Opening date: 6 February 1936
At the IV Olympic Winter Games the focus was on ‘Olympic’ and ‘Winter’ as athletes from more nations than ever before participated in the celebrations.
In 1936 the Olympic Winter Games once again returned to the Alps, but not to those of France or Switzerland. Instead, it was the Zugspitz, the highest peak in the German Alps, that served as the backdrop for this the fourth edition of the Winter Games and the newly combined town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen acted as the host.
As with past Olympic hosts, Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s Organizers were destined to put their own unique stamp on the celebrations – in one case literally as, for the first time in the world of Olympic Winter philately, the sale of commemorative postal stamps issued for the Games also helped to pay for the event.
Stamps, however, were not the only first introduced by the 1936 Winter Organizers. Nor were the logistics of Games the only inspiration for those firsts. Instead, the Organizing Committee also looked to a combination of Olympic, winter sport and German traditions when they made their plans. As a result the Games became just a bit more Olympic in their symbolism and winter focused in their sports.
For the first time at the Winter Games a symbolic fire added ambience to the celebration, casting a blazing light for all to see throughout the eleven days of the competitions. Olympic symbols, both modern and ancient, were mixed with references to winter sport on the winners medal and participants’ diploma and the Games emblem, designed by Fritz Uhlich, combined the Olympic rings with an artistic rendering of the Zugspitz. The emphasis on winter was even increased in the sports programme with the inclusion of the first ever Olympic men’s and women’s Alpine skiing events and demonstrations in eisschiessen, a Bavarian-Austrian variation on curling.
When the Games opened on 6 February for the first time in Olympic Winter history a small number of athletes from countries such as tiny Liechtenstein and far off Australia were taking part in the competitions. Fittingly, there was also a single athlete from Greece making a first Winter Games appearance.
Whether making a first time or repeat appearance, the athletes who came to compete under the imposing shadow of the Zugspitz were also destined to make their own contributions to the memorable stories and impressive results that would be written in the pages of Olympic history for 1936.
Cross country skiing and Nordic combined athlete Oddbjorn Hagen and men’s and pairs figure skater Ernst Baier thrilled the record number of spectators and took home multiple medals. In the women’s figure skating Cecilia Colledge gave Sonja Henie a run for her money but gold was not meant to be for Colledge though as nerves got the better of her in the free skate and she had to settle for silver instead.
Despite an introduction that was almost as challenging as the courses on which the athletes raced the Alpine skiing competitions offered many exciting moments. This was especially true in the women’s Alpine combined where Partenkirchen native Käthe Grasegger took the silver medal and Canadian racer Diana Gordon refused to let injury stop her. Gordon simply adapted her skiing to use a single pole and compete with one arm in a cast.
By the time the first day’s training for the four-man bobsleigh competition was completed Gordon was not the only athlete at the Games to be sporting a cast. It transpired that the Bavaria curve of the track was just as formidable as the Zugspitz that served as the backdrop for the Games.
In the end, injuries and missed medals aside, it was the athletes along with the Organizers who were destined to be remembered for their exploits and contributions to Olympic history long after the symbolic fire went out in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Sonja Henie (Norway)
Already a three-time Winter Games participant, Garmisch-Partenkirchen was to be Sonja Henie’s Olympic swansong, a chance to win one more gold. So confident was she that it was inconceivable to remember her as the young 11-year-old so unsure of her performance in Chamonix in 1924.
Much had changed since then though. Sonja had collected an impressive number of European and World titles. She had also won Olympic gold, first in 1928 and then again in 1932.
Nonetheless Henie was no longer the new kid on the rink in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. If she wanted a medal she would have to fight for it and fight she did to win one final Olympic gold.
Soon after, Henie retired from competition but not from skating. Instead she went on to become a star of a different kind, featuring in movies, ice skating extravaganzas and commercial endorsements.
Ivar Ballangrud (Norway)
In 1936 speed skater Ivar Ballangrud came to Garmisch-Partenkirchen hoping to make up for the disappointment he had experienced four years earlier in Lake Placid.
With a return to the European paired heats system of speed skating Ballangrud was once again on familiar ice and it showed. Whether in a distance or sprint event Ivar proved almost unbeatable, skating to gold in three of the four Olympic contests. He also managed silver in the 1,500m.
It was an impressive performance that made him one of the most memorable stars of Garmisch-Partenkirchen and brought his overall Olympic medal tally up to 4 golds, 2 silvers and 1 bronze.
More than 70 years later it is a tally in men’s Olympic speed skating that is shared only by Clas Thunberg of Finland.
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