Philip Barker

On Sunday (February 20) the ceremonial Olympic Flag will be handed to Milan Cortina d’Ampezzo, the joint hosts of the 2026 Winter Olympics.

The handover ceremony will feature the Mayors of Milan and Cortina, the first time that the first citizens of two host cities have taken part in the Ceremony in this way.

The Flag which they will receive was first presented by the organisers of the Oslo 1952 Games.

It will be a moment of historical coincidence for the first recipients of this Flag were Cortina D’Ampezzo in 1956.

The ritual was slightly different in those days.

Instead of receiving it in anticipation of 1956, Cortina took it into their safe keeping once they had staged the Games and retained it for the next four years, before handing it over to Squaw Valley in 1960.

When the 2026 Games open, it will be seventy years since the Winter Olympics were first held in the resort of Cortina.

They had originally set their sights on the 1952 Games, but after these were awarded to Oslo, the bid was focused on 1956.

Rome hosted the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session at which Cortina was chosen in 1949.

The Italian delegation made their presentation in the sumptuous surroundings of the Hotel Excelsior in Rome.

The result was a sweeping victory with 31 votes.

Only seven voted for Montreal who were their closest challengers.

Austrian skier Toni Sailer was a superstar at the 1956 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images
Austrian skier Toni Sailer was a superstar at the 1956 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images

Colorado received two votes and there was just a single vote for Lake Placid.

For the new hosts, the decision was highly symbolic.

Italian sport had been in the grip of Mussolini’s fascists before the Second World War.

In the post war years the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) was led by Giulio Onesti.

He soon became a widely respected figure in international circles and eased Italy back into the Olympic fold.

Plans for the Winter Games were put in the hands of "a committee of experts."

They reported that "tangible progress" had been made in the first year.

Plans were laid to upgrade the railway into the mountains and in a move that was ahead of its time ,the Italians also sent a group of twelve observers to Oslo to view at first hand the operations at the 1952 Games.

In 1953, CONI's delegation made a glowing progress report to the IOC members at their meeting in Mexico City.

"We are happy to announce that the Italian Government has given assurance of its wholehearted cooperation in the organisation of the Games," CONI said.

"Such aid will make it possible for us to prepare the Games in a manner worthy of our country’s finest traditions."

They announced that construction of the ice stadium had already begun.

A bowl from Ancient Olympia was used in Cortina
A bowl from Ancient Olympia was used in Cortina

"This is now under construction on land donated by the administration of Cortina," the report said.

"The stadium is a ten-minute walk from the village centre in a magnificent panoramic position," they reassured IOC members.

The experts consulted the weather reports from the previous 26 years before fixing the optimum dates for the Games.

They were set to begin on January 26 1956.

The Flame was not lit in Olympia but at the Capitol in Rome in a ceremony of some grandeur. 

The first bearer was Adolfo Consolini, discus gold medallist in 1948. 

It was then taken past the Colosseum along the Appian Way to the airport in an open car escorted by Vespa scooters.

In Venice it was taken along the Grand Canal.

When it finally arrived in the mountains, 1952 downhill gold medallist Zeno Colo skied down the mountainside with the Flame amid flares in the Italian colours of red, white and green.

The Opening Ceremony was much simpler than today.

An artists impression of Adolfo Consolini starting Cortina's Torch Run in Domenica Del Corriere © ITG
An artists impression of Adolfo Consolini starting Cortina's Torch Run in Domenica Del Corriere © ITG

The teams had marched through the centre of the Village to reach the Stadium which was bathed in bright sunlight.

Strips of coconut matting had been laid on the ice floor to allow each team to march safely into the arena.

As it turned out, the only person to slip was the final Torchbearer Guido Caroli who tripped over a television cable that had been frozen solid.

To his eternal credit, Caroli did not allow the Flame to go out.

There was a signpost towards gender equality when Alpine skier Giuliana Minuzzo became the first woman to speak the Olympic Oath.

Italian President Giovanni Gronchi opened the Games.

They were the first to be televised across Europe by the new Eurovision network.

The pictures were black and white and somewhat grainy and unsophisticated by today’s standards but in 1956, the whole enterprise was considered to be a technical marvel.

"It affords us the greatest pleasure to commend the Italian television on its excellent work when it assured the service of such good televised reports of the events," the Olympic Review said in an unsigned article.

This was probably written by the IOC Chancellor Otto Mayer because IOC President Avery Brundage was known for his antipathy towards the new medium.

"Even for a layman, it is easy to conceive the enormous technical effort it entailed," Mayer insisted.

"Through the enthusiasm of Cortina, thanks also to television, winter sports in Italy obtained the benefit of an immense, healthy and invaluable propaganda," declared Onesti after the Games.

Television also made an instant star of Austrian skier Toni Sailer who won three gold medals. 

American skater Tenley Albright won gold before becoming a surgeon in later life © Getty Images
American skater Tenley Albright won gold before becoming a surgeon in later life © Getty Images

It was also the first time that the Soviet Union had taken part in the Winter Olympics.

Their impact was instant.

The first "Red Machine" won gold in men’s ice hockey, and four of the five speed skating gold medals on offer were won by Soviet competitors.

Yevgeny Grishin was the most successful Soviet individual with two gold medals.

Speed skating incidentally was contested on an outside rink.

American Tenley Albright won women’s singles figure skating, despite suffering a gash to her right leg.

In later life, she became a surgeon.

When the Games came to an end, the plaudits were many.

"No doubt these Winter Games were the biggest and best ever," concluded veteran sports writer Willy Meisl writing in World Sports magazine.

Even so he sounded a warning.

"I cannot see the beautifully-situated Dolomites resort of Cortina making much use of giant installations such as the ice and snow stadium," Meisl wrote.

What would he have thought of the return of the Winter Olympics almost seven decades later?

The Handover Ceremony on Sunday is to be directed by Marco Balich, who had been in charge of the handover for Turin at Salt Lake City in 2002 and masterminded the Opening and Closing Ceremonies in the Stadio Olimpico in 2006.

"The handing over of the flag from China to Italy will give an important statement to the world," Milan Cortina 2026 claimed.

"We are ready to amaze you," they have promised.