Philip Barker

In the last few months, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been courting potential 2026 Winter Games host cities like never before, but there was a time when no less a figure than the IOC President would cheerfully have abolished the event altogether.

Avery Brundage was a multi-millionaire who became IOC President in 1952. The hallmark of his 20-year tenure at the head of the Olympic Movement was his passionate defence of the amateur idea.

He viewed the Winter Olympics as "a deplorable mistake which has done much to tarnish the Olympic image".

The Olympic Charter defines Winter sports as ‘’only those practiced on ice and snow’’. Skating was included for the first time in 1908 but it wasn’t until 1924 that specific Winter Games began in the French resort of Chamonix.

Although the ancient Games had not included Winter sports, the 1924 event initially known as an ‘’Olympic Winter sports week’’ had the full support of then IOC President Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

They were, he said, "so truly amateur, so frank and so pure in their sporting dignity that their complete exclusion from the Olympic programme deprived it of much force and value".

"The top of Mount Olympus is covered with snow isn’t it?’’ he asked.

Yet, when Brundage became IOC President, he bemoaned a growth of commercialisation.

‘’We should never have created the Winter Olympic Games but how can we stop them now?" He said to his predecessor Sigfrid Edstrom.

Brundage argued that there were ‘’many members in favour of abolishing the Winter Games because they have the tendency to become more and more professional".

He stood alongside United States Vice-President Richard Nixon at the opening of the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, but later that year the agenda for the IOC Session in Rome included Item 15: "General Discussion Winter Games".

Brundage did, however, get approval for his suggestion of a circular to Winter Sport Federations ‘’requesting them to exercise a better control on their respective sport". But within the IOC there was opposition to Brundage’s hard-line approach.

Former IOC President Avery Brundage led the calls for the Winter Olympics in its early stages to be abolished ©Getty Images
Former IOC President Avery Brundage led the calls for the Winter Olympics in its early stages to be abolished ©Getty Images

Olaf Ditlev Simonsen, organising chief of the 1952 Oslo Games, the Hungarian Dr Ferenc Mezo, the Comte Thaon de Revel of Italy and the USSR’s Alexei Romanov ‘’all speak in favour of retaining these Games because they do not see why they should be abolished".

Alpine skiing, so central to the Winter Olympics, had become such an attractive proposition for sponsors. In 1967, the International Ski Federation (FIS) had established an Alpine ‘’World Cup’’ series.

Brundage was disdainful of the new venture. He described it as ‘’that Alpine circus now going on over there in the mountains. It is reputed that they permit their participants to advertise ski resorts, ski equipment, clothing and I don’t know what. That is not according to Olympic rule."

His detractors nicknamed him ‘’Slavery Avery’’ or ‘’Slavery Bondage’’.

Still fuming when he arrived in Grenoble for the 1968 Winter Games, he vowed he would not attend any Alpine skiing competition nor present any medals in the sport.

‘’They go on with my disapproval and will get no support from me,’’ he said.

Much later, he claimed that in Grenoble "there had been cheating and that all the medals should have been returned".

Brundage also trained his sights on the skiing authorities, claiming they were "actually selling space on the number bibs worn by their skiers. This is outrageous."

The FIS general secretary Sigge Bergman countered: "One can only hope that the IOC see fit to move with the times . They will have to adopt a more realistic attitude to the wishes of the international sporting community."

The Austrian National Olympic Committee later revealed that they received a million Schillings each year from ski manufacturers to support the team.

Avery Brundage had a particular disdain for Alpine skiing ©Getty Images
Avery Brundage had a particular disdain for Alpine skiing ©Getty Images

Brundage, however, was in no mood to be "realistic". Instead, before the 1970 IOC Session in Amsterdam, he spoke of "an atomic bomb ready to explode next week".

Before the Session in the Dutch city, the IOC Executive Board held a three-hour meeting with a group from the FIS and a joint statement was issued.

"After a full review of the problems in skiing, they have agreed to cooperate with the object of keeping the ski events in the Winter Games in conformity with the regulations," the statement read.

Brundage continued to stoke the fire by announcing a list of ten skiers he felt should be banned from the Olympics. These included Germans, Canadians, Swiss and French, as he claimed "practically all Alpine skiers fail to meet the Olympic qualification rules’’ and that infringements were ‘’more widespread than in other sports".

Maurice Martel, President of the French Ski Federation, suggested that the French team might withdraw en masse from the Games if one of their team was expelled and had sent a telegram to FIS President Marc Hodler to try and galvanise support for international action.

