Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Curling at the 1924 Winter Olympics: Part 2 - The Rest of the Story

by Bob Cowan. As I write this, there are just 100 days to go before the Olympic Winter Games get underway at Sochi, Russia. The GB curling teams have already been named. This post continues the story of the curling competition in 1924 in Chamonix, France, when curling's Olympic story began. Part 1 is here.

A few days before the Games were due to begin, on January 22, an international 'Curling Congress' was convened at the Hotel Majestic in Chamonix to decide, amongst other things, how the first Olympic curling competition should be run! Those who attended that congress are shown in the photo above, published in the Royal Caledonian Curling Club Annual for 1924-25. In the back row is Fernand Henri Cournollet (France), Armand Isaac-Benedic (France), Paul Rousseau (Comite Olympique Francais), A Maucourt (France), I Magnus (France). In front is W Hewit (Canada), Colonel Robertson-Aikman (Great Britain), Marquis de Solignac (Comite International Olympique), Major D G Astley (Great Britain), P J Mulqueen (Canada).

Robertson-Aikman and Astley were both reserves in the GB squad. Cournollet and Isaac-Benedic were skip and third of the French team. There was no Swedish representative on the committee although the Royal Club Annual does suggest that Robertson-Aikman was carrying a mandate for that country. Nor was there a Swiss representative. I had wondered what Astley could have contributed - but we know he had a number or years competing in St Moritz both before and after WW1, so he had experience of the Swiss curling scene.

Not all the attendees were curlers. The photo above includes two Canadians, even though that country would not be represented in the curling event. I wonder why not. Canadian curlers were certainly invited. Perhaps the reason lies undiscovered to this day in the archives of the Canadian Curling Association, or the Canadian Olympic Association. P J Mulqueen served for many years on both the Canadian Olympic Association and the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada. The 'W Hewit' I think is William Abraham Hewitt, sportswriter and editor of the Toronto Star, and secretary of the Ontario Hockey Association. (Certainly the photo of Hewitt on this page corresponds to the person front left in the group above.) He was in Chamonix as manager of the Canadian ice hockey team (the Toronto Granites) who would play in the ice hockey competition there, and win it. If I have identified Mulqueen and Hewitt correctly, then it can be said that neither of the Canadian representatives at the Congress was a well-kent curling player or administrator. The Congress appointed a Committee which comprised Robertson-Aikman as President, Mulqueen as Vice-president, and Magnus as Secretary, although what function the Committee was to have after January 22 is unclear.

It was this group that decided that games would be of eighteen ends, and that a round robin would be played to decide a winner. The draw was made, by ballot, for matches to begin on Saturday, January 26: On Day 1, Great Britain v Switzerland, France v Sweden; on Day 2, Great Britain v Sweden, France v Switzerland; Day 3, Sweden v Switzerland, Great Britain v France.

However, the Swiss withdrew from the competition, a revised draw was made, and the competition then got underway on Monday, January 28. The French Official Report lists the eight names of the Swiss squad which had been expected to compete. These Swiss curlers were named as H Buchli, J Caprez, Castan, C Genillard, A Rocco, H Roelli, P Wieland, and W Wieland. Again, eight names, so presumably the Swiss had been asked to field a team of four, plus four reserves. It should be possible to expand on the names of these Swiss players, and to learn something about them. But that's for another time. It is unknown why the Swiss did not take part, dropping out at what appears to be the last minute. Perhaps such information may lie in the archives of the Swiss Olympic Association. In 1924 there was no national Swiss Curling Association. There were twenty-five Swiss curling clubs affiliated directly to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in that year, although many of the members of these clubs were British visitors. Still, in 1924, many Swiss curled, and a national team would have been a strong one.

A photo of the French team appeared in the French Official Report. Actually I was able to obtain in an online auction the photo above, almost identical to that in the French Official Report, but a little better quality, apparently clipped from a magazine of the time. On the left is skip Fernand Henri Jean Cournollet, who was 41 years old during the games. Next to him is Armand Isaac-Benedic who was 48. The two players on the right of the photo are Pierre Canivet (33) and George Andre (47), although I am not sure which is which. On the basis of the ages, I would say that the taller of the two is Andre, and the curler on the right, with the beard, is Canivet. What do you think? Hopefully someone will be able to confirm the identity of all four players in the photo.

