Calgary, Irving Jaffee and a time when the Winter Olympics was far from cold | Simon Burnton

A look back at the history of past Games in warmer climates, plus the tale of a speed skater who had the odds against him

In 1988, shortly before the Winter Olympics got under way and amid rising concerns about the event suffering from good – which for the purposes of the Games would be bad – weather, 500 residents of Calgary with the surnames White, Winter or Snow gathered to perform a snow dance. The event concluded with them chanting “White winter snow, white winter snow, let it go!” before releasing helium balloons with their names on.

It did not help: warm winds soon arrived to melt much of what snow there was, temperatures peaked at 18.1°C and 33 events had to be rescheduled. “We simply must make better calculations when awarding future Winter Games,” grumbled Walter Troeger of the International Olympic Committee, an organisation that has since graduated from awarding winter events to places that might not have enough snow to giving them to places that will definitely not have any.

And so to the barren, brown wastelands that at least until the blizzards on Sunday surrounded many of Beijing’s venues, with athletes propelling themselves down the kind of unnatural smears of shocking white rarely witnessed since Adam Ant put away his face paint. There is no point doing snow dances at the Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Centre or at Big Air Shougang, the venue for the ski jumping because, however cold it is, they hardly get any. It is this, more than anything, that makes it an ideal host city.

The idea of awarding these Games only to snowy places is romantic but deeply flawed, akin to awarding the Summer Olympics only to inclement locations, getting them to build open-air swimming pools and then hoping it rains enough to fill them up before anyone dives in from a 10m platform. The difference between using a hose to fill an empty pool with water and some clever freezers to cover a dry hillside with snow is only one of – in several senses – degrees.

When Beijing was awarded the Games in 2015 the only rival bid came from Almaty, who used the pointed slogan “Keep it Real”. The Olympics long ago gave up on that. The Winter Olympics has relied on fake snow since at least 1964, when the slopes in Innsbruck were constructed using 22,000 ice bricks carved from nearby Lake Herzsee, topped by 25,000 cubic metres of snow hand-lugged from the Brenner Pass and more created by experimental American air compressors. “The runs look peculiar as they plunge twistingly downhill through brown meadows where, one believes, cows will appear any day to munch the spring grass,” wrote the New York Times.

But, beyond the hassle of importing or creating snow, warm winter weather has led to some of the great Olympic injustices, foremost among them the tale of Irving Jaffee, a young American who in 1928 headed to St Moritz hoping for speed skating glory. Jaffee was an interesting character, a frustrated wannabe baseball player and protégé of the great Norval Baptie, speed and figure skater, inventor of the airplane spin – performed with the male skater holding his partner by one hand and an ankle – and world record-holder in the disciplines of barrel jumping and stilt skating.

The American bobsled team at the 1928 Winter Olympics, an event which included controversy involving the speed skater Irving Jaffee.
The American bobsled team at the 1928 Winter Olympics, an event which included controversy involving the speed skater Irving Jaffee. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

In St Moritz that year a warm wind and heavy rain ruined many events – the 50km cross-country skiing was contested, very slowly, in temperatures that peaked at 25C – and the 10,000m speed skating became a race against time as much as anything else. As the ice melted, the event neared its conclusion with Jaffee in the lead, only a handful of stragglers and no-hopers still to go and the Norwegian favourite Bernt Evensen out of contention, the Norwegian referee suddenly declared it abandoned.

The Americans appealed – “We don’t want to raise a row,” said their splendidly named official Gustavus T Kirby. “We prefer to win the race on the ice, not in committees, but this action does not seem fair to us.” The IOC agreed and awarded Jaffee the gold only for the International Skating Commission – led by another Norwegian – to overturn the decision on the tenuous basis that US’s appeal had not been received by them within the stipulated three hours of the race’s cancellation. That night many skaters – including Evensen himself – gathered to protest against the decision, but to no avail.

Jaffee demanded a rerun. “This is a tough break,” he said, “but I will race them again on skates, skis or at foot-running.” Sadly by then all the ice had melted and many competitors had gone home, so Jaffee had to wait four years to right the wrong.

In 1932 Lake Placid hosted the Games and more weather worries. The Scotsman described a venue featuring “black mountainsides, rough with rocks instead of being soft white slopes of snow; bobsleigh runs down which not happy parties of winter sportsmen but streams of thaw-water are coursing; and anxious villagers whose vision of prosperity is, like the snow, slowly melting before their eyes”. Among other problems the meltwater created a large pond precisely where the ski jumpers came to earth, forcing them to attempt their second runs while shivering and soaking wet. “It led,” the British Olympic Committee noted, dryly, “to a lot of complaints.”

With admirable prescience Lake Placid had constructed the Olympics’ first artificially frozen skating rink, so the only thing threatening to stop Jaffee racing was the antisemitism of his own teammates, which was so virulent that he ended up – at the suggestion of one of the coaches – in a boxing ring with one of them two days before the 5,000m final and eventually fled the Olympic Village altogether (the Games was based around the spectacular local golf club, founded by the fiercely antisemitic Melvil Dewey, which had a strict policy of not admitting dogs or Jews). He won that event and the 10,000m, with Evensen among those left in his wake in both races, to create a tale of redemption so satisfying one would need ice in one’s veins not to feel warmed by it. In that case I would suggest keeping quiet about it or the IOC might try to host an event in you.


Simon Burnton

The GuardianTramp

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