The word “legendary” is often bandied about in the sporting world without due merit, but it is entirely valid when applied to Nordic skier Thorleif Haug. The Norwegian’s impact can still be felt in his homeland today, where roads, ski runs and ski races are named after him, and where a bronze statue was erected in his honour in his native Drammen. He owes this revered status to his utter domination of the 50km and Nordic combined at Chamonix 1924, where he also demonstrated his versatility by finishing fourth in the ski jumping.
Unlike the current Olympic programme, in which the 50km cross-country race is always held on the same day as the closing ceremony and is the last individual event on the sporting programme, at Chamonix 1924 the demanding race, kicked off the skiing portion of the Games on 30 January. A sizeable field of 33, representing 11 countries, set off from the Olympic Stadium, crossing the valley to the village of Argentière at the foot of the Aiguille Verte mountain, before retracing their steps to the starting point of the race, with a gradient that equated to a drop of 820m.
Numerous spectators lined the trail, which had 14 checkpoints connected by a special telephone line. Haug was the 23rd starter, but was the third man to cross the line, having overtaken 20 skiers en route. Posting the fastest time of 3:44.32, Haug finished two and three minutes ahead of compatriots Thoralf Strømstad and Johan Grøttumsbråten respectively for an unforgettable Norwegian 1-2-3.
The 18km, held on 2 February, doubled up as both the second cross-country skiing event of the Games and as the cross-country portion of the Nordic combined competition. Haug again put on a marvellous display, recording the fastest time of 1:14:31.40 and finishing in eighth position, having been 34th in the starting order. Over a minute behind, 50km bronze medallist Grøttumsbråten earned himself a well-deserved silver medal, with Finland’s Tapani Niku snatching the bronze from Jon Mårdalen (NOR) to prevent another Norwegian clean sweep.
On 4 February, the last day of competition in Chamonix, candidates for the Olympic Nordic combined title executed their jumps ahead of the participants in the ski jumping proper. With 20,000 points under his belt from the 18km, Haug produced a jump of 44m which netted him 17,291 style points. In doing so, he captured the gold medal with a total of 18,906 points, giving him the edge over his fellow Norwegians, Strømstad, Grøttumsbråten and Harald Økern, who all achieved better jumps but had too much ground to make up from the cross-country. Going one better than in the 50km, Norwegian athletes filled the first four spots.
Curiously, a scoring mix-up led to Haug being erroneously awarded a bronze medal in the ski jumping competition that was staged the same day, but many decades later the mistake was spotted and rectified, and the USA’s Anders Haugen, who was initially told he had finished fourth, finally received the bronze that was rightfully his.