Best Stories You’ve Never Heard About Early Olympians

Surprising history behind the earliest Olympic Games and its competitors

There's no better way to kick off the Winter Olympic season than to recall great games of the past. We're going way back to the beginning of the modern games with Tom Ecker, author of "Olympic Facts and Fables: Best Stories from the First 100 Years of the Olympics." He recounts some of his favorite stories with the greatest early athletes, which will make you look like a genius when Olympic trivia rolls around.

The Ice Queen – Sonja Henie

Even though the modern summer Olympic Games had been in existence since 1896, there had been no winter Olympic competition prior to 1924.  Early that year, a special ten-day competition, the International Winter Sports Week, was held in Chamonix, France.  It turned out to be such a successful competition that the International Olympic Committee, at their annual meeting in 1925, decided to rename the event the 1924 Winter Olympic Games.  Thus, the winter Olympics began as an afterthought.

One of the figure skating entries in Chamonix was 11-year-old Sonja Henie of Norway.  Sonja’s father, Wilhelm, a prosperous fur dealer, started Sonja skating when she was five.  Throughout her skating career, Wilhelm was a large part of her life.

In Chamonix, Sonja finished in last place, but she was far younger than the other competitors.  Wilhelm hired a Swedish skater, Gillis Grafstrom, to coach Sonja.  At that time, Grafstrom had won two Olympic figure skating gold medals and was considered an excellent teacher.  Wilhelm also hired a well-known Russian ballerina, Tamara Karsavina, to help Sonja with some of her skating techniques.

Over the next four years, Sonja began including unique ballerina movements in her skating routines.  In 1928, at the age of 15, she won her first Olympic gold medal in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

At her father’s insistence, Sonja began wearing very short skirts when she performed.  He said it would get the judges’ attention.  In 1932, at the age of 19, she won her second Olympic gold medal in Lake Placid, New York.

Four years later, the 1936 winter Olympics were held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.  Adolf Hitler, who had become Germany’s chancellor only three years earlier, took a great interest in Sonja during the Olympics.  It was no secret that she was his favorite.  At the age of 23, Sonja won her third and final gold medal.

Following the 1936 Olympics, Sonja moved to the United States, where she became a star of touring ice shows and motion pictures.  She always appeared in skimpy, glittery costumes, and was rarely seen in the movies without her ice skates.

Sonja was top-billed in her movies, which always included lavish ice skating scenes.  She was the number 3 box office attraction, behind Shirley Temple and Clark Gable.

Sonja Henie died of leukemia in 1969 at the age of 57.  Her memory lives on in Oslo, Norway, where there is a life-size statue of Sonja, along with a museum containing her priceless art collection and 1,470 of her medals and trophies.

Pawned and Gone

Irving Jaffee of New York City was the world’s top speed skater in 1928.  His best event was the 10,000 meters.  At the Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, he clocked the fastest time of any of the participants in the opening rounds of the 10,000.

The weather turned warm and the ice began to melt.  The speed skating officials decided the event could not be completed because of the warm weather, and they said no medals would be awarded.  The other competitors complained to the officials, stating Jaffee should be awarded the gold, since he had posted the fastest time so far. But the officials wouldn’t budge.

So Jaffee had to wait four years for his chance for gold.  In the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, Jaffee won both the 5,000 and 10,000 speed skating races and received two gold medals.

But 1932 was the heart of the Great Depression, and Jaffee was having trouble getting anything to eat.  In desperation, he took his two gold medals to a New York pawn shop and pawned them for money to buy some food.

Later, when he had enough money to reclaim the medals, he returned to the pawn shop and found it was out of business.  Jaffee spent the next 40 years trying to locate his two gold medals.

The Daredevil Bobsledder

In the 1928 and 1932 winter Olympics, the United States dominated bobsled racing, largely because of daredevil pilot Billy Fiske.  Fiske piloted the U.S. team to gold medals in the 1928 Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, at the age of 16, and again in Lake Placid, New York, in 1932.

Billy Fiske had another important first in his career.  In 1939, he was among the Americans who joined Great Britain’s Royal Air Force to help repel the continuing air attacks by the Germans during the Battle of Britain.  On August 16, 1940, he was the first American pilot killed in World War II.

Riding behind Billy Fiske in the 1932 bobsled competition, was Eddie Eagan, the only person to win gold medals in both the summer and winter Olympics.  Twelve years before winning a gold medal in bobsledding, Eagan won the 1920 Olympic light heavyweight boxing gold medal in Antwerp, Belgium.


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