Olympic anniversary: Curling at the 1998 Nagano Olympics
"In 1998 the Winter Olympic Games returned to Japan after 26 years. Snowboarding and curling debuted as official disciplines…,” read the program for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. After the Games concluded, the official report on Nagano referenced “the inaugural Olympic curling competition” and “the debut of curling on the official Sports Programme at the Olympic Games.”
The curling world rejoiced as their years of lobbying the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to include “the roaring game” as an Olympic medal sport for the very first time—or so they believed—paid off. They thought they’d been waiting for the better part of a century for curling to be promoted from demonstration sport to medal sport on the Olympic level.
Curling was contested as a demonstration sport at the 1932, 1988 and 1992 Olympics. And for decades, curling historians and the official IOC record alike agreed that it was a demonstration sport at the inaugural Winter Olympic Games, held in 1924 in Chamonix, France, as well.
A demonstration sport is when a game is played in order to promote the growth of the sport, historically seen on an Olympic level. The key difference is the results do not affect the official medal count, and the trophies are smaller in size compared to official Olympic events.
But in early 2006, the Glasgow Herald discovered evidence that the curling matches at the 1924 Chamonix Winter Olympics were an official part of the Olympic competition—meaning that curling’s “debut” in Nagano was actually a return.
"The curling world is in an uproar over The Herald claim to have exposed this 82-year-old Olympic sporting secret," declared website The Curling News as the story broke.
The Herald’s Doug Gillon found the proof in the 1924 annual report by the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, the organization that selected the four-man Scottish team that claimed gold in Chamonix, France. Gillon filed a claim to the IOC on behalf of the Scottish families whose ancestors won medals in its introductory Games. Then, 82 years after the medals were won, the IOC retroactively verified the first Olympic curling competition.
Chamonix’s 12-day competition, held in association with the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics, was known at the time as the “International Week of Winter Sports.” The organizers reportedly avoided calling the event the “Olympic Winter Games” to avoid conflicts with the “Nordic Games” held by Scandinavian countries—they feared that athletes from winter sports powerhouses like Sweden wouldn’t attend if the new competition seemed to be detracting from the importance of their home Games.
The Nordic Games were held for the last time in 1926, and that same year the IOC decided to re-designate the Chamonix event the Winter Olympic Games. They also resolved to start holding Winter Games along with the Summer Games every four years, starting with the St. Moritz Winter Olympics in 1928.
After Gillon contacted the IOC, a representative confirmed that “for the 'International Week of Winter Sports' all the winners of the events are considered as Olympics champions.”
The members of the 1924 Scottish curling team, Robin Welsh, Tom Murray, Willie Jackson and Laurence Jackson, all died without knowing that they were official Olympic gold medalists. They defeated the two other teams in the tournament, Sweden and France, to win the title.
The history books were rewritten as a result of The Herald’s report: the 1924 curling gold became Britain’s first Winter Olympic gold, not the ice hockey gold won in 1936 that was formerly believed to be Team GB’s first.
Robin Welsh, 54 years and 101 days old in Chamonix, was also declared to be Britain’s oldest Winter Olympic champion. Carl Erhardt, 39 years old when he won gold with the British hockey team in 1936, previously held the title. Laurence Jackson, who played alongside his father Willie, was 23 years and 135 days old when he won gold in Chamonix, making him the youngest curling Olympic champion.
And the Canadian women’s team and Swiss men’s team that won their respective tournaments at the 1998 Nagano Olympics also had to give up their titles as inaugural Olympic curling champions.
At what we now know was the second official curling competition, Canadian skip Sandra Schmirler—nicknamed Schmirler the Curler—stole the show in Nagano. She led the Canadians to gold in the women’s matches just four months after giving birth to her first child. Schmirler would pass away two years later at age 36 from a cancerous tumor in her chest.
As the 1924 Olympic curling competition featured only male teams, Schmirler and her Canadian teammates are still the first women to win curling gold at the Olympics.
On the men’s side, the Swiss team skipped by Patrick Huerlimann defeated Canada to earn gold.
The 1998 curling tournament did get to claim another Olympic first: the competition was held in Karuizawa, the same town that held the Equestrian competition in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Therefore, Karuizawa became the first city to host events at both the Summer and Winter Olympics.