Sonja Henie, 11, strikes a pose with world champion skater Gilles Grafstrom at the 1924 International Winter Sports Week, later known as the first Winter Olympics. Henie won gold medals in the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympics.

The Winter Olympic Games, which open Friday in South Korea, are a big deal. Nearly 3,000 athletes from almost 100 countries will compete for medals in more than 100 events.

But when the modern Olympic Games started in 1896 in Athens, Greece, there was no such thing as the Winter Olympics. Athletes competed only in the Summer Games.

There were, however, the Nordic Games. That was a competition in winter sports that took place every few years starting in 1901. But not everyone could compete: The Nordic Games were open only to athletes from the Scandinavian countries — Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Then, the 1908 Summer Olympics featured a figure skating competition, and the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium, had more figure skating competitions, as well as an ice hockey tournament.

The winter sports were popular, so in 1924 an International Winter Sports Week was held in Chamonix, France. Those competitions are considered the first Winter Olympics, but they were not as big as today’s Games.

Only about 250 athletes representing 16 countries competed in nine sports at Chamonix: cross-country skiing, figure skating, speed skating, four-man bobsleigh, ice hockey, ski jumping, Nordic combined, curling and military patrol (somewhat like today’s biathlon).


German fans carry Christl Cranz after her victory in the women's alpine combined at the 1936 Winter Olympics, the first Games to include the sport. (CORR/AFP/Getty Images)

Something else was different about these Games compared with today’s Olympics: There were only 11 female athletes at the 1924 Games, and they competed only in figure skating.

Not all the contests at Chamonix were close. For example, the Canadian hockey team won the gold medal in ice hockey by outscoring their opponents in five games, 110 goals to 3.

The equipment in the early Games would look strange today. Skis were made of wood and held on to the skier’s boots with leather straps. And the bobsleighs looked like Flexible Flyer sleds with a steering wheel stuck on the front.

Still, the Winter Olympics were underway, adding more sports to the Games, and especially more sports for women. Over the years, women were allowed to compete in skiing (starting in 1936), luge (1964), ice hockey (1998) and bobsleigh (2002).

Now the Games feature such fun events as freestyle skiing, snowboarding and skeleton. Some of these events have changed since they were introduced. The first Olympic halfpipe was only 11 ½ feet tall. Now daredevil snowboarders shoot up icy walls that are 22 feet high.

Four new events will debut at the 2018 Winter Games. Men and women skiers will compete together in the Alpine team event. Men and women will also form teams in curling mixed doubles.

Two new events that should be really wild are big-air snowboarding, which is like ski jumping for snowboarders, and mass-start speedskating. That’s when as many as 24 skaters race around a 400-meter oval. Look out for crashes.

The Winter Olympics — always changing, always fun. Since 1924.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that about 6,500 athletes would compete in PyeongChang. That number included team and Olympic officials. The number of athletes is just under 3,000. This story has been updated.

Bowen writes the sports opinion column for KidsPost. He is the author of 22 sports books for kids.