Information about the ages of all these players comes from the detailed Olympic statistics on the Sports-Reference website here, certainly the best source for reliable Olympic information on the Web. The French Official Report gives the names of two alternates, Henri Aldebert and Robert Planque, neither of whom participated in either game the French played. The website of the French Olympic Committee lists all six names as bronze medal winners, see here. Mind you this site also states that curling was a 'demonstration sport' in 1924. There were NO demonstration sports in Chamonix, and it is one of the sport's mysteries just why this information came to be accepted, see below.

There was no national French Curling Association in 1924. The Chamonix (Mont Blanc) Curling Club was directly affiliated to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, instituted in 1923, and its members are listed in the 1924-25 Annual. The club had sixteen men and thirteen women members in that season. Four of the six names above are in that list - Isaac-Benedic and Planque are not. The list of members of the club in September 1924, as listed in the Annual for 1924-25, also includes the name of the French Under-Secretary of State for Physical Education, Gaston Vidal, who had declared the Games open. There is a photo of him on the ice at the Chamonix Games here.

This poor quality photo, found here, shows the French team in action. However, it is captioned as showing action from the France - Switzerland match, illustrating that even information on official Olympic websites may be incorrect. Switzerland did not participate in 1924, as already discussed.

Although the Swedes only played two matches, all eight players in their squad took part, a different team playing in each match. Hakan Sundstrom, who served as secretary of the Swedish Curling Federation for many years, confirms this.

This photo, which appeared in the French Official Report, is of one of the Swedish teams. I believe these players to be (L-R) Karl Erik Wahlberg (49), Carl August Kronlund (58), Carl Axel Pettersson (49), and Johan Petter Ahlen (44). According to the information in the World Curling Federation's Historical Results database here, Kronlund was lead, Wahlberg, second, Pettersson, third, and Ahlen, skip. This is the team that beat France in the first match of the competition. The website of the Swedish Olympic Association has small head and shoulders photographs of all these athletes, here, and although these confirm both Kronlund and Ahlen, I'm less certain that I've identified the other two correctly. Incidentally Kronlund was the oldest curler in the curling competition at Chamonix. In the Royal Club Annual for 1924-25, Ahlen, Pettersson, Kronlund and Wahlberg were all listed as members of the same curling club, Stockholms CC, instituted in 1917.

There is a rather strange photo of Ahlen, Pettersson and Wahlberg to be found in the IOC's website gallery of curling photos from 1924, see here. It is captioned, 'Taking a break from the curling in Chamonix'. The three are sitting at a table in the snow, in what looks like an outdoor cafe/bar, apparently on the Montenvers, being served by a waitress who is pouring drinks. (I assume they would have ascended by the famous rack railway from Chamonix to the bottom of the Mer de Glace, a 'must do' attraction of the area even today.) I thought this was a strange image to find on the IOC website, but it all helps to build up a picture of an event which took place a long time ago!

Hopefully confirmation will come from Sweden on the identities of all those pictured.

Having identified the team that beat the French, by a process of elimination, the team that lost to Great Britain in the second match must have been Carl Wilhelm Petersen (39, skip), Ture Odlund (29, third), Victor Wetterstrom (39, second) and Erik Severin (44, lead). Again all the ages come from the sports-reference website, and this information matches that on the Swedish Olympic site. I have not yet found any photograph of this team together, but the search goes on! The 1924-25 Annual lists Peterson and Wetterstrom as being members of the Stockholms Amatoforenings Curling Section, instituted 1900, and Odlund and Severin as members of the Kronprinsens CC, instituted in 1913.

Why would the Swedish curlers select a different team in each of their matches? The country had won their first game, against France, so in fielding a different team they were not keeping with a winning lineup. My suggestion is that the Swedish squad had realised that only those who actually played in the competition would get medals, and they wanted to give all eight members the opportunity to earn these. This is only supposition on my part, however.

