The Winter Olympics are an international sports competition held every four years. The event, also called the Winter Games, includes cold-weather events on snow (skiing, snowboarding, biathlon) and ice (figure skating, hockey, speed skating, curling, bobsled, luge, skeleton). Six sports have appeared in every Winter Olympics: cross-country skiing, figure skating, hockey, Nordic combined, ski jumping and speed skating.
While smaller in scale than the Summer Olympics, the Winter Games have grown from roughly 250 athletes competing in 16 events at the first competition in 1924 to more than 2,800 in 102 events at the 2018 Winter Games.
The First Winter Olympics
In 1924, the first Winter Olympics were held in Chamonix, France, with approximately 250 athletes competing for 16 countries in 16 events. Women were only allowed to participate in figure skating (11 competed). Other events included bobsled, cross-country skiing, curling, hockey, military patrol, Nordic combined, ski jumping and speed skating.
The event, originally named Winter Sports Week, was considered a great success, with 10,000 spectators paying admission. This led the International Olympic Committee to retroactively name it the first Olympic Winter Games in 1926.
Legendary Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie performed at the Games for the first time. Only 11, she finished last but won gold at the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Games. American speed skater Charles Jewtraw was the first Winter Games gold medalist, and Canada dominated in hockey, outscoring the competition, 122-3.
READ MORE: The First Winter Olympics
Winter Olympics Sites
1924: Chamonix, France | January 25-February 4
1928: St. Moritz, Switzerland | February 11-19
1932: Lake Placid, New York | February 4-15
1936: Garmisch Partenkirchen, Germany | February 6-16
1940/1944: No Olympics because of World War II
1948: San Moritz, Switzerland | January 30-February 8
1952: Oslo, Norway | February 14-25
1956: Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy | January 26-February 5
1960: Squaw Valley, California | February 18-28
1964: Innsbruck, Austria | January 29-February 9
1968: Grenoble, France | February 6-18
1972: Sapporo, Japan | February 3-13
1976: Innsbruck, Austria | February 4-15
1980: Lake Placid, New York | February 14-23
1984: Sarajevo, Yugoslavia | February 7-19
1988: Calgary, Canada | February 13-28
1992: Albertville, France | February 8-23
1994: Lillehammer, Norway | February 12-27
1998: Nagano, Japan | February 7-22
2002: Salt Lake City, Utah | February 8-24
2006: Turin, Italy | February 10-26
2010: Vancouver, Canada | February 12-28
2014: Sochi, Russia | February 7-23
2018: Pyeongchang, South Korea | February 9-25
American Figure Skaters Dominate
With 305 medals, second only to Norway, the United States has fared well at the Games, especially in women’s figure skating. Notable American gold medalists include Peggy Fleming in 1968 (Grenoble, France), Dorothy Hamill in 1976 (Innsbruck, Austria) and Kristi Yamaguchi in 1992 (Albertville, France).
At the 1998 Games, Tara Lipinski (15 years, 255 days old) became the youngest individual event winner. She edged fellow American Michelle Kwan, who won the silver. At the 2002 Games, 16-year-old Sarah Hughes won gold.
Perhaps the most notable American finish came at the 1994 Games, when Nancy Kerrigan, who won bronze in 1992, settled for silver behind gold medalist Oksana Baiul of Ukraine. Media focused on Kerrigan and rival Tonya Harding, who finished eighth following a much-publicized scandal in which Harding’s husband orchestrated an attack on Kerrigan during a practice at the 1994 U.S. Nationals.
The American men who have earned gold in figure skating include Dick Button, who, at age 18, landed the first double axel in Olympic competition in 1948. At the 1952 Games, he landed the first triple loop and also won gold.
Other American men who have won gold include Scott Hamilton in 1984 (Sarajevo, Yugoslavia); Brian Boitano, who beat out Canada’s Brian Orser for gold in the “Battle of the Brians,” in 1988 (Calgary, Canada); and Evan Lysacek in 2010 (Vancouver). In 2006 in Torino, Italy, Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto were the first Americans to win gold in ice dancing.
Other Notable American Athletes
American speed skating stars include Bonnie Blair, who competed at the 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1994 Games. She became the only female speed skater to win the same event (500 meters) in three successive Winter Olympics. Eric Heiden won all five of his men’s speed skating races in 1980, setting four Olympic records and a world record.
Celebrated speed skater Dan Jansen placed fourth at the 1984 Games, suffered two falls during the 1988 Olympics after learning his sister had died, and also failed to medal in 1992. He redeemed himself at the 1994 Games, winning gold in the 1,000-meter event.
At the 2006 Games, speed skater Shani Davis became the first Black American athlete to win a Winter Olympics gold medal (1,000 meters). Short track racer Apolo Anton Ohno won eight medals (two gold, two silver and four bronze) at three Games (2002, 2006 and 2010), making him the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian.
