Long wait for an American Winter Olympic medal
The U.S. Ski Team has a long tradition of Olympic success dating back to the origins of the Olympic Winter Games in 1924. But it was a long time coming literally, a 50-year wait for ski jumper Anders Haugen to become America’s first Winter Olympic medalist.
Thanks to the efforts of Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Olympic Games were rekindled in 1896, patterned after the ancient Grecian contests. Athens was the host in 1896, with highly successful Games that reignited the torch of Olympism that had burned from 796 B.C. to 394 A.D. Opposition from Scandinavian countries delayed the start of a winter version of the Games until 1924, when Summer Olympic city Paris decided to hold an exposition International Winter Sports Week in Chamonix under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee. A year later, the IOC voted to retroactively accept the Chamonix event as the first Winter Games.
Ski jumping was a marquee competition in Chamonix. The American favorite was team captain and Norwegian-native Anders Haugen. He was among a wave of Norwegians who immigrated to America and brought with them their winter sport traditions. In 1909, at the age of 19, Haugen came to America to join his two brothers, first settling in Illinois and helping the Milwaukee Ski Club in Wisconsin build a jump near Lake Nagawicka in southwestern Wisconsin. He won its debut tournament in 1910. Haugen eventually settled in Colorado for most of his competitive career before bringing his sport to the Lake Tahoe region in the late ’20s.
Haugen came to Chamonix as a holder of multiple titles and records an early star of his sport. He was reunited with many of his childhood jumping friends from Norway but competing against them under his new national flag put those friendships to the test. Legend has it that on the day of the jump, Haugen soared a meter further than everyone but was mysteriously listed as fourth behind a Norwegian sweep. And that’s how the record stood for a half century.
Some 50 years later, an historian broke up that Norwegian medals sweep. In 1974, Norwegian ski historian Jakob Vaage uncovered an error in the scoring calculations while preparing for a reunion of the medalists. Indeed, the American Haugen should have been third by a mere .095 points. As the remaining medalists gathered in Oslo to celebrate, there was a new member added to their elite club as the bronze medal of deceased Norwegian Thorleif Haug was presented to Haugen by the medalist’s daughter. It was a tearful moment for the 85-year-old Haugen who lived to experience his dream.
Haugen went on to continue coaching well into his 70s before dying at the age of 95 in California in 1984. But the true highlight of his years as a ski jumper were etched in precious bronze after a lifetime of waiting when he became America’s first Olympic skiing medalist.
His medal is still seen by thousands every year, on display at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in Museum at the birthplace of his sport in Ishpeming, Mich.
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