The myth that GB's Major Astley played for Sweden is discussed in Part 3, here.

There was little about the curling competition at Chamonix reported in the press of the time. However, the British victory did not go unnoticed. The Times covered the GB team's success in its issue of Thursday, January 31, with:

"Olympic Winter Sports
Great Britain Wins Curling
Chamonix, Jan 30
The Olympic Winter Sports were continued here today, when the Curling Contest was won by Great Britain, Sweden was second, and France third. The British team was composed of Colonel R Aikman, Major E G L Astley (sic), R Welsh, W K Jackson, L Jackson, W. Brown, J MacLeod (sic), and T B Murray."

The article continued with reports of the ice hockey competition, the 50 kilometre ski race, and an accident to the French bobsleigh team.

Further afield, it was not the competition result that filled the newspaper columns.

A syndicated report from the Associated Press was picked up by a number of North American newspapers. The clipping above is from the Bridgeport Telegraph, February 1, 1924. I think this has to be taken with a pinch of salt, but if the story has any basis in truth it answers the question of whose stones were used in the competition. It confirms that the curlers brought their own stones to Chamonix! We know that Robertson-Aikman and Astley went out early to Chamonix to take part in the Curling Congress. According to the report in the 1924-25 Annual, the rest of the squad travelled first to London where they left on January 23, to Dover, then across the Channel to Calais, on to Paris, and then across France to Chamonix. Most of the journey would have been by train, of course. Did one of the squad travel directly to Chamonix from Davos? I don't know.

Incidentally, play was likely to have been from the crampet, rather than the hack, and in some photos a crampet can indeed be seen lying flat on the ice. There were no coloured circles back then, nor taped lines. The scoring area, the house, would have been marked simply by a scraped circle, seven foot in radius, not six as it is today. The larger 'house' would have made it easier to score shots and may explain somewhat the very high scores. A tee-ringer would have been used to mark out the circles. Go here to see one of the 2014 GB curling squad using a tee-ringer!

What were the ice conditions like for the 1924 curling competition? Fairlie's BOA Report notes that because of the weather problems there had been very little practice possible for those who were to compete but during the actual event 'the ice was in excellent order'.  This contradicts what was read out by the Royal Club Secretary at the 1924 AGM saying, "The ice was not good, being untrue and not a good quality." But in the report printed in the Annual for 1924-25, it was noted, "Curling practice was then indulged in, and the ice was found to be something similar to that encountered under ordinary conditions in Scotland, though falling far short of the ideal ice provided in Haymarket Ice Rink." 

Fairlie, in his BOA Report, chose to include in the Conclusion of his one page report about the curling competition a short passage, which bears close scrutiny. He writes, "There are some who say that Curling is not a sport which ought to be included in the Winter Sports Section of the Olympic Programme. Whether they are right or wrong is a matter for the authorities. The fact remains that the International Olympic Committee included curling in their Programme and invited countries to participate, and Great Britain entered and won. On this account we desire to very heartily congratulate the team, which consisted of the following members of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club of Scotland, on their splendid victory: W K Jackson, R Welsh, T B Murray, L Jackson."

How do you react on reading this? I find it quite extraordinary that this passage was included in the BOA Official Report! Who were those who didn't want to see curling in the Olympics? Fairlie himself, or other individuals involved with the British Olympic Association? Or is Fairlie expressing (English) public opinion, and quoting those persons ignorant of the sport itself having never played it, and who judge it only by appearance? Such people are out there even now, to judge by comments posted on blogs, forums and on Twitter, but I like to think they are not so numerous as they once were, thanks to the sport's positive exposure at recent Olympic Games. 

Fairlie goes on to say nice things about Colonel Robertson-Aikman, that he had acted as guide and sponsor of the team throughout in a 'very able way'. He concludes, "His courtesy and willingness to fall in with every suggestion made to him and his team was a very great help and assistance to those who had charge of the British Teams in Chamonix, and added much to the smooth running of the competitions."

