The Winter Olympics are still a week and a half away, but it’s never too early to start getting warmed up. Let’s take a look at the origins of some of the events you’ll be enjoying from Vancouver.
Skating has been around for centuries, but figure skating’s expressive movements are actually somewhat more recent than you might suspect. The athletic, acrobatic version of the sport wasn’t popularized until the mid-19th century. Jackson Haines, an American with a ballet background, wowed European crowds with his graceful movements and thrilling jumps while also making another key breakthrough: he choreographed his routines and set them to music. This so-called “international style” of skating caught on in Vienna and other European cities and gave rise to the kind of figure skating we’ll be watching in the Olympics.
As you might expect from a sport that involves a rifle, biathlon has military roots. Norwegian soldiers have been running combined skiing-and-shooting races since at least 1767, and the Norwegian military sponsored the first modern race of this kind in 1921. In those days, though, it wasn’t quite like the biathlon we know. Instead, it was an event called “military patrol” that involved a four-man patrol going through the event in heavy backpacks.
Military patrol was actually a medal event at the 1924 Winter Olympics, but it quickly fell off of the program and was only a demonstration sport at the 1928, 1936 and 1948 Games. The idea of individuals racing on skis with guns gained popularity in Europe throughout the 1950s, though, and by 1960, the races were back on the Olympic program as the individual biathlon event.
The event that loves to confuse American spectators traces its roots back to medieval Scotland. It wasn’t quite the strategic game it is now when it got its start, though; early curling basically consisted of Scottish men sliding flat-bottomed rocks along icy ponds. It was fun, though, and Scottish soldiers brought the game to Canada, where it really took off. (Some estimates have upwards of 90% of the world’s curlers living in Canada.)
The three events that require an icy track have a common origin in one man’s brain. In the late 1860s, Swiss hotelier Caspar Badrutt had a problem: no one wanted to spend the winter at his chilly resort in St. Moritz. Rather than spend the winter with an empty hotel, Badrutt convinced some of his regulars that it would be fun to spend some time at a “winter resort,” and English guests started flocking to St. Moritz during the cold months.
The guests found a particularly exciting way to pass their time when they started modifying delivery boys’ sleds and zipping down the town’s streets. (If you lashed two of these sleds together, you had the precursor to the modern bobsled.) All of this sledding was great fun, but Badrutt soon had a new problem on his hands: since the only place to run the sleds was on the city’s streets, sledders kept careening into pedestrians.
To combat this dangerous problem, Badrutt built an icy halfpipe track to keep the sleds off of the streets. Within a decade, the sledding events had grown into competitive sports, and bobsled was on the program for the first Winter Olympics in 1924.
Although snowboards may have been around in some form since the 19th century, they didn’t become an actual commercial product until the 1960s. In 1965, Sherman Poppen, a Michigan dad, bound two skis together to make a snowboard-like ride for his daughter. The device, which he dubbed “the Snurfer,” sold nearly a million units over the next 10 years.
By the end of the 1970s, many other surfers and skiers had made little innovations and improvements to the design, including bindings to hold the rider’s boots, which helped the sport’s popularity explode during the ’80s and ’90s.
Ice hockey’s origins are a bit more obscure than some of its counterparts at the Games. Games that evolved into the similar ice sport of bandy have been played since the 10th century, and reports of a hockey-like game exist in the history of Eastern Canada’s indigenous Mikmaq people.
Whatever its exact origins, hockey really took off in 19th-century Canada. British soldiers and Canadian schoolboys alike enjoyed playing the game on the country’s frozen ponds and lakes, and during the 1870s a student group at McGill University wrote down the first set of hockey rules. Some of these rules would be familiar to modern watchers—they replaced the ball with a wooden puck—while others would make the game seem a bit hectic, like allowing nine players per side.
Even the origins of the name “hockey” are murky. Some scholars contend that the name is derived from hoquet, a French word for a shepherd’s crook that would resemble a hockey stick. Others argue that it was so named because it was “Colonel Hockey’s game,” a tribute to an 1850s-era British officer who was stationed in Nova Scotia and used the game to keep his men in shape.
Traditional speed skating involves pairs of timed skaters making their way around an oval track. However, in North America, it was common for indoor races with shorter tracks to feature mass starts where all the racers took off at once. The mass starts and the tracks that had been shortened to accommodate indoor arenas led to exciting races, and in 1967 the International Skating Union began to recognize the event.
Like the biathlon, ski jumping owes a big debt to the Norwegian military. In 1809, Olaf Rye, who would later go on to become a major-general, was fooling around on some skis in front of his fellow soldiers and managed to jump 30 feet into the air. The thrilling new sport quickly spread throughout Norway, with jumpers getting increasingly ambitious. In 1862, the first organized competition took place in Trysil, Norway, and in 1879, the first annual installment of the wildly popular Husebyrennet jumping competition took Oslo by storm.
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