Behind the gold: The story of America’s first Olympic skiing medal
November 20, 2017
Anders Haugen loved to soar through the air, the wind pushing at his chest, his arms on wing, body flying like a bird with leather boots firmly affixed to 10-foot wooden skis. As a young boy growing up in Norway's Telemark region, southwest of Oslo, ski jumping became his life's passion. Little did he know that he would become America's first Olympic skiing medalist — something that took over a half-century to achieve.
Haugen was among a huge wave of European immigrants to America when he immigrated to the Midwest in 1908 as a 20-year-old, settling in Wisconsin and later Minnesota. Two years later he became U.S. champion.
The modern day Olympic Games had begun in 1896, patterned after the ancient Grecian contests. A summer-only event at its onset, it wasn't until 1924 that the Olympic site of Paris chose to do a winter exposition — an event that later became the first Olympic Winter Games — in Chamonix. Ski jumping was the marquee competition.
Haugen, then 35, was the American favorite and its team captain. He had established a new norm for the sport in America, setting two world records and achieving countless U.S. titles.
Skiing in the early days of the 20th century was focused only on cross-country and ski jumping — it would be decades before modern-day alpine skiing would take the spotlight.
A field of 258 athletes (just 13 women) from 17 nations came to the French Haute-Savoie region in the shadow of the towering Aiguille du Midi. Competitions were held in bobsled, cross-country skiing, Nordic combined, speed skating, figure skating, curling, ice hockey and the little-known sport of military patrol (later becoming biathlon).
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But the grand finale was the ski jump held at the base of the Glacier des Bossons at Le Mont — a then 'towering' 79-meter scaffold. The American Haugen was matched up against his childhood friends in a fiercely fought battle for medals as thousands gathered to watch 27 athletes from nine nations.
After the first round, Norway's Jacob Tullin Thams had the lead, with Haugen third. The American reached down to tighten his leather thongs attaching him to his 10-foot skis, then pushed out from the top of the wooden scaffold for his final jump, skis whirring down the inrun. Soon he was in flight, a peaceful calm as the air rushed past his body. As he neared his landing, he positioned one leg ahead of the other in the traditional Telemark style — stumbling a bit, but keeping his feet. It was the long jump of the day at 50 meters — a full meter ahead of Norway's Thams, Navre Bonna and Thorlief Haug.
But as the scores came in, Haugen had dropped to fourth behind Haug. And that is how history recorded the Olympic ski jumping debut for 50 years.
To some, it had been a mystery as to how Haugen could have posted the longest jump of the day and yet still dropped to fourth place. Years later, Norwegian Thoralf Strømstad — silver medalist in Nordic combined — posed that question to historian Jakob Vaage. Sure enough, Vaage found a scoring error. Haugen had, indeed, finished third.
Now it was 1974 — a full 50 years after those first Olympic Winter Games. The 85-year-old Haugen was a long ways from his Lake Tahoe home, sitting patiently in a ceremony at Oslo's Holmenkollen Ski Museum. It was a reunion of old friends gathered at the base of the towering jump tower at Holmenkollen, reminiscing about their days as young boys in Norway and the magic of those Olympic Games so many decades before.
In an unprecedented move, the bronze medal of Norwegian Thorleif Haug, then deceased, was presented to Haugen by Haug's daughter in a special ceremony in Oslo. It was a tearful moment for the 86-year-old Haugen, who lived to experience his dream.
The historic first U.S. Winter Olympic medal is on display at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in Ishpeming, Michigan, not far from Suicide Bowl, where Haugen frequently jumped. His elegant parade coat, known as a capote, is a part of the archives of the Colorado Snowsport Museum in Vail, Colorado. Most importantly, in the annals of the International Olympic Committee, history now records Anders Haugen as America's first Olympic skiing medalist.
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