F G L Fairlie actually competed in the 1924 Winter Games. He was a member of the GB's bobsleigh squad, a member of GB1. This is significant as practice for the bobsleigh was taking place when the curling competition was going on, so I do wonder if he saw any of the actual games. His full name was Francis Gerard Luis Fairlie, born November 1, 1899, and died March 31, 1983. A Londoner, he attended Sandhurst Military College and served in the Scots Guards. The GB1 bobsleigh team had a bad accident when practising. The team were thrown out of the sled and the brakeman, Captain Browning, suffered a broken leg and the others, according to Fairlie himself, 'escaped with a bad shaking'. Browning was obviously unable to compete further and a different lineup for the GB1 bob - William Horton, Archibald Crabbe, Gerard Fairlie, and George Pim - competed in the championship competition, held a couple of days later on February 2-3, after the curling event was complete, finishing in fifth place. The GB2 bob was second and gained silver medals. There is a wonderful video clip of what the bobsleigh run was like online here.

Incidentally, a member of the French curling team, George Andre, not only played in the curling matches, but also was a member of one of that country's bobsleigh teams, as was curling team reserve Henri Aldebert. Andre's bob finished fourth in the competition.

I have been wondering whether there was any camaraderie among the curlers and those participating in other sports. Fairlie does include a photo of all those in 'Team GB' in the BOA Report. It is certainly possible to pick out the curlers. They are in the middle row, the reserves on the left and the actual team on the right. The photo is a little small but those familiar with the other sports may well be able to identify some of the competitors. Fairlie himself is in the back row, second from the right. The photo is credited to Central Press, London.

If there were indeed those who did not want curling to be included in future Olympic programmes, they would have been satisfied that the next Games in St Moritz, Switzerland, did not feature curling at all, nor is there any evidence that its inclusion was ever contemplated. There is no mention in Royal Club Annuals of any invitation to take part. However, such an invitation was issued in 1931, well in advance of the Lake Placid Games. The invitation was put to representative members attending the Royal Club AGM on July 29, in Ayr. The Secretary, Andrew Hamilton, advised that the Royal Club had been asked to 'sponsor teams' to take part in these games. It was noted that it was hoped that teams from GB, Canada, America, Sweden and Switzerland would take part. Hamilton concluded, "The expense of the trip is estimated to cost £80 to £100. Any one desiring to be included in the team will please inform the Secretary of the Royal Club by the end of October." The Chairman added, "That is merely for your information, gentleman," before moving on to other matters. It would seem that the Royal Club had no intention of selecting a team as had been done in 1924. No more about the 1932 Games appeared in Royal Club Annuals. Given that Britain was in the throes of an economic depression in these years, perhaps this is understandable.

Curling at Lake Placid did go ahead as a 'demonstration'. The Official Report of the 1932 Games can be downloaded from here. Only Canada and the USA competed, each country fielding four teams.

You may see reports that say that curling was a demonstration sport in 1936 and 1964. This was not curling but ice stock sport, also known as Bavarian curling or eisstockschiessen.

Over the years that followed, even into the era when modern curling was looking to become an Olympic sport, the success at Chamonix was forgotten, overlooked or misrepresented.

There are many references which describe curling as a demonstration sport at Chamonix. The Joy of Curling: A Celebration by Ed Lukovich, Eigil Ramsfjell and Bud Somerville from 1990 is one! Of course, the contemporary records, such as the French Official Report and Fairlie's BOA Report, had always shown that curling had been a full medal sport at Chamonix. But why was this fact overlooked in the intervening years? How had the 1924 curling competition become known as a demonstration sport? Perhaps the fact that curling had been a demonstration sport in 1932 had simply led people to assume that this had also been the case in 1924.

The book British Olympians: A Hundred Years of Gold Medallists which was published in 1991, is a fantastic reference for those interested in British Olympic athletes. But nowhere is curling even mentioned therein. The book contains a section with a full listing of British Olympic competitors introduced by 'Listed here is every British competitor who has actually taken part in the Olympic Games'. But it does not do this.

