Road To The Olympic Games

1956 Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy

The 1952 Games marked a profound shift towards modernity. From corporate sponsorships to Soviet domination, these Olympics foreshadowed changes in Winter Games for the second half of the Twentieth Century.

The beginning of corporate influence on the Olympic Games

A general view of the Olympic skating rink in Cortina, Italy, as Boris Shilkov of Soviet Russia passes the finishing line to win the 5,000 metre speed skating event. ((Keystone/Getty Images))

The Numbers

  • Number of nations: 32
  • Number of athletes: 821 (687 men, 134 women)
  • Number of sports: 8 
  • Number of events: 24
  • Most gold medals by an Olympian: 3, Anton Sailer, Austria (Alpine Skiing)
  • Most medals won by an Olympian: 4, Sixten Jernberg, Sweden (Cross-Country)
  • Largest margin of victory by a male Olympian: 6.2 seconds, Anton Sailer (Giant Slalom)

The third time proved to be a charm for Cortina d’Ampezzo in 1956. The northeastern Italian mountain resort had been selected to host the 1944 Winter Games, which were cancelled because of the Second World War. Another bid failed in 1952 when the Games went to Oslo. But in 1956, a record 821 athletes from 32 countries converged upon Cortina d’Ampezzo to celebrate the seventh Winter Olympics.

The 1952 Games marked a profound shift towards modernity. From corporate sponsorships to Soviet domination, these Olympics foreshadowed changes in Winter Games for the second half of the Twentieth Century.

The lavish construction effort for the Olympics spared no expense. The organizers of the Cortina d'Ampezzo Games depended on the support of various Italian industrial groups. Count Paolo Thaon di Revel, president of the Organizing Committee, had enormous financial resources with which to build an extensive network of new infrastructure. Some of the funds were drawn from the Toto-calcio, the betting football pools in Italy, while other resources came from Italian companies.

Fiat and Olivetti supplied cars and typewriters. Following the Games, Swiss journalist Colette Muret wondered in her columns if the Winter Olympics could continue on such a grand scale without transforming it into a "Hollywood Show" – not the last time such a sentiment would be uttered.

The Opening Ceremony was magnificent. The Olympic flame had been lit at the Campidoglio in Rome and blessed by Pope Pius XII. The flame was then transported to Cortina d'Ampezzo, carried down the 2,098-metre peak of Rifugio Duca d'Aosta by Italian Alpine champion Zeno Colo. Speed skater Guido Caroli carried the torch into the Ice Stadium and officially opened the 1956 Olympic Games. Italian skier Giuliana Chenal-Minuzzo became the first woman to be given the honour of taking the Olympic oath.

Anton Sailer

Austrian skier Toni Sailer picks up speed during the first run of the men's giant slalom at the 1956 Winter Olympic Games. ((STAFF/AFP/Getty Images))
One of the media darlings of these Olympics was Austrian alpine skier Anton Sailer. The 20-year-old Kitzbuhel native swept the three Alpine events – slalom, giant slalom, and downhill. It was the first sweep in Olympic history. Following his dominating performances in the slalom and giant slalom, Salier looked to be in trouble in the downhill before the event even began.

He broke a strap on one his boots and didn’t have a spare. Fortunately for Sailer, Hansl Senger, an Italian trainer, removed his own strap and gave it to the Austrian. Sailer also survived a near fall and still won the race by 3 ½ seconds. Sailer became the first alpine skier to win three goal medals. Defeating his opponents by large margins, Sailer quickly gained the nickname "the Blitz from the Kitz." He became a national hero and was awarded the Austrian government's highest medal, the Golden Cross of Merit. He later became a singer and movie actor.

The Games, however, got off to a rough start. Like the previous Oslo Olympics, the Italian resort experienced an uncharacteristic lack of snow in the 24 days leading up to the Games. The Italian Army was called upon to remedy the situation, transporting truckloads of snow down from the Dolomite Alps. Next, a sudden winter storm swept through, dumping 14 inches of snow in the area.

The region then experienced an unexpected thaw followed by a sudden freeze. Athletes who had come to practice and train at the facilities found the icy and slick conditions extremely dangerous. The Italian Army was again called in to level and blanket the grounds with more imported snow. Ultimately, this second wave of snow had to be removed because of a heavy snowfall on the day of the Opening Ceremony.

Attendance at the Games was a bit low. Only 143,401 tickets were sold, but a new medium was allowing viewers across Europe to watch the Olympics. The Italian television station RAI provided live coverage of the Games to eight European countries. More than 400 journalists, 76 radio reporters, 16 international and 12 national agencies descended on Cortina D'Ampezzo to cover the Games.

One of the big success stories involved the stunning debut of the Soviet team at the Winter Olympics. The Soviets won 16 medals, the most of any nation. They dominated the speed skating competition, sweeping all of the events except for the 10,000-metre race.

The Soviets also showed a definitive mastery of hockey. Prior to the Second World War, hockey had never been played in Russia, but in 1956 they won Olympic gold. The United States and Canada battled for second and third place. It was a humbling defeat for Canada, which had always dominated Olympic hockey and failed to win gold only once prior to 1956.

Canadian Medallists

  • Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden silver - figure skating
  • Men's hockey team bronze - ice hockey
  • Lucie Wheeler bronze - alpine skiing

Canada's performance

Aside from hockey, Canada also experienced another heartbreaking upset in the pairs figure skating competition. Entering the Games as two-time world champions, Canadians Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden seemed poised to capture gold. Although they skated cleanly, the couple momentarily faltered on a lift and accordingly didn't finish in time with their music. The panel was split and the Canadians received four first-place votes and five second-place marks. Austrians Elisabeth Schwartz and Kurt Oppelt captured gold with the Canadians finishing second.

Canada's only other medal that year came from Alpine skier Lucie Wheeler. The 21-year-old Quebec native fell on the first run of the slalom course and was disqualified. But on the downhill course, it was a different story. Wheeler led through the first part of the race, but lost time and nearly fell as the course levelled out. Still, she held it together enough to win the bronze.

 CountryGold  Silver Bronze Total
 1. Soviet Union 7 3 6 16
 2. Austria 4 3 4 11
 3. Sweden 2 4 4 10
 4. Finland 3 3 1 7
 5. USA 2 3 2 7
 9. Canada 0 1 2 3