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Slovenia’s first appearances at the Winter Olympics
Just being here is enough!
As we turn our eyes this winter to the upcoming Olympic Games and the events featuring our skiers, we can’t help but have major expectations.
Their successes at recent Olympiads, particularly in Sochi, where they brought home eight medals, are a far cry from the first Olympic appearances by Slovenian skiers.
The appearances of the Slovenian Olympians Vladimir Kajzelj and Zdenko Švigelj now seem like they come from another planet. Their performances in cross-country skiing at the games, which were billed as “International Winter Sports Week in Chamonix” and were formally a part of the Summer Olympic Games in Paris in 1924, are reminiscent of modern appearances by skiers from third-world countries, who compete at the Olympics “just to be here”, but end up fighting against the course and the conditions more than against their competitors.
Slovenian, or at the time Yugoslav, skiing first arrived on the international scene in 1923. At a competition in Czechoslovakia, the Yugoslavian Winter Sports Federation, which at the time functioned primarily as a skiing association, was accepted into the International Skiing Commission (which later became the FIS), and its racers faced the strongest competitors in skiing for the first time. The results were, as everyone expected, terrible. They only competed in cross-country events, since that’s all that they had more or less mastered. They were just beginners in ski jumping, and the Alpine disciplines had just started to come together as ideas in the minds of racing organisers in various parts of the Alps, and the FIS, primarily due to the prevailing influence of the Scandinavian countries, would keep them out of the official programme for several more years.
The Yugoslav competitors were all behind the ranked skiers, and some not even that, as one of our racers apparently stopped at one of the race control points and remained there, exhausted. He preferred to hang around at the refreshment stand, where he was served by young Czech girls dressed in national costume... Owing to the utter lack of competitiveness of our skiers, the Winter Sports Association in Ljubljana wondered if sending them to compete abroad made any sense at all. As such, after this they were more careful about where and why they allocated funds to send our skiers outside the country.
The next major event was the Olympics in Chamonix the following winter. The alpha and omega of the Winter Sports Association at the time, Joso Gorec, knew well enough that “we cannot succeed [in Chamonix], but we have always had a great desire to learn and improve,” and in the next sentence he made an interesting statement: “At that time we put the team together so that there had to be the same number of competitors from Zagreb as there were from Ljubljana.” But the Croats could compete with the Slovenes in terms of the number of athletes on Yugoslav Olympic teams only at the very beginning. Nowadays it is clear that this was simply because all parties concerned, Slovenes, Croats and the Olympics themselves, were just learning how to ski, and the criteria for making the team were not based solely on sports competitions. As the results indicate, even back then the best Slovene skiers were better than the best Croatians, but clearly not by such a margin that the composition of the national team was not the result of some quiet skiing diplomacy and disputes, which were finally resolved so that the first Yugoslav Winter Olympic team was led by Croatian sports organiser Stevo Hadži, and was made up of the Slovenes Švigelj and Kajzelj and Croats Pandaković and Zinaja.
Our Olympic performance
The Yugoslav team was the last of the 17 to enter the stadium in the opening ceremony. This last position, dictated by the name of the country in its French translation, was also exactly where our rookie competitors ended up in the actual races. A couple of days before the beginning of the competition, the Slovenian weekly Jutro reported that clearly no better results could be expected from our athletes. The purpose of the appearance was above all to show “our serious commitment to success in sports at the level of the great nations.” The practical purpose was to offer “an opportunity to expand our sports knowledge and to return to our country with new experiences, which might be able to be taken advantage of at home in order to advance and cultivate the sport of skiing.” This was a sincere assessment, even though it sounds silly and contrived in the modern Olympic era.
On 30 January our boys faced their first test, and they were anything but ready for it. The 50-km race, as the longest race in the competition, was already clearly a serious challenge. As if this wasn’t enough for their Olympic baptism, the enormous endurance and energy requirements of the race were made much more difficult by the conditions. The course, with a huge elevation difference of 820 metres, was wrapped in paralysing cold, supposedly as low as -20 °C, and occasionally buffeted by snowstorms. Pandaković, Švigelj and Zinaja showed up at the start wearing less than state-of-the-art clothes: light athletic trousers and Sokol gymnastics society shirts! Joso Gorec wrote that our heroes also gained the respect of the competition for the tour skis which they were competing on. But they attracted even more attention for their bindings, which were anything but suitable for competing against the world’s best skiers. They apparently competed using Bilgheri bindings. These stiff and clumsy bindings, which a Tyrolean officer had introduced in the old Austrian Army, were designed for trekking through the mountains, not competition. A museum piece. And their performances were anything but successful.
Our boys fought against the course more than they did against their competitors, and even more against their equipment. Of the 14 control points on the course, Pandaković and Švigelj managed to get to just the second, and that’s where their race ended. Zinaja obviously had better equipment, as a result of which the winter before and in similar conditions he had become the first and only Croat to win the Yugoslav national championship, near Rakek, Slovenia. But he wasn’t exactly flying over the course either. The official results show him as last being registered at the fifth control point. But Zinaja must have been a mighty stubborn and tough competitor, since he eventually did make it to the finish. But when he arrived, there was nobody there. The race committee had apparently gone to dinner. The race winner, a Norwegian named Haug, had finished the course in 3 hours 44 minutes. It took Zinaja nine hours! A truly Olympian feat.
It was hardly possible that the 18-km race on February 2 would be the scene of yet another equally dramatic Olympic story. The Scandinavians were once again in a class by themselves, and the Yugoslavs were again left at the back. They came closer to the results of the racers from other Central European teams, but in the end only managed to overtake the two Americans. The 50-km race had clearly worn Zinaja completely out, and he once again finished dead last. His 36th place finish was just under an hour slower than Haug’s time for his second gold. But at least the Zagreb native made it to the finish line and got to see his race time; the second Croatian skier, Pandaković, never made it to the end. Slovenia’s Winter Olympics pioneers fared a bit better. But only a bit. Zdenko Švigelj finished 36 minutes behind the winner in 32nd place. Vladimir Kajzelj, who is remembered more for his feats as a mountain climber than as an Olympian, took 34th place.
Text by Borut Batagelj
Photo: Personal Archives