Matters were coming to a head. As Brundage arrived in Sapporo for the 1972 Winter Games, he lamented: "The trademarks on skis are bigger than ever. Anyone whose name or photograph has been used in an advertisement for ski equipment is automatically an agent of the manufacturer. If we permit such competitors in the Olympic Games we would be sponsoring a competition between manufacturers’ agents and not between individuals.’’

When the IOC Executive Board met, it focused on the case of Austria’s double World Cup winner Karl Schranz, arguably the biggest star in Alpine skiing at that time.

Schranz had previously given an interview to a Tokyo newspaper, in which he said: ‘’If Mr Brundage had been poor, as I was and many other athletes, I wonder if he wouldn’t have a different attitude."

"Karl has not been too clever,’’ suggested Hodler, also a long standing IOC member who was present for part of those Executive Board meetings.

"The eligibility commission picked out the most blatant and verbose. Mr Schranz had done more to injure the Olympic idea than all the others put together," Brundage said.

The IOC minutes stated that Schranz "had been a living advertisement for years and was in a class of his own".

Austria’s double World Cup winner Karl Schranz was at the centre of the controversy in Alpine skiing ©Getty Images
Austria’s double World Cup winner Karl Schranz was at the centre of the controversy in Alpine skiing ©Getty Images

Eventually after a vote at the Session, Schranz was expelled.

Many, including 1968 superstar Jean Claude Killy of France, believed Schranz had been made a scapegoat.

"It’s not a fair decision," he said. "It’s either everybody or nobody. There are no amateurs any more.’’

Swiss Skier Bernhard Russil, destined to win the downhill title in Sapporo, agreed. "It is impossible to punish one skier because all other leading specialists are on the same level," he said.

Swiss IOC member Raymond Gafner had predicted an ‘’extremely violent’’ reaction. As it was, effigies of Brundage were burnt in Vienna and Schranz was welcomed home to Austria by huge crowds.

It was the last time Brundage would cross swords with the Winter Olympians. In his 85th year, he stood down that summer to be replaced by Lord Killanin. Many considered that Brundage had outstayed his welcome by at least four years. As he took office Killanin inherited a new problem related to the Winter Games.

Denver had already been chosen as 1976 hosts, but in Sapporo members of an anti-Olympic group had delivered a petition of 25,000 signatures to the IOC opposing the Games and few months later, a public referendum rejected the Games altogether.

"Avery would have used all his powers to disband the Winter Games," asserted Killanin. As it was, Innsbruck, hosts in 1964, stepped in to fill the gap and the Winter Games were at last on an upward curve.

The Winter Olympic Games were on an upward curve after the 1964 edition in Innsbruck ©Getty Images
The Winter Olympic Games were on an upward curve after the 1964 edition in Innsbruck ©Getty Images

Although the 1980 Games in Lake Placid were held against a back drop of political unrest after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the sensational "Miracle On Ice’", when the American collegiate hockey players defeated the all-powerful Soviets, made the Games a hot property.

Sarajevo 1984 - the first Games to receive Juan Antonio Samaranch’s famous accolade "Best Games ever" - also helped turn the wheel.

But downhill champion Bill Johnson, asked what a gold medal meant to him, replied "millions", many might have yearned for the days of "Slavery Avery".

The amateur horse had well and truly bolted. Calgary, hosts in 1998, concluded a television rights deal worth a staggering $309 million (£242 million/€270 million) and the Winter Games were expanded to 15 days to accommodate television over three weekends.

The unlikely hero - or anti hero - of the Games was a British ski jumper whose real name Michael Edwards, better known as ‘’Eddie the Eagle’’. The frenzy which attended his exploits was similar to attention now given to reality television.

No fewer than seven candidates put their names in the hat for the 1992 Games and the IOC took the decision to stage Winter Games in separate years from 1994 to help spread the load for the TV companies. There seemed to be no stopping the Winter Olympic juggernaut.

Now the wheel has swung again. Potential host cities are also playing hard to get despite initiatives such as ‘’Agenda 2020’’ and the ‘’New Norm’’. Only Beijing and Almaty went to the final vote for the 2022 Games.

The horse trading continues for 2026 with the prospect of some bids embracing venues in two different countries. Even the idea of having the best in the world in ice hockey has been turned on its head. as the National Hockey League did not release its players for the 2018 Games.

Perhaps in some celestial eyrie, Avery Brundage is having the last laugh after all.