Sochi 2014: Winter Olympics and the part Great Britain have played

By Dan SnowHistorian
History of the Winter Olympics: Documentary trail

From the first Games in Chamonix in 1924, the story of the Winter Olympics is one of extraordinary courage, athleticism and success.

Yet the greatest Winter Olympians are not household names in this country, while those with the greatest gold medal hauls don't exactly trip off the tongue - Raisa Smetanina, Larisa Lazutina, Lydia Skoblikova, Eric Heiden, Ole Einar Bjorndalen and, perhaps the greatest winter Olympian of all, Bjorn Daehlie, the Norwegian cross country skier who won a staggering eight gold medals between 1992 and 1998.

Torvill & Dean's 'Bolero' routine in 1984

In fact, Daehlie's tally alone equals the number of the golds won by Britain since the 1924 Games in France.

GB's roll of honour hardly makes for impressive reading: 1924 - men's curling; 1936 - men's ice hockey; 1964 - two-man bobsleigh (Nash and Dixon); 1976 - men's figure skating (John Curry); 1980 - men's figure skating (Robin Cousins); 1984 - ice dance (Torvill and Dean); 2002 - women's curling; 2010 - skeleton (Amy Williams).

You get the idea: Britain are not exactly a powerhouse of the Winter Olympics.

But given our lack of access to big mountains or reliable snow, the success we have had is pretty impressive.

We are as well known for our plucky Brits - Eddie the Eagle being the most famous example - so it may sometimes feel that we are gate-crashing the party, with the big teams coming from the colder and steeper parts of the world, like Alpine Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and the USA.

However, what may surprise people is how pivotal Great Britain are to the story of the Winter Olympics.

Way back at the beginning of the 20th century, when Britain ruled land and sea with the biggest empire the world has ever seen, there was no limit to where we were prepared to go and who we would tell what to do.

The list of sports the British either invented or made the rules for is extensive and well documented.

Dan Snow at Garmisch-Partenkirchen
The first Winter Olympics that showcased downhill skiing was in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936, and a British man, Sir Arnold Lunn, was the central figure in bringing the sport to the Olympics

From football to rugby, cricket and tennis, we gave these sports a set of rules and exported them around the world.

It seems incredible now, but the British were also doing this in winter sports, building the Cresta Run in St Moritz to give birth to the sport of skeleton and making up the rules to downhill and alpine skiing.

The first Winter Olympics that showcased downhill skiing was in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936.external-link A British man, Sir Arnold Lunn, was the central figure in bringing the sport to the Olympics.

Downhill skiing is now the blue riband event of the Olympics and, for the record, Britain have yet to win a medal in it.

Sochi 2014: Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards lights up Calgary '88

By 1936, British pre-eminence had given way to a Nazi overhaul of the Games.

After World War Two, the Winter Olympics soon became dominated by Soviet Russia and their big rivals, the United States. The big power politics of the 20th century were being reflected in the course of the Winter Games.

This year in Sochi, Russia will host its first ever Winter Olympics.

It has only ever hosted one other Olympics - the Summer Games of 1980 in Moscow, when Russia was part of the Soviet Union.

We know how that Olympics was viewed in the West. America boycotted the Games because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Britain nearly did the same.

That same year in Lake Placid, America hosted the Winter Olympics and within it an ice hockey game between the Soviet Union and the USA became forever known as the Miracle on Ice as a group of American college boys beat the mighty Soviet hockey machine.

For me as a historian,external-link the way power politics of the 20th century have impacted on the Winter Olympics is fascinating.

There is an age-old debate on whether sport and politics can be separated - and the Olympic ideal to rise above the politics of the day and celebrate sport is one to be supported.

Of course, in reality, the former has a massive impact on the latter.

A brief history of the Summer Olympics would remind people of when the two have come together.

The previously mentioned US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the impact of Jesse Owens in Berlin at the Nazi Summer Olympics of 1936 and the killing of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches in the 1972 Munich Olympics are all examples of how something bigger than just sport overwhelmed the story of those Games.

The 'Miracle on Ice' in 1980

Every time a new Olympics are on the horizon, we all hold our breath hoping the event will be remembered for the sport rather than anything else.

The news in the build-up to the 2014 Olympics, which get under way in Sochi on 6 February, have also been dominated by issues outside sport, from the controversial anti-gay legislation in Russia, to fears over security that unfortunately go hand in hand with any Olympics these days.

As for London 2012, 18 months on we are beginning to appreciate its legacy.

The hosts of the Sarajevo Games in 1984 similarly outlined their legacy hopes. Eight years later, the capital of Bosnia-Hercegovina was a battleground, the scene of the longest siege in modern history, and many of the Olympic venues were destroyed by the war.

By contrast, 1984 was also the year that Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean captivated the world by dancing on ice to the tune of Bolero.

History of the Winter Olympics, to be broadcast on BBC Two on Thursday, shines a light on when winter sports and politics collide.

In making the programme, we travelled all over the globe, gathering memories of past Games, from Lake Placid in the United States to Oslo in Norway, over the Alps and across to Moscow.

What became clear is how the Winter Olympics are remembered very differently in each country, each one celebrating their moment in the sun, or snow at least.

Throughout the century, the British have played a much bigger part in that Winter Olympic history than any of us might expect.