By Andrew Krueger, Duluth News Tribune
Lake Placid. Lillehammer. St. Moritz. Pyeongchang. Duluth?
Almost nine decades ago, the idea of Duluth hosting the Winter Olympics was more than just a dream. In fact, in early 1929 civic leaders made a formal application to the International Olympic Committee to host the 1932 Winter Games.
The effort, of course, was unsuccessful — the 1932 games went to the aforementioned Lake Placid, cementing that New York resort village’s place on the international sports scene and setting the stage for it to host the 1980 games as well.
Lake Placid, in fact, was the IOC’s unanimous choice for the 1932 games — beating not only Duluth but also bids from California’s Yosemite Valley, Bear Mountain in southern New York, Denver and Minneapolis.
While the idea of Duluth hosting a Winter Olympics may seem far-fetched today, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility in the 1920s, when the event was still in its infancy.
‘Well, why not?’
While the first modern Summer Olympics were staged in Athens, Greece, in 1896, it took more than a quarter-century longer for the first official Winter Olympics to be held.
After figure skating was an event at the 1908 and 1920 Summer Olympics, and ice hockey joined the lineup in 1920, there was a push for a separate, full-fledged Winter Games — culminating in the first Winter Olympics in 1924 in Chamonix, France, the companion to the Summer Olympics held later that year in Paris.
As first conceived, the Winter Games were to be held in the same nation and same year as the Summer Games, every four years — provided the host nation had facilities for winter sports. In early 1929, the race was on to be the U.S. city selected to host the Winter Games companion to the 1932 Summer Games, which already had been awarded to Los Angeles.
Duluth’s interest seemed to stem from a key connection to national sporting organizations. On Jan. 10, 1929, the Duluth Herald reported that Duluthian and skiing pioneer Harold Grinden, then serving as president of the National Ski Association, suggested Duluth had “a good chance” at landing the Winter Olympics if it tried.
“We have every facility here for the winter sports and can easily compete against Lake Placid and other well-known winter resorts in the East,” Grinden said.
The following day, the Herald editorialized: “Well, why not?”
“Duluth has everything that is needed, including comfortable winter weather as well as the ice to skate on and the snow to ski on. There is time in which to organize and put over an aggressive campaign for this spectacle, and Duluth has the vigor and initiative to do it,” the Herald editorial stated.
The then-rival News-Tribune editorialized later that month that if the city hosted the Olympics, “Duluth’s fame as a winter sport center would be established and permanent. Duluth would benefit year after year. Winter sports in Duluth would be shown in the news reels because there would be something of interest going on here.”
The papers reported that city and business leaders planned a study of what facilities were available, what facilities were needed and how much it might cost to host the 1932 Winter Games. Requests were made to state officials to support the bid.
No downhill skiing
Recent Winter Olympics — with dozens of events, held in locales decidedly more mountainous than the Northland — might raise questions of how Duluth could possibly have been a host city.
But the early Winter Games were very different than the ones we know now.
One key difference was the lack of any Alpine skiing events at the first three Winter Olympics, including in 1932. Downhill skiing first became an Olympic sport in 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
So the Northland’s lack of downhill skiing facilities at that time (Lutsen Mountains, for example, didn’t open until 1948, and Spirit Mountain not until 1974) was not an impediment to hosting the 1932 games. Nor was the fact that the vertical drop of Northland hills — while notable in the region — is limited compared to other ski areas around the globe that went on to host Olympic downhill races.
The events that were in the Olympic lineup in 1932 included hockey, ski jumping, speed skating, figure skating, bobsled, cross-country skiing and Nordic combined. Curling and dogsledding were demonstration sports. (This year, athletes at the games are competing in 15 different sports.)
Among facilities that existed when Duluth bid for the games in 1929, the “Big Chester” ski jump at Chester Bowl had been built in 1924, and the Duluth Curling Club’s building on London Road, capable of hosting all manner of ice events, had opened in 1913.
If cross-country ski trails had not already existed, suitable space, snow and terrain was readily available. That would have left the need for, at the very least, a bobsled track and a venue for opening and closing ceremonies — projects seemingly within reach for the city.
‘Winter sports capital’
On April 6, 1929, the Herald reported that newly re-elected Duluth Mayor Samuel Snively had cabled an “urgent” message to the IOC, which was meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, to pick a host city. The city’s final plea noted a financial guarantee of $50,000 to stage the event, and an assurance that Duluth would be able to accommodate as many as 20,000 visitors.
But on April 10, the IOC opted unanimously to go with Lake Placid; Duluth’s and the other cities’ merits or lack thereof are not mentioned in minutes of the meeting. Lake Placid had been working toward hosting the Olympics for more than a year, an article in Skiing History magazine recounted, driven by the tireless efforts and shrewd maneuvering of local promoter Godfrey Dewey (son of the inventor of the Dewey Decimal system used by libraries).
Later news reports indicated that the California bid officials were upset at the outcome, believing that the Winter Olympics should have stayed in the same state as the Summer Games in Los Angeles. But Duluth officials wrote to the organizers of the Lake Placid bid, “congratulating them on their victory and wishing them success,” the Herald reported.
The News-Tribune reflected on the failed bid a few days later.
“The fact the Duluth was able to bid for the games and fulfill the requirements will be good advertising. Duluth may secure these games sometime in the future if not in 1932,” the paper editorialized. “Even without the Olympic Games of 1932, Duluth can become more and more the winter sports capital of the great middle west. … Duluth does not need to wait until 1932 to invite people to come here in winter, or to advertise its wonderful winter climate and outstanding advantages for every kind of winter sports.”