When the Austrian Army Saved the Winter Olympics

When the Austrian Army Saved the Winter Olympics

Why you should care

No snow? Nothing the Austrian armed forces couldn’t handle at the 1964 Innsbruck Games. 

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Innsbruck, Austria, known for its imperial architecture and picturesque setting in the Alps, was finalizing preparations to host the 1964 Winter Olympics — a perfect fit, given its renown as a winter sports destination.

The only problem? Alpine skiers, bobsledders and other winter sports athletes were about to descend on the city for the games, and their tracks and courses were bereft of an important element: snow.

A dearth of flurries has threatened the success of the Winter Games on multiple occasions, including as recently as 2010 in Vancouver, where an unseasonably mild winter wreaked havoc on the courses. Even back in 1928, at St. Moritz, Switzerland, gusts of warm wind coming down the mountain reduced the 10,000-meter speedskating rink to a puddle, and the event was canceled.

Austria took [the games] much more seriously [than Squaw Valley]. This was a matter of national pride.

David Wallechinsky, president, International Society of Olympic Historians

Cancellation wasn’t an option for Innsbruck in 1964. After all, Austria’s bid to host the games didn’t come easy. Innsbruck had tried to land the 1960 Winter Games, but it was ultimately rejected, narrowly outbid by Squaw Valley in California in the second round of voting. Not to be denied again, Innsbruck set about building world-class winter sports facilities for its 1964 sales pitch, which, this time, received near-unanimous approval.

While Squaw Valley didn’t even bother to build a bobsled course, says David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH), “Austria took it much more seriously. This was a matter of national pride.”

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A military truck dumps snow on the ground during preparations for the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Because of the lack of snow, soldiers were called in to help prepare the tracks for the games.

Source STAFF/Getty

In contemporary times, organizing committees have the power of artificial snow at their fingertips. Sorry to ruin the magic, but 90 percent of that fluffy, glistening snow at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games in South Korea? Faker than a $3 bill.

But organizers in 1964 did not have massive snowmaking machines at their disposal. What they did have was good old-fashioned elbow grease in the form of the Austrian army.

With the luge, bobsled and Alpine skiing events in peril, Austrian soldiers stepped in to lend a hand. Their efforts included transporting 20,000 blocks of ice from the mountainside to the luge and bobsled tracks — especially crucial as luge was making its debut in the Olympic program. (Luge is the event in which single or double riders rocket down the run, faceup and feetfirst, on a flat sled that hits 90 miles per hour or more.) For the Alpine skiing slopes, the army set to work transporting 40,000 cubic meters of snow — 88,184,800 pounds — to the courses, with an additional 20,000 cubic meters schlepped in, just in case.

That’s the armed forces for you — always thinking one step ahead. And it’s a good thing: Just 10 days before the opening ceremony, disaster struck once again when persistent rains ruined much of the military’s hard work. “There was a panic,” says Wallechinsky. The soldiers, this time joined by civilian volunteers, returned to the slopes and packed the snow down by hand and foot.

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The luge competition in the 1964 Winter Olympics.

Source George Silk/Getty

But these soldiers didn’t expect a pat on the back; after all, they were just doing their jobs. “It’s pretty normal that the national army steps in and helps, as Olympics are usually financed by the nation-state,” says Kay Schiller, a history professor and sports historian at Durham University in the U.K.

Either way, carrying 88 million pounds of snow counts as above and beyond, and the feat became a source of pride for Austria.

A translation of the official report of the IX Winter Games in the Olympic World Library’s digital collection reveals just how much the soldiers’ efforts were appreciated: “The assistance of the Austrian Armed Forces in the organization of the Winter Olympics eventually became a great peaceful, worldwide-admired effort by the young Austrian army.”

The Austrian athletes competing in the games generated even more chest-thumping. “With the snow in place, the ‘blue riband’ event, the men’s downhill, which is always one of the first Winter Olympic events, was won by Egon Zimmermann, Austria’s finest,” says Bill Mallon, co-founder of the ISOH.

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Participants in the luge event at the 1964 Winter Olympics.

Source Robert Riger/Getty

Many of the facilities are still in use today. The Olympiastadion, the venue for figure skating, ice hockey and ceremonies, is used mostly for concerts, according to Mallon. The larger of the two ski-jump hills is used as one of the sites for the Four Hills Tournament, the most important ski-jumping event of the year.

More than 50 years later, these games are remembered for myriad things. Ingenuity, for solving the snow crisis. Tragedy, for the deaths of Australian alpine skier Ross Milne and British luge slider Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki during training. And technology, as the Olympics officially entered the computer age.

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