What Are the Winter Olympics?
It was the 2018 Winter Olympics, held in PyeongChang, South Korea. At Phoenix Snow Park, the American snowboarder Shaun White waited for his run.
No one thought he’d win.
White grew up by the beach in San Diego. He’d always loved skateboarding and decided he could use those skills for snowboarding—and snowboard tricks. He started practicing on family trips to the San Bernardino Mountains, “dropping” into icy half-pipes built into the slopes. On these U-shaped courses, athletes ride from side to side, flipping and twisting every time they fly into the air to turn around.
Amazingly, White had previously won two gold medals, one in 2006 and the other in 2010. But the legendary snowboarder didn’t three-peat in 2014. In fact, he hadn’t medaled at all. Every day since, he’d lived with the disappointment.
Now thirty-one years old, he stood at the top of the Olympic half-pipe once again.
Snowboarders in a Winter Olympics contest do many runs. White was in second place, down to his final ride. To win, he’d need to perform a trick he’d never mastered in practice.
It was the very trick, in fact, that had sent him to the hospital a year earlier for sixty-two stitches.
“Shaun White,” the announcer proclaimed. “The biggest run of his life.”
White adjusted his goggles and took off. He rode down the twenty-two-foot wall, then up the opposite one . . . up, up, and off the edge. He spun in the air four complete times. Then he landed back on the wall, only to do the same trick on the other side.
Making his way down the pipe, White soared off the wall again—maybe twenty feet high—turning to land smoothly. He followed this trick with his famous double McTwist 1260. White flipped head over heels—two times!—during three and a half spins. It was the same move that had won him a gold medal eight years earlier.
“Perfect!” the announcer cried excitedly.
White’s final score came in at 97.75 out of 100, the highest of the day. He fell to his knees, crying.
Shaun White had won his third gold medal.
It was a milestone victory for the United States, too, its one hundredth gold medal in the history of the Winter Games. So much had changed since those first Games, when snowboarding was not even a sport. Chapter 1: The 1920s: Let the Winter Games Begin
Inspired by the Summer Olympics, the Winter Olympics began in 1924. Both sprang from the same ideals—to bring together the world’s best athletes and encourage peace around the globe.
The site of the first-ever winter competition was a resort town called Chamonix, in the French Alps. The outdoor opening ceremony began with a parade. There were 258 athletes, from sixteen countries. Only eleven were women. They were all figure skaters, as that was the only sport open to them. The athletes wore the cold-weather uniforms they’d compete in. Some carried skates, hockey sticks, or skis. They were raring to go.
The first contest of the competition was a speed-skating race, the 500-meter. (That is about one-third of a mile around the rink.) American Charles Jewtraw from upstate New York hadn’t been interested in the Olympics at first. They didn’t seem like a big deal. In fact, he’d barely trained. Jewtraw thought he couldn’t possibly win. But he did, becoming the very first athlete to earn a Winter gold medal.
Four years later, in 1928, Switzerland hosted the second Olympics. The site, St. Moritz, was another skiing resort town.
Like so many Winter Games to come, weather played a major role.
The 10,000-meter race—a speed-skating event—was a little over six miles around the oval. The Norwegian skaters were favorites to win. The rules in long track skating are the same today: Many racers compete in the event, two athletes skating at a time. In the end, whoever has the fastest time of all wins gold.
An American named Irving Jaffee was pitted against the top Norwegian, Bernt Evensen, in the first round. Evensen led for the first half of the contest. But near the finish line, Jaffee caught fire. He pulled even. The top of his skate crossed the line one inch ahead of Evensen.
Surely he’d have the fastest time of all the athletes.
The track was already watery from a morning rain. Now the temperature was going up. Puddles formed. Skating grew difficult. And the official canceled the race. Americans protested. They wanted the event postponed. At least that would allow Jaffee a chance at gold. The organizers couldn’t make up their minds. The Norwegians decided to go home, but not before they congratulated Jaffee. There’d been no race and no medals. But they felt he truly had earned gold.
Afterward, Jaffee’s new friend Billy Fiske took him out on the town. The two had little in common. Irving Jaffee grew up in the Bronx. The son of poor Jewish immigrants, he’d barely left New York until now. Fiske came from a wealthy family. He spent winters at expensive ski resorts like St. Moritz, the very place he took up bobsled.
Back then, bobsleds were just flat sleds with a steering wheel. Fiske was the pilot—the driver—for a five-man team. Sixteen-year-old Fiske was the only one with sledding experience. All eyes were on the other American team. But Fiske lived for speed. And he knew the mile-long twisty ice track inside and out. There would be two runs. Whichever team had the fastest combined time would win. Fiske’s team had the best time for the first run, nine-tenths of a second faster than any other sled.
The second run took place on the last day of the Games. Fiske and his team went first. Sled after sled followed. No other team matched their combined time: 3 minutes, 20.5 seconds
There was only one sled left now, US #1. If they went fast enough, they could pull out a win. The sled flew like a bullet around the curves. US #1 did have the quickest time. But it wasn’t fast enough to win. Fiske and his team took gold.
There was no time for a celebration. The closing ceremony was about to begin. An official found Fiske in the crowd and handed him his gold. That was all, and that was fine with Fiske. He wasn’t there for a medal. He was there for speed. Jaffee and Fiske met again at the next Olympics, in 1932. The site: Lake Placid, New York, a tiny upstate town.
Would the friends repeat their victories? Chapter 2: The 1930s: Troubled Times
The year 1932 was one of the worst of the Great Depression. Many people were out of work, hungry, and poor. Some countries didn’t have money to send athletes to the Games. Billy Fiske did lead the winning bobsled team again. But he turned down a chance to compete in the next Olympics.
Little by little, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had made life in Germany miserable for Jews. His ultimate plan was to murder them, as well as all other Jews in Europe. By the end of World War II, the Nazis succeeded in killing six million Jewish people. Speed skater Jack Shea, a two-time gold medalist, wasn’t Jewish. But he refused to compete at the 1936 Games. “I knew what was going on in Germany and I didn’t like it,” he said later. Irving Jaffee, who had turned professional and wasn’t eligible for the Olympics, wanted the United States to pull out of the Games of 1936 as a protest against Hitler. The United States decided to send a team anyway.
The Games were held in the Bavarian Alps. Hitler allowed only one Jewish athlete from Germany to compete: Rudi Ball, the star hockey player.
But the biggest star at the Games was Sonja Henie.
Henie was a figure skater from Norway. These Games were her fourth Olympics. She was only eleven years old at the first Winter Games, where she came in last in her competition. Henie came from a wealthy family. She had talent, charm, and determination. She traveled around Europe, training with famous coaches.
In 1928 and ’32, she won gold. Henie became the first superstar athlete of the Winter Olympics. Police had to be called when she made appearances, to keep the crowds in order. Henie’s routines were graceful and tough. She added jumps that only men had done before. She boasted, “Most always I win,” and she did. Henie won her third gold medal in ’36, a women’s singles figure-skating record to this day.
Three weeks after the 1936 Winter Olympics ended, German troops marched into a region called the Rhineland. It was the first step toward World War II.
The Olympics wouldn’t be held again for twelve years.
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