Winter Olympics: past and present

Author: John Soares

Sports fans watching the Winter Olympics in Vancouver may not realize the connection to the 1964 movie The Pink Panther, in which Peter Sellers’ bumbling Inspector Clouseau tried to match wits with David Niven’s suave, aristocratic jewel thief. The Pink Panther was filmed in Cortina d’Ampezzo – the Alpine resort in Italy that hosted the 1956 Winter Olympics.

The scenes in Cortina are a reminder of how quaint and charming the Winter Olympics used to be when they took place in tiny villages, often in Alpine resorts like St. Moritz, Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Cortina. These little villages could accommodate the Olympics because the Winter Games used to be so much smaller. Before adding events like freestyle skiing and short-track speed skating, the Winter Olympics could be held in an area so compact that a spectator in the middle of the Olympic campus in 1960 could see every competition venue at Squaw Valley.

Not only were the games small in those days, they had a magical, fairy tale quality. Prince Albert of Monaco – an actual prince! – competed in the bobsled in five Olympics. The tiny Alpine principality of Liechtenstein – at only 62 square miles, so small that 16 Liechtensteins would fit into Rhode Island – produced skiing medalists out of all proportion to its size. Speed skaters from the Netherlands turned their nation’s frozen canals into nurseries for Olympic medalists.

Of course there were occasional political overtones in Cold War Winter Olympics. Among the most dramatic were the U.S.-Soviet hockey collisions in 1960 and 1980, and the figure-skating showdown at Calgary in 1988, where East German Katarina Witt and American Debbi Thomas dueled for the gold medal after both chose to skate to music from Bizet’s Carmen. Even though they were Cold War allies, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union battled bitterly in hockey, especially in Sapporo in 1972 when the gold medal was at stake in their first Olympic hockey meeting after the Soviet invasion of 1968.

Despite these episodes, the Winter Games have rarely experienced the overt politicization that has long afflicted their summer counterparts. Bigger in every way, the Summer Olympics have long been fraught with political controversy. At Berlin in 1936, Hitler turned the games into a festival of Nazi propaganda. At Melbourne in 1956, the Soviet invasion of Hungary triggered fights in a water polo match that literally bloodied the pool. At Mexico City in 1968, protests against the games’ lavish cost brought a violent response by government forces that left unknown numbers dead.

Mexico City was also the site of the famous Black Power salute on the medal stand by Tommie Smith and John Carlos. At Munich in 1972, the kidnapping of Israeli athletes tragically ended in their deaths. At Montreal in 1976, African nations boycotted to protest the participation of white athletes representing the white supremacist regime in Rhodesia.

At Moscow in 1980, the United States and other nations boycotted to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At Los Angeles in 1984, the Soviets and their friends retaliated against the United States with a boycott of their own. At Atlanta in 1996, the games were marred by a fatal bombing attack. At Beijing in 2008, Chinese hosts were offended by protests during the Olympic Torch relay against China’s human rights policies.

If The Pink Panther is a suitable reminder of the endearing quaintness that once characterized the Winter Games, the best cinematic metaphor for the Summer Games may be Olympia. This – it stretches on for 3½ hours – was a documentary of the 1936 Berlin games made by Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl. The film’s scope, critical acclaim and political controversy capture those of the Summer Olympics.

The Winter Olympics have outgrown the tiny villages that once hosted them and moved to larger cities like Salt Lake City, Torino and Vancouver. In 2014, they will go to the city of Sochi, Russia, where the long shadow of Vladimir Putin threatens to create controversy that has long been part of the Summer Games. Putin, a former KGB official turned post-Communist tsar, has never been known for the charm or silliness of The Pink Panther. His sport is a martial art, judo, and his approach to “summer games” in 2008 was an invasion of neighboring Georgia – fighting a small war just kilometers from Sochi. No one can tell what protests or controversy Mr. Putin might generate when his nation hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics.

John Soares, a Note Dame visiting assistant professor of history, is an historian of sport, the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy.