Sochi is a name few had perhaps heard of until a few years ago when, after London 2012, Olympic fever simmered down to reach freezing point in preparation for the winter version of the games. A Russian seaside resort on the Black Sea not far from the Georgian border, Sochi actually has a subtropical climate with warm summers (look out for the palm trees in TV footage of the city) but winters are often cold enough for snowfall, though the alpine and ski events will take place in nearby Krasnaya Polyana, Russia’s leading ski resort.
But before we look forwards to Sochi, I’d like to take you backwards, to revisit a few previous Winter Olympics that have earned their place in the fascinating history of The Games.
Up in the French Alps is where it all started, though some of the winter sports like figure skating and ice hockey had previously been included in summer games. The event was held in the same year as the 1924 summer competition, actually preceding the Paris 1924 Summer Olympics. This tradition continued until 1992.
Interesting things to happen at Chamonix included the host nation France not winning any gold or silver medals (they picked up three bronzes) and there was a judging error in the ski jumping event, which went uncorrected until fifty years later when 86 year old American Anders Haugen was finally awarded his bronze medal in 1974. The medal was removed from Norwegian Thorlief Haug, whose daughter actually presented Haugen with the medal.
Another Winter Olympics which was held in the same country and same year as the summer event, this time being the turn of Nazi Germany. Much is made about the 1936 summer games in Munich, and the same tension was certainly felt at the winter competition in the Bavarian twin-villages Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Although “permitted” to compete, Jewish athletes feared for their safety amid a heavy military presence and race courses lined with swastika flags. There was also controversy with the introduction of Alpine skiing to the games as professional ski teachers were prohibited from competing, resulting in Austria and Switzerland boycotting the games. Another interesting fact about Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1936, the medals awarded in these Olympics were the heaviest on record at 324 grams.
St Moritz 1948
The first Winter Olympics after the Second World War was the second time the Swiss resort of St. Moritz played host. Introducing the “military patrol” events that would become the biathlon and winter pentathlon, the main attention-grabbing event at these competitions was figure-skating. The performance delivered by US figure-skating gold medal winner, Dick Button, earned him a place in the history books after he delivered a flawless double axel jump only two days after successfully performing it for the first time. It had never been seen before. He later went on to be the first to master a triple loop jump and he invented the “flying camel spin” which also took his name, the “Button camel”.
Fast forward to 1984 and to Sarajevo, which was then part of Yugoslavia. Hindsight makes these games extra poignant as a decade later would see the Bosnian War devastate much of the infrastructure built to support the games. At the time, however, it was regarded as a successful event which did much to highlight the beauty of the region. Notable events included the Olympic flag being raised upside down at the opening ceremony and it was also the first time a black African athlete skied at the Winter Olympics with Lamine Guèye representing Senegal in the Alpine skiing. These Olympics are inscribed in all British minds to the tune of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero thanks to Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean’s perfect ice dancing performance which won them gold medals and made them national darlings.
The first time Canada hosted the Winter Olympics was in Calgary, where temperatures can drop to -30 Celsius in winter. The cold was particularly brutal for arguably the most famous bobsled team of all time – the four Jamaicans who arrived in Calgary, one of them never having seen snow until just months before. Made famous by the film Cool Runnings, the Jamaican’s bobsled story is the stuff of legend and has inspired many more unlikely Winter Olympic athletes from warmer climes to participate. Their legacy continues in Sochi as Jamaica returns to the bobsled competition for the sixth time, their campaign largely assisted by online contributions and virtual currencies such as Dogecoin.
Japan’s second time hosting the Winter Olympics was memorable for being the first time snowboarding was introduced to the games, a fact that may shock young snowboarders now. It was also a memorable games for Austria as they watched their medal hopes crash and burn when Hermann Maier went flying through the air and crashed through two barriers during his downhill race. Or so they thought. Miraculously, the “Herminator” walked away from the crash and went on to win gold in the slalom and Super-G. It was also the event that saw Norwegian Bjorn Dæhlie cement his legendary status in cross-country skiing as he added an additional three gold medals to make a record-breaking total of eight Winter Olympic golds, making him the most successful winter Olympian of all time.
The last winter Olympics began on a sad note when a tragic practice run for Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili resulted in his death. A frightening reminder that the Winter Olympics has in fact taken more lives than the summer games.
