Winter Olympics Oddities
This year, the Winter Olympics are being held at a lower altitude than ever before: 69 feet above sea level, in Vancouver. (The only other year that comes close was 1972, in Sapporo, Japan. Elevation: 75 feet.) Also oddly, this winter has been one of the warmest on record in Vancouver, with almost no snowfall. Most of the snow is being trucked or flown in.
Oddities, anomalies, and exceptions—they naturally crop up in the Winter Olympic Games, no matter where you look...
The Northern Hemisphere. All Winter Olympics have been held in the Northern Hemisphere, and for a reason: they are held in February—sometimes January, too. In the Southern Hemisphere, that's high summer.
The Southern Hemisphere. From the austral half of the Earth, two countries, and only two, have won Winter Olympic medals: New Zealand and Australia. A partial explanation for this is the uneven distribution of the Earth's land mass: only about a third of it is south of the equator, and even less if you discount Antarctica, which—being politically neutral, with no permanent citizens (like the Moon)—doesn't participate.
Hockey and Figure Skating, Year Zero. Ice Hockey and figure skating were Olympic events before the first Winter Olympics (1924) ever took place. How? They debuted at the 1920 Summer Olympics, in Antwerp. Figure skating had previously appeared in the 1908 Summer Games, too, when tug-of-war was also an Olympic event.
Athletes with Medals in Summer and Winter Events. There have been only four:
- Clara Hughes (Canada)—Individual Road Race Cycling and Individual Time Trial Cycling (2 bronzes, 1996) and Speed Skating (bronze, 2002).
- Christa Luding-Rothenburger (East Germany)—Speed Skating (bronze, silver, 2 golds; 1992, 1988, 1984) and Match Sprint Cycling (silver, 1988).
- Jacob Tullin Thams (Norway)—Ski Jumping (gold, 1924) and 8-meter Yachting (silver, 1936).
- Eddie Eagan (US)—Light-Heavyweight Boxing (gold, 1920) and Four-man Bobsleigh (gold, 1932).
Mascots. Every Olympic Games since 1968 has had an official mascot, usually a person or a regional animal. Occasionally, though, they're mythical creatures. The 2010 Olympic mascots are Quatchi (a sasquatch) and Miga (half orca, half kermode bear). Their unofficial sidekick is a non-mythic Vancouver Island marmot named Mukmuk. Miga and Quatchi are not the Winter Olympics' first cryptozoological mascots: the Turin games in 2006 had Neve and Gliz, a snowball and an ice cube. And at the '92 Albertville games, it was Magique, a “snow imp” or anthropomorphized star.
Sports that Didn't Take. Of the 15 sports currently a part of the Winter Olympics—and within these 15 are many more unique events—only eight were a part of the first Winter Olympics in 1924. The rest—alpine skiing, skeleton, the biathlon, luge, freestyle skiing, short track speed skating, and snowboarding—came to the Olympics as demonstration sports, first exhibited at the Games with no medaling. If popular, they're given an official place in Olympic competition four years later.
Not all of them catch on. Skijöring—skiing while being pulled by a team of dogs—flopped after the 1928 St. Moritz Olympics. Another failed demonstration, again in St. Moritz (1948), was the winter pentathlon. It consisted of five events: cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, shooting, fencing, and horseback riding.
Dangerous Events. Many Winter Olympics events are inherently hazardous. In large hill ski jumping, athletes attempt a sort of gliding freefall of at least 393 feet. In ski cross, snowboard cross, and short-track speed skating, athletes jostle for first position, resulting in some truly horrendous injuries. This year's pre-Olympic accidents included speed skater J. R. Celski's to-the-bone thigh laceration (60 stitches), snowboard crosser Max Schairer's concussion and cracked ribs, and snowboarder Shaun White's narrowly avoided concussion.
Lethal Events. No competitors have died during competition itself, but four athletes and one team doctor have been killed at Winter Olympic venues during practice runs or training. Nineteen-year-old Ross Milne, of Austria, was the first: he crashed and died during a downhill skiing practice run at the 1964 Innsbruck Games. His team bounced back though; that year, the odds a medal at the Winter Olympics was awarded to Austria were 1 in 8.58. That same year, British luger Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki died during a practice run, and Great Britain’s medal odds were just 1 in 103. In 1988, Jörg Oberhammer, team doctor for Austria, was run over by a snow-grooming machine, and in 1992, French speedskier Nicholas Bochatay crashed into one (Speedskiing, a demonstration sport that year, was not picked up). And, most recently, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died on February 12, 2010 during a practice run at the Whistler Sliding Center outside Vancouver. The center’s track holds the record for fastest recorded speed in luge.
Events with Zero U.S. Medals. There is only one Winter Olympic event in which the U.S. has never medaled: the biathlon (a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting). Prior to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the US had also never medaled in Nordic combined (cross-country skiing and ski jumping), until skier Johnny Spillane won silver in men's 10 km individual normal hill on February 14, 2010.
A Calendar of Other Medaling Oddities:
1928. Sonja Henie wins a figure skating gold medal at age 15, a record that will stand for 74 years.
1948. Neither Germany nor Japan earns a single medal in the 1948 St. Moritz Games (They were not invited to participate). The German team acquitted themselves well on their return, however; in 1952, the odds a medal at the Winter Olympics was awarded to Germany are 1 in 13.4.
1972. Francisco Ochoa wins gold in the slalom, the only Spaniard to ever win a Winter Olympic gold medal.
1980. "The Miracle on Ice" takes place, voted the greatest sports moment of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated. The U.S. hockey team, composed of mainly college-level players, defeats the heavily favored U.S.S.R. team in Lake Placid, NY. They go on to defeat Finland for the gold.
1998. Bjørn Dæhlie (Norway) becomes the most decorated Winter Olympian ever: 12 medals total, 8 of them gold.
2002. Georg Hackl (Germany) wins silver in singles luge, becoming the first athlete to medal in five straight Winter Olympics. It was a big year for Hackl’s team; that year the Germans led the world in medals (1 in 6.5) and gold medals (1 in 6.67).
2006. Duff Gibson (Canada) wins gold in skeleton. At 39 years old, he is the oldest individual Winter Olympian to ever win gold.