master of the longer distances he declined to even contest, Andersen toppled two Olympic records en route to his thrice-gilded performance. As the distances got longer, the Norwegian just kept getting better.
He claimed his first gold in the 5000m race on February 17, obliterating the competition in the process and setting himself up for the treble. His time of 8:10.6 was just 3.3 seconds off the world-record mark he had set the previous January and set a new Olympic record. More importantly, it was a full 11 seconds faster than silver medalist Kees Broekman of the Netherlands.
His hardest-fought gold medal victory came the following day in the 1500m race. Dutch skater Wim van der Voort, who had finished second to Andersen at the 1951 European all-around championships held in Oslo, was comfortable on the Olympic ice. Andersen would win by just two-tenths of a second over the Dutchman, with nobody else in the field within a second of their marks.
In the 10-kilometer race on the last day of skating, four Olympians would stop the clock faster than Ivar Ballangrud’s Olympic mark set in 1936. Yet only one, Andersen, finished below the 17-minute mark. His time of 16:45.8 broke the Olympic record by nearly 40 seconds, and comfortably earned him a third gold medal as Broekman once again finished second at 24.8 seconds slower.
- Othmar Schneider (AUT/1xGOLD, 1xSILVER in Alpine skiing)
- Stein Eriksen (NOR//1xGOLD, 1xSILVER in Alpine skiing)
- Andreas Ostler (GER/2xGOLD in bobsled)
- Lorenz Neiberl (GER/2xGOLD in bobsled)
1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo
THE GREAT: Toni Sailer (Austria)
Alpine skiing had only been a part of the Winter Olympics since 1948 when Toni Sailer wrote his name into Olympic history. The “Blitz from Kitz” would become the first athlete, male or female, to win all three Alpine competitions in a single Olympiad when he took the downhill, slalom, and giant slalom at Cortina d’Ampezzo in 1956.
Sailer’s first victory came in the giant slalom on January 29, when he tackled the Ilio Colli course along with 95 other skiers. Austrians would sweep the podium, but nobody would come particularly close to Sailer. While silver medalist Andreas Molterer and bronze medalist Walter Schuster were separated by less than a second, neither was within six seconds of Sailer’s winning time.
In the slalom, Sailer was just three-tenths of a second ahead of American skier Brooks Dodge after the first run. But Dodge would fade horribly as the snow slowed down later in the day for the second set of runs, while Sailer was one of just two skiers to finish the course in under 110 seconds. Posting the best time in both runs, his second gold medal was a surety.
The downhill race three days later was a coronation. Attacking the Olimpia-Tofana course at Cortina, Sailer was 3.5 seconds clear of runner-up Raymond Fellay of Switzerland when he stopped the clock. Proving himself far better at every discipline than the rest of the world’s racers, Sailer would win three more world championships in 1958 but would retire before he had a chance to defend his Olympic titles.
- Yevgeny Grishin (URS/2xGOLD in speed skating)
- Sixten Jernberg (SWE/1xGOLD, 2xSILVER, 1xBRONZE in cross-country skiing)
- Pavel Kolchin (URS/1xGOLD, 2xBRONZE in cross-country skiing)
- Veikko Hakulinen (FIN/1xGOLD, 2xSILVER in cross-country skiing)