Switzerland: cradle of the Winter Olympics

Switzerland: cradle of the Winter Olympics

Winter sports are part of Switzerland's heritage, so it is not surprising that the first Olympic Winter Games were held in this country in 1928. The first? Not exactly!

The St Moritz Winter Games are known as the second Olympic Winter Games, following the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) decision to retroactively grant the official status of First Olympic Winter Games to the 1924 Chamonix International Winter Sports Week.

In 1928, the small Swiss town of St Moritz in Graubünden hosted 464 athletes from 25 different nations. Far-flung countries like Argentina, Japan and Mexico, which had not fielded athletes four years earlier, joined the Olympic movement. For nine days, snow sports pioneers competed in 14 events. The area around Lake St Moritz, which freezes over in winter, was a perfect example of Swiss diversity, as its inhabitants speak German, Italian and Romansh – three of Switzerland's four national languages.

A competitor during an alpine skiing event in 1928 © IOC

St Moritz, between tradition and modernity

St Moritz was one of the first Alpine villages to become a winter sports resort. Its historic hotels began to promote winter sports in the middle of the 19th century, and the town installed one of the first ski lifts in the world in 1938. It was therefore no surprise that the IOC chose St Moritz as the venue for the 1928 Winter Olympics, though other Swiss Alpine resorts were in contention.

St Moritz remains today a dynamic resort which cherishes its own traditions but is also open to the world, having hosted numerous international competitions. Despite the good snow conditions expected for the 1928 Winter Games – St Moritz lies at an altitude of 1,822 metres – the volunteers in charge of ensuring the smooth running of the competitions had their work cut out for them. After an opening ceremony marred by a blizzard, spring temperatures forced the 10,000-metre speed skating event to be abandoned. Despite this setback, the IOC decided to continue to organise games dedicated to winter sports, as the over 40,000 spectators who had travelled to Graubünden had been a clear testament to popular enthusiasm for the Winter Olympics. 

Start and finish of the cross-country skiing competitions at the 1948 Olympic Games in St Moritz © IOC
Start and finish of the cross-country skiing competitions at the 1948 Olympic Games in St Moritz © IOC

Renewed confidence during uncertain times

After the Second World War, St Moritz was awarded the 1948 Olympic Winter Games. The town offered the advantage of having competition venues that met the standards required for hosting the Olympics. Switzerland's neutrality during the war also made it the ideal host for the first post-war Games. Although the fifth Winter Games were organised with modest resources, the Olympic spirit triumphed, as there were numerous instances of exchanges of equipment among the 669 athletes from the 28 countries represented.

Ski jumping event at the 1948 Olympic Games in St Moritz © http://blogstmoritz2017.tumblr.com/post/156123455358/einst-und-jetzt-teil-1
Ski jumping event at the 1948 Olympic Games in St Moritz © http://blogstmoritz2017.tumblr.com/post/156123455358/einst-und-jetzt-teil-1

Original sports

Switzerland has always been a creative force as an Olympic host country. In 1928, frozen Lake St Moritz was used as a track for a skijoring race, in which skiers were pulled over the snow by teams of horses. 'Military patrol' races, featuring teams of soldiers, were highlights of the Games in 1928 and 1948. Known today as biathlon, this sport was added to the Olympic programme at the 1960 Winter Games. The 1948 Winter Games also showcased the first and last winter pentathlon event held at the Olympics. This unusual discipline mixed five summer and winter sports: cross-country skiing, shooting, downhill skiing, fencing and horse riding.

Skijoring, a demonstration sport at the 1928 Olympic Games in St Moritz © IOC
Skijoring, a demonstration sport at the 1928 Olympic Games in St Moritz © IOC

Swiss tradition and innovation

Having launched the Winter Games in 1928 and hosted what were dubbed the 'Games of Renewal' in 1948, Switzerland is now preparing to host the 2020 Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne. Although the IOC established its headquarters in Lausanne in 1915, designated the city as the world's Olympic capital in 1993 and opened the Olympic Museum that same year, it will have taken a little over a century for the city to finally receive its true Olympic honours by hosting the Youth Olympic Games.

The city of Lausanne under snow © Lausanne Tourisme
The city of Lausanne under snow © Lausanne Tourisme

The shared history of the Olympic Games and Switzerland remains open. The Swiss sports world, led by Swiss Olympic, plans to put in a bid for the 2026 Olympic Winter Games. After two unsuccessful attempts in 2002 and 2006, Sion has once again been chosen as a potential host city for the Swiss bid. Sion's bid would be in keeping with the values that Switzerland holds dear and that are shared by the Olympic Movement, which wants to see the Games return to a human scale. But before Sion can submit a third bid to host the Winter Games, the people of the canton of Valais will vote on the Sion 2026 project on 10 June of this year.

8.	Map of Sion 2026 venues
Map of Sion 2026 venues

The return of a classic for Sion 2026

The rest of the story remains to be written. If Switzerland does host the 2026 Olympics, the St Moritz-Celerina Olympic Bobrun will have been used for the third time to stage Olympic bobsleigh races. Built at the end of the 19th century along the natural terrain between St Moritz (1,852m) and Celerina (1,738m), it is world's only remaining natural-ice bobsleigh run, and also the oldest.

The St Moritz-Celerina Olympic Bobrun is the world's oldest bobsleigh run and the only natural-ice bobsleigh run still in use © https://www.stmoritz.ch/fileadmin/_processed_/csm_bob_history_765_022d336847.jpg
The St Moritz-Celerina Olympic Bobrun is the world's oldest bobsleigh run and the only natural-ice bobsleigh run still in use © https://www.stmoritz.ch/fileadmin/_processed_/csm_bob_history_765_022d336847.jpg

If Sion 2026 wins the Olympic bid – in addition to this legendary bobsleigh run it boasts existing facilities that would be used for the competitions – Switzerland's heart will beat with the city. Ice hockey rinks and major sports venues located in other parts of Switzerland would give added character to the XXV Winter Olympics. More than enough to rekindle the Olympic flame!

Sion 2026