The 1964 Winter Olympics

The IX Winter Olympic Games took place from January 29-February 9th, 1964 in Innsbruck, Austria. 1,094 athletes competed in 34 sports. Of these athletes, 199 were women and 892 men. Things have changed - at the 2014 Winter Games, over 40% of the 2800 athletes were women! As the official name indicates, this was only the 9th occurrence of the Winter Olympic Games, and it far exceeded previous games for number of athletes (the 1960 Olympics had 665 participants) and number of spectators (over 1 million, about double the 1960 count).

The Innsbruck games ushered in the advent of serious commercialism for the Olympics, with 34 television networks and a 1-million dollar corporate sponsorship from IBM, who wrote a software program allowing results to be posted within minutes and races to be timed to the hundredth of a second. In many ways, the 1964 games were the first modern Olympics.

Photo: Mariano Mantel
Bergiselschanze ski jumping hill, which was rebuilt for the 1964 Olympics
Ironically, this huge success almost didn’t happen due to lack of snow. At the last minute the Austrian Army carried 25,000 tons of snow and 20,000 bricks of ice from a nearby mountain-top and disaster was diverted.

At the time, the United States was not the Olympic contender that it is today. Until the 1980s, the Olympics required athletes to be amateurs, a rule which was interpreted strictly to include not just participating in professional sports, but any activity related to the sport such as coaching and sponsorships. Walter Bush, manager of the U.S. Olympic hockey team in 1964, noted that this made life difficult for athletes, saying in an interview “About the only way you can plan on an American team is to be a millionaire or a bum” (“Competing in Olympics Called Too Costly”). This rule arguably gave athletes from Eastern Bloc nations, who had their living and training expenses paid for by their governments (and thus could train full-time), a strong competitive advantage. Certainly the Soviet Union cleaned up, as they had since joining the  Winter Games in 1956, but should also note that athletes who live in a very cold climate have a natural advantage.

Despite this constraint, the U.S. won 1 gold, 2 silver, and 4 bronze medals in 1964. The gold medal was won by Terry McDermott in Speed Skating (Men’s 500 Meter). In addition, McDermott set a speed-skating record with this performance, a significant victory for the U.S., who captured the title at the first winter Olympics in 1924, but lost it to Norway in 1928 and had not held it since (“Record Lost in 1936 Comes back to U.S.”).

Billy Kidd of Burlington, Vermont  won a silver for the U.S. in Slalom racing, his first and only Olympic win, though he continued to win international competitions and became a well known ski coach and author. Jean Saubert of the women’s ski team won two medals, a silver for Giant Slalom and a bronze in Slalom, making her the only U.S. athlete to medal twice at Innsbruck. Saubert did not compete again in the Olympics, and retired from the sport soon after, but was inducted to the United States National Ski Hall of Fame in 1976.

The Soviet Union was by far the winningest country in 1964, with 11 gold, 8 silver, and 6 bronze medals. Speed skater Lydia Skoblikova won 4 gold medals for the Soviet Union, making her the most successful athlete of the games. Upon winning the 500-meter speed skating event, Skoblikova was reported to be distraught by her time, which was 2-seconds slower than her best (“Winner's Joy Restrained”).

Lydia Skoblikova in 1967, three years after
winning 4 gold medals at the 1964 Olympics

Innsbruck gold medalists Oleg Protopopov and
Ludmila Belousova of the Soviet Union

Though the Soviets were a speed skating, hockey, and skiing powerhouse, they did not win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating until the Innsbruck games. Oleg Protopov and Ludmila Belusova, a husband and wife team, won the event by a narrow margin over Germany.

Innsbruck had more than its share of calamity. Two athletes died during the games, one from a heart attack while training, the other a 19-year-old skier named Ross Milne, who crashed into a tree at 60 mph ("Milne, 19, Loses Control”). In addition to these sad events, a number of athletes were injured badly, including Prince Karim Aga Khan of Iran, who hurtled off a trail during a ski race, but was able to land safely.

There was also a requisite share of festivity, occasionally going overboard. In one such case, three members of the U.S. team were arrested after leaving a party, driving the wrong way down a one-way street, and getting into a fistfight with the Austrian police officers who stopped them. The athletes spent the night in jail, but were not sanctioned by the United States Olympic Committee ("U.S. Olympians Get Off Lightly”).

On February 9, 1964 the closing ceremonies for the Innsbruck Winter Games were held at the Ice Stadium. Journalist Robert Daley wrote of this event:
[E]ight gold-medal winners, the huge medals hanging from their necks  . . . stride to the end of the ice, and the Olympic flag, white with five interlocking rings, is lowered into their arms. A fun-gun salute booms out over the town. Outside the glass wall of the Ice Stadium . . . the Olympic flames droop sadly, and then go out. The IX Winter Olympics are over (Daley).
1964 was a very different time in many ways, but the bittersweet moments at the end don’t sound so different from today.

Sources consulted:

1964 Winter Olympics.” Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum Hall of Fame. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

1964 Innsbruck Winter Games.” SR/Olympic Sports. SportsReference.com.  Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

"Competing in Olympics Called Too Costly for U.S. Athletes." New York Times: 20. Feb 07 1964. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

Daley, Robert. "Closing Day: Pomp and Camaraderie." New York Times: 31. Feb 10 1964. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

Greene. Bob. “What Changed the Olympics ForeverCNN. 23 July 2012.  Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

"Milne, 19, Loses Control at 60 M.P.H. and Runs into Tree in Drill." New York Times: 2. Jan 26 1964. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

Olympic.org. International Olympic Committee.  Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

"Record Lost in 1936 Comes back to U.S.." New York Times: 39. Feb 05 1964. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

"Soviet Skaters Win Gold Medal." New York Times: 32. Jan 30 1964. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

"U.S. Olympians Get Off Lightly for Clash with Austrian Police." New York Times: 16. Feb 08 1964. Web. 5 Feb. 2015 .

"Winner's Joy Restrained." New York Times: 1. Feb 02 1964. Web. 5 Feb. 2015 .

Winter Olympics Flashback: Photos From the Innsbruck Games, 1964.” Life. 2015.  Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

Ellie Dworak
Reference Librarian/Associate Professor

This blog post is the 9th in a series produced in coordination
with Albertsons Library’s 50th Anniversary. #BoiseStLibraryat50

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