In skiing, Andrea Mead Lawrence won gold in the slalom and giant slalom in 1952 as a teenager. At the 1994 Games, Picabo Street won a silver medal in the downhill, redeeming herself after being cut from the U.S. Ski Team in 1989 for partying and being out of shape. At the 1998 Games, she earned a gold medal in the Super-G.
At the 1994 Games, Tommy Moe won the downhill and placed second in the Super-G. Bode Miller won six Olympic alpine skiing medals, competing in 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014. Lindsey Vonn won gold in the downhill and bronze in the Super-G in 2010 and added another downhill bronze in 2018.
At the 2014 Games, Ted Ligety became the first American man to win gold in the giant slalom, adding to the gold in the combined he won at the 2006 Games. Mikaela Shiffrin has three medals: two gold, one in the slalom in 2014 and one in the giant slalom in 2018, plus a silver that year in the alpine combined.
The American women’s hockey team beat Canada in 1998 for gold, the first Games the sport was open to women. At the 2002 Games, Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers won the first bobsled gold for the U.S. in 46 years. Also notable: Flowers became the first Black American woman to win Winter Olympics gold.
In 2002, Americans Ross Powers (gold), Danny Kass (silver) and J.J. Thomas (bronze) swept the second Winter Olympics snowboarding competition. Shaun White, the “Flying Tomato,” dominated the halfpipe in 2006 and 2010, winning gold in both Games, and Chloe Kim won gold for Team USA in 2018 in the women’s halfpipe.
Notable International Athletes
Female cross-country skier Marit Bjørgen of Norway won 15 medals from 2002-2018, including eight gold, to become the most decorated athlete in the Winter Olympics. Fellow Norweigan Bjørn Dæhlie—the top male Olympic Nordic skier of all time—earned 12 medals from 1992 and 1998, eight gold.
Figure skater Katarina Witt of East Germany won gold in Sarajevo in 1984 and again in Calgary in 1988, making her the first female to repeat as champion in the event since Sonja Henie. She competed for the unified German team in 1992 but failed to medal.
Swedish figure skater Ulrich Salchow, who invented the jump named for him, won the first gold medal in the men’s skating event when the competition was part of the 1908 Summer Games in London.
The Jamaican bobsled team captured the world’s hearts when it made its first Winter Olympics appearance in 1998 in Calgary, taking part in the two- and four-man events. The two-man team finished 30th, and the four-man team crashed, finishing last. But the Jamicans inspired the making of the movie “Cool Runnings.”
Although he finished last in both his 1988 events, British ski jumper Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards remains one of the most heralded Winter Olympics athletes. He became the first Brit to qualify for the Games in 60 years and inspired a movie about his feat.
1980: The Americans’ ‘Miracle on Ice’
In what’s often called the greatest moment in American sports history, the U.S. men’s hockey team beat the heavily favored Soviet Union, 4-3, on February 22, 1980, in the semifinals at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. The U.S. went on to defeat Finland to win the gold medal.
The Americans’ victory was dubbed the “Miracle on Ice”—after broadcaster Al Michaels famously exclaimed, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” The Soviets had won gold in five of the previous six Olympics and trounced the Americans, 10-3, in an exhibition weeks earlier.
Team captain Mike Eruzione scored the winning goal against the Soviets. Chants of “USA! USA!” exploded from the roaring crowd as the final buzzer sounded.
Notable Winter Olympics
No Winter Olympics were held in 1940 or 1944 because of World War II. The United States has hosted the Winter Olympics four times: Lake Placid (1932), Squaw Valley (1960), Lake Placid (1980) and Salt Lake City (2002). In 1970, Denver was awarded the 1976 Winter Olympic Games, but Colorado voters blocked the event, leading the Mile High City to withdraw its bid. The Games were instead held in Innsbruck, Austria.
The 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley marked the first time the event was aired on live American TV, with Walter Cronkite serving as lead broadcaster for CBS. Walt Disney oversaw the opening and closing ceremonies, taking those events to new heights. The opening ceremony featured 3,700 musicians, the release of 2,000 doves and 30,000 balloons, fireworks, a speech from vice president Richard Nixon and a prayer by actor Karl Malden.
The 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer were held two years after the 1992 Olympics, putting the event on a two-year alternating schedule with the Summer Olympics. It was also the year the former Soviet Union’s republics participated as separate teams and South Africa returned to the competition after a 34-year ban because of apartheid.
READ MORE: The Modern Summer Olympic Games: A Timeline
NBC New York: U.S. history of hosting the Winter Olympics
New York Times: “Amid Blizzard, Cronkite Helped Make History.”
The Atlantic: “How the Olympics Got Disneyfied“