But this Olympic Games wasn’t without uplifting stories, as home side Canada and neighbouring rivals, USA, battled it out to earn their place at the top of the medals table. Vancouver was the Olympics where American Bode Miller won his elusive gold medal (plus a silver and a bronze) and it was the competition where Slovenian cross-country skier Petra Majdič, who after a bad crash during a warm-up, continued to compete and won her country’s first Olympic medal in the sport… all the while nursing four broken ribs. It was also in the world-famous Whistler ski resort that Shaun White confirmed his position as the world’s best snowboarder. As he approached his final halfpipe performance he had the gold medal secured, but that didn’t stop him taking some huge risks by performing a new trick the “Double McTwist 1260″, which he did flawlessly. The snowboarding world waits to see what he comes up with in Sochi…
Are you planning on watching the Winter Olympics? Please share with us which events you’re looking forward to most.
Behind the pretty alpine houses that are still undeniably French lurk snow-capped mountains, which pop into view surprisingly often as you stroll around Chamonix during the festive season. While the smell of freshly baked croissants and baguettes tease your taste buds into staying in town, those mountains, the grandest of which is the famous Mont Blanc, starts to whisper your name. “Why are you down there when you could be up here? Come, bring your skis and see how good the snow is up here!”
Image © Graham McLellan
Such is the delightful dilemma of Chamonix, a town on the edge of some of the best skiing and snowboarding in Europe but a town that is much more than just a ski resort with top class restaurants serving up unusually decent international cuisine, great shopping and plenty of activities that you don’t need skis for. Is it worth mentioning that it is also one of the easiest ski resorts to access with quick connections to Geneva airport?
Oh, and it’s also the ideal location for an guaranteed White Christmas, so why not book a chalet and bring the family.
Image © Sébastien Barré
Sunset on the Aiguille du Dru – Image © Sébastien Barré
So let’s talk skiing and snowboarding. With road connections to the ski area in Courmayeur in Italy and rail and road access to Verbier in Switzerland, it’s possible to ski in three different countries during a week’s stay in Chamonix. That said the skiing on offer in the Chamonix Mont-Blanc valley is varied and challenging enough to keep all levels happy too. Up on the mountain you will find spectacular views of Mont Blanc and of the Aiguille du Midi peak, which is connected to Chamonix via the world’s second highest cable car. While this journey is not for the faint hearted, the incredible views make up for any fear or icy chills you encounter getting to the top; it certainly beats watching looking down over your floated stomach after too much turkey.
Image © Matt Gillman
Image © Andreas Kristensson
Image © Dan Zelazo
Talking of food, you will find traditional Christmas dinner influenced menus on offer at many of the restaurants in Chamonix and even some on the mountains. However, it’s also easy to be in Chamonix over Christmas and easily avoid turkey and the trimmings, Chamonix is one of the most international ski resorts in France with Japanese, Scandinavian, Malaysian, Indian and more different types of food on offer. France celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve so this is the evening to soak up the festive atmosphere by drinking vin chaud with the locals and admiring Chamonix’s Christmas lights as the council-run parade, fireworks and carol singing takes place outside the Tourist Office. We also hear that there’s a very special bearded guest of honour makes an appearance all dressed in red…
For those who want the White Christmas without those uncomfortable ski boots or the aching muscles, then you can use a number of the cable cars in the area – including the Aiguille du Midi – to access nothing but stunning snowy views . The clue is in the name at the Teleriphique de Bellevue, which offers a panorama of the valley and once up at the Aiguille du Midi you can experience the thrilling cable car journey that crosses country borders in to Helbronner in Italy – that’s if the prospect of a 3km cable car without pillars doesn’t scare you back down the mountain and into the warmth of a log fire and another vin chaud…
Greetings from Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, more commonly known as Chamonix; site of the first ever Winter Olympics and one of France’s – indeed Europe’s – most exquisite places to try your hand at skiing; that most exhilarating, refreshing and utterly spellbinding of outdoor activities.
Please enjoy this wonderful collection of images from the slopes and gulleys of this beautiful place, and have a wonderful weekend.
Image © Edward Simpson
Image © Edward Simpson
Image © Kygp
Chamonix Place Balmat - Image © Alain Bachellier
Image © Reza
Ascending Mont Blanc - Image © twiga269
Image © Edward Simpson
Lacs des Chéserys - Image © Dawid
Image © David
Trains de la Mer de Glace - Image © Alain Gavillet
Image © Mauro Fuentes
Image © Sébastien Barré
Image © Thierry Llansades