I find it extremely unlikely that the book's author, Ian Buchanan, could simply have overlooked the GB curling medallists when researching his book. It is inconceivable to me that Buchanan - a founder member and one time President of the International Society of Olympic Historians formed in 1991 - had not read the French Official Report or Fairlie's BOA Report of the 1924 Games. Indeed, he refers to Fairlie's BOA Report in the text of his book. My conclusion has to be that he deliberately omitted the curlers. I wonder why. He died in 2008, so his reason for not including the sport of curling, nor the names of Willie Jackson, Robin Welsh, Tom Murray and Laurence Jackson in his book, may never be known.

Mind you, the Royal Caledonian Curling Club does not include (as of November 2013) the 1924 Men's Olympic Champions in their list of past international champions on its website. This is an omission which I hope will be rectified soon! (Added later. And it has been, see here!)

Ironically, it was Buchanan's colleague, Ture Widlund, also a founder member of the ISOH, who is credited in the sports-reference website (here) for clarifying curling's status. This says, "Although no such distinction was ever made in 1924, most historians used to list curling as a demonstration sport at the 1924 Olympics. It is unclear why this happened, as the sport is listed among the other events in all contemporary sources, and the IOC never officially designated it as a demonstration sport. Ture Widlund, one of the co-founders and first Vice-President of the International Society of Olympic Historians, discovered this while looking at the 1924 Official Report, noting that there was no distinction in that report between curling and military ski patrol and any of the medal sports. The IOC was contacted about this seeming discrepancy, and just before the 2006 Winter Olympics, the IOC decided to officially declare the 1924 curling and military ski patrol events as Olympic, removing any doubt."

I have not found the original reference to Ture Widland's research, but there's no doubt in my mind that the person who brought the validity of these first gold medals to the notice of the wider public was Herald journalist, Doug Gillon, and GB sports fans are certainly in his debt.

I was Editor of the Scottish Curler magazine in the run up to the 2006 curling competition in Pinerolo. Doug came through on the telephone and I can recall clearly his excitement as he explained that when researching information about the 1924 Games he had discovered that GB had won gold medals then. The evidence was there clearly in contemporary reports, with no mention that curling had been a demonstration sport in 1924. Doug had contacted the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, and received confirmation that this was the case. His article in the Herald on Monday, January 23, 2006, see here, caused quite a storm, see here and here for example. The IOC then issued a statement confirming that curling had indeed been a medal sport in 1924.

At the risk of being accused of nitpicking, I note that the World Curling Federation's website has an article on the history of curling at the Olympic Games (here). This begins, "Curling made its debut as an Olympic Winter Sport at the first Winter Games at Chamonix in 1924. At this event Great Britain defeated Sweden and France in what was retroactively accepted in 2006 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and medals were awarded." This is not strictly true. The second sentence is misleading. There was no 'retroactive acceptance' leading to medals being awarded. As we've seen above, medals were awarded back in 1924, and curling was a medal sport at Chamonix. What happened in 2006 was that the IOC confirmed that curling had not been a demonstration sport in 1924, and that all the winners of all the events in 1924 should be considered as Olympic champions.

Robin Welsh, author of Beginner's Guide to Curling, published in 1969, and International Guide to Curling, published in 1985, certainly knew that his father had won Olympic gold. The latter book says of the Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924, '... when curling as included as a medal-winning sport for the first and only time'. Welsh says in his 1969 publication that Chamonix was, 'the only time curling has been included as a participation sport in the Games'. He goes on to say, 'The British Curling deputation at the Games, led by Colonel Robertson-Aikman, were as proud of the medals and diplomas won as the four Scots who had won them'. This again can be taken as evidence that only the four curlers who played in the two matches were presented with Gold medals, and that Robertson-Aikman, Brown, McLeod and Astley did not receive medals.

One can ask why our sport, having survived a somewhat difficult baptism in 1924, did not continue in the Olympic programme in 1928. Could more have been done to ensure that curling was in the forefront of the minds of members of the British Olympic Association, and the International Olympic Committee? I think the answer to this last question is yes.

