When he lined up for the 500m, the first of the speed skating events at Garmisch and held at the Rießersee Olympic Rink on 11 February 1936, Norway’s Ivar Ballangrud was intent on confirming his status as the leading speed skater of his era and on adding to his haul of three Olympic medals. A 5,000m champion and 1,500m bronze medallist at St Moritz 1928, the champion skater from Jevnaker in Norway’s Oppland region also took silver in the 10,000m at Lake Placid 1932, where races were run as packstyle events.
The Norwegian had topped the Adelskalender world rankings, which compiles skaters’ best results at all distances, since 1930, and limbered up for the Garmisch Games by winning his third allround world title in Davos (SUI) and his fourth European championship in Oslo (NOR) just a few weeks before heading to Germany.
Ballangrud went out in the sixth pair of the 500m event, with Belgium’s Charles de Ligne as his opponent and with compatriot Georg Krog’s benchmark time of 43.5 to aim at. The Belgian hit the ice as Ballangrud poured on the pace to win gold and equal the Olympic record of 43.4 set by Finland’s Clas Thunberg and Norway’s Bernt Eventsen at St Moritz 1928 and matched four years later by the USA’s Jack Shea in Lake Placid. Krog took second place behind him, with the USA’s Leo Freisinger claiming the bronze in a time of 44.0.
Ballangrud was also the man to beat in the following day’s 5,000m. The defending Olympic champion at the distance, he had set a new world record of 8:17.2 in winning the world title in Davos in January 1936. Though the 19-year-old Finn Antero Ojala caused an early sensation on the ice at the Rießersee by setting a new Olympic record of 8:30.1, there would be no stopping the irrepressible Ballangrud.
Skating in the seventh pair with Alexander Mitt of Estonia, the Norwegian star set a steady but fierce pace, quickly lapping his opponent and becoming the only man in the race to dip under the three-minute mark at the 1.4km split and under seven minutes after 4.2km. He maintained his speed all the way to the line, stopping the clock at 8:19.6 to smash Ojala’s newly set Olympic record by nearly 11 seconds.
Finland’s Birger Vasenius got to within four seconds of Ballangrud in the 11th pair and took the silver medal, leaving Ojala to claim the bronze and the Norwegian to celebrate a second gold in 24 hours.
The speed skaters were back in action in the 1,500m a day later. Venturing out in the third pair with Freisinger, Ballangrud was pushed all the way by the American before crossing the line in a time of 2:20.2, beating the Olympic record set by Thunberg in 1924 and seemingly putting himself on course for a third medal in three days.
Fellow countryman Charles Mathiesen had other ideas, however. Setting off in the following pair with Austria’s Max Stiepl, Mathiesen shaved a second off Ballangrud’s time to deny him his hat-trick. The bronze went to the persevering Vasenius, who posted a time of 2:20.9 in the final pair.
The 10,000m, the final speed skating event of Garmisch 1936, took place the very next day, with Ballangrud and Vasenuis facing off in the fourth pair and skating side by side for the first four kilometres. The Norwegian then moved clear to take gold in a new Olympic record of 17:24.3, fully four seconds ahead of his Finnish rival, with Stiepl completing the podium.IOC
Ballangrud’s haul of four medals, three of them gold, was unmatched at Garmisch 1936 and took his Olympic career tally to seven, making him the most successful speed skater in the history of the Games along with Thunberg and the Netherlands’ Sven Kramer, who won his seventh medal at Sochi 2014.
The Norwegian went on to win a host of other world and European championship medals, the last of them a fourth allround world title in Davos in 1938. In tribute to his achievements, a bronze statue of him was later erected in the main square of his home town of Jevnaker.