Today, we are celebrating the anniversary of the first gold medal given at the Olympic Winter Games on the morning of 26 January 1924 in Chamonix – for the 500m speed skating event, won against all expectations by the American from Lake Placid, Charles Jewtraw. Here is the first page in the record book containing the Olympic exploits accomplished over almost a century on the snow and ice.
Aged 83, Charles Jewtraw recounts his fantastic Olympic destiny for Sports Illustrated magazine in its December 1983 edition: “It was like a fairy tale. I was a poor boy from Lake Placid. I'd been national champion but I'd retired from skating. I wanted to move on. I was being tutored for Bowdoin College – I'd never finished high school, but I wanted my education. Then I got a telegram saying we would send an Olympic team to France. I hadn't trained at all. I didn't want to go. My tutor convinced me I should. I was so sick crossing the ocean that I kept praying the ship would sink. I wasn't even nervous the day of the race. Why would I be? I knew I couldn't win.”
Organised in Chamonix by the IOC as part of the VIII Olympiad in Paris 1924, the “international week of winter sports” was not yet known as the first Olympic Winter Games. This would not be the case until 1925 at the Prague Congress, which would be the definitive establishment of the winter Olympic cycle. Meanwhile, the Opening Ceremony, which took place on 24 January, set the stage (athletes' parade, Olympic oath, etc.) for what we would come to recognise later. And the programme, including nine sports, for 16 events in total, saw that the first competition was 500m speed skating, which was held from 10 a.m. on 26 January 1924 on the speed rink of the Olympic stadium built on the banks of the river Arve.
Charles Jewtraw had never competed at this distance before, given that the equivalent distance in the sprint in the United States was 440 yards. The competition in Chamonix (as is still the case today) was also contested in pairs against the clock, whereas the American races took place in a pack, with five or six competitors together.
As Emile-Georges Drigny described in the official report, “The competitors did a lap of the Chamonix track, measuring 400 metres, plus a distance of 100 metres. The flag was dropped to start the race, each skater competed on a special, clearly marked track and changed lane at each turn to take advantage of the smallest bend. Thirty-one competitors, representing 13 nations, were involved in this event, 27 started, showing the importance of this meeting, which has long since surpassed similar previously organised events to date. These 27 competitors represented the following 10 nations: Belgium, Canada, United States, Finland, France, Great Britain, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and resulted in 13 rounds of two competitors and one round of one competitor”.
A clear flawless victory
The big favourites of the competition were the Norwegian Roald Larsen, his fellow countryman Oskar Olsen and the Swede Clas Thunberg. Charles Jewtraw skated in the 15th pairing against the Canadian Charles Gorman. He recalls in 1983: “I was always great on starts, but Gorman got the jump on me. He was going like a cyclone. I was in the outside lane, and I knew we had to change lanes somewhere down the line. I hadn't watched any heats before ours, so I couldn't figure out how it would happen. But somehow it did, and after we changed I was ahead. I have no idea how it happened. We were screaming along, and then I got a second wind. I didn't dare look behind to see where Gorman was. I beat him by a second and a half. He told me he was completely exhausted. I had emptied him out.”
Charles Jewtraw recorded a time of 44 seconds exactly, which would never be beaten. Oskar Olsen took second place with 44.2 seconds, Roald Larsen and Clas Thunberg shared the bronze medal spot with 44.8. And there it was, the first podium of the Olympic Winter Games. “I stood in the middle of the rink, and they played The Star-Spangled Banner. The whole American team rushed out on the ice. They hugged me like I was a beautiful girl. Oh my God... My team-mates threw me in the air. The loudspeakers were booming out in French, “Charlie Jewtraw of the U.S. of A. wins the first race in the first Winter Games!” How many people have a moment like that?”
While Clas Thunberg won four other medals at Chamonix, three of which were gold (1,500m, 5,000m, combined), and won another two titles in 1928 at St Moritz, and Roald Larsen stood on all podiums during these 1924 Games (two silver medals and four bronze), Charles Jewtraw placed 8th in the 1,500m and 13th in the 500m. And that was it.
From Charles Jewtraw to Shaun White and Yuzuru Hanyu
On returning to the USA, he became a representative for a sporting goods company, then managed a shop for the same brand in Lake Placid before working for the department store Macy's in New York, becoming a skating trainer in the 1930s, then continuing his professional career as a security guard for a New York branch of a bank, until his retirement in 1962. He settled in Palm Beach in Florida, where he died aged 95 on 26 January 1996.
Charles Jewtraw recorded his name in the Olympic Games record book as the first winner of a gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games. This book is on display today in the galleries of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. He is also honoured in the Olympic Museum in Lake Placid, accompanied by other great American speed skaters.
Charles Jewtraw won the first American title at the Olympic Winter Games, the 100th was won by Shaun White for the snowboard halfpipe at PyeongChang 2018. It will have been 94 years and 22 days between this first winter Olympic podium and the one thousandth, which saw the rise of the winner of the men's singles in figure skating, Yuzuru Hanyu, accompanied by his fellow Japanese countryman Shoma Uno and Spaniard Javier Fernandez on 17 February 2018. The history of the Olympic Winter Games has a start and it continues to be written every four years...