One of the problems facing the sport of curling in 1924 - at least in the eyes of the British Olympic Association and the International Olympic Committee - was that the sport did not seem to have an organising body to represent its interests worldwide. Of course, this was how the Royal Caledonian Curling Club saw its own role, but it was not the perception of others. The 'Curling Congress', held just before the Chamonix Games began, apparently discussed this in detail. Colonel Robertson-Aikman was convinced that something needed to be done, and at the Royal Club AGM in 1924 he proposed to the meeting that the Royal Club change its name to 'Royal Caledonian Curling Club the International Federation of Curling'. The Annual of 1924-25 devotes more than five pages to the discussion that followed! Despite being the incoming President and a much respected figure in Scottish curling, Robertson-Aikman's motion was defeated. One has to wonder if the change of name, had it been approved, would have made the Royal Club more proactive in promoting curling's image and growing the game over the years that followed. Or even if the change of name would have led to better relations with the British Olympic Association.

At the time of the Royal Club AGM when all these discussions were going on, the Olympic Summer Games in Paris were coming to a close. The members present at the AGM, after much discussion, did vote to send a £50 donation to BOA funds.

I have already mentioned that curling was not included in the 1928 Olympic Winter Games. However, at the Royal Club AGM in Glasgow in August 1927, the Secretary, after prompting from Colonel Robertson-Aikman, told the meeting that he had received a letter from the Chairman of the British Olympic Council 'asking the Royal Caledonian Curling Club to again subscribe to the funds of that body'. (The British Olympic 'Council' was the executive committee of the British Olympic Association.) Discussion followed in which Robertson-Aikman pointed out that there were thirty-five bodies represented in that organisation, including the British Bobsleigh Association, the British Ice Hockey Association, and the National Skating Association. He emphasized, "I wish to bring to the notice of members here that our Club seems to be entirely ignored, and I think some steps ought to be taken about it after what we have done," in reference to having won the first Olympic curling competition in 1924. Mr Jackson (presumably W K Jackson) then said, "We are not in a position, even supposing we were willing, to give fifty guineas to this. We are agreed that as we have been ignored, perhaps we should just ignore them." (My emphasis.) A petty thing to say, perhaps, and it does indicate a lack of willingness of the Royal Club, back in 1927, to fight for a place in the British Olympic Association alongside other sports.

The Winter Games at Chamonix were considered to have been a success. But could the same be said for the curling competition? The result aside, the answer must surely be 'no'. Few countries agreed to take part, and then one team withdrew at the last moment. The games that were played were one-sided. At the Royal Club AGM, one member (perhaps unsurprising we find that this was William Henderson of Lawton) actually called them a 'farce' because of the one-sided results! The curling event had not garnered much media interest, and one member at the AGM actually had to ask where the competition had taken place.

That the general public was apathetic towards the Olympic Games movement, particularly in the 1920s, is well discussed in a relatively recent article by Mathew Llewellyn of the State University of California. This is an interesting read, although not specific to the Chamonix Games, and does show how the British enthusiasm for the Olympics is a recent phenomenon. It can be found and downloaded here. This general lack of public enthusiasm - including that of the curling community -  for things Olympic may underplay and explain some of what I've written about above.
 
It was not until 1966 that an International Curling Federation was formed. This became the World Curling Federation in 1991, and complete independence from the Royal Club occurred in 1994, see here. The recent story of how curling returned as a full Olympic discipline in 1998 at the Nagano Olympic Games is well described in Curling: The History, the Players, the Game by Warren Hansen, published in 1999, and in Canada Curls by Doug Maxwell, published in 2002. It was not an easy passage!

But, as we look forward to the Sochi Olympics and Paralympics, let's not forget that curling's Olympic journey began in Chamonix, 1924, and raise a glass to all those who took part in that competition!

Part 3, about the competition's big mystery, is here.

If anyone can supply any information to make this article more complete, please comment or contact me. If I have made any errors, please point these out.

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