Buried deep in the video database of the Internet Archive is footage of one of the first Winter Games — the third ever, which took place in Lake Placid, New York in 1932. The Olympics have changed since then; they're safer, smarter, and lamer. View the differences here, in GIFs.
The 1932 Games, captured by movie cameras for the newsreels that often ran before feature film, look like a group of guys who set up a competition in the woods behind their house. The Jackass Games, really. Seventeen countries participated, in nine sports (including dogsled racing). The contest was opened by New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt, who later that year would be elected president of the United States.
Contrast that with the 2014 Games. In Sochi, 88 nations are competing for 102 gold medals. Everything about Sochi is bigger, more expensive, more dramatic, more technologically savvy. And if you don't believe us, please watch the compiled segments of the 1932 Olympics below — including an extended intro that seems more "high school talent show" than "pinnacle of human athleticism."
We'd really like to talk more about the guy on the stilt-skates in the shiny body suit, because who would not want to talk about that. But he is to the Placid Games what some heavily-computer-generated Coke ad is to Sochi — the side show. Let's look at the main feature.
In 1932, countries marched out onto the hockey rink, standing around looking at the dudes holding the flags. In Sochi? Three animatronic horses dragged a sun across the sky in a massive indoor arena as multiple projectors showed icebergs breaking apart on the floor. Most of those things couldn't have happened in 1932, even if President Hoover had seen fit to spend the however-million-dollars making it so.
The ski jump at Placid was a construction that sat on top of a small hill. Contestants flew down it, flailing their arms the way a kid would wave his arms after jumping off a swing — a combination of trying to get more distance and keep his balance. When they landed, they fell over. They wore hats; the hats fell off.
In Sochi, it's helmets and Day-Glo and the science of being streamlined. The Sochi hill is far steeper than that in 1932. The target landing distance — the "K-point" — was 61 meters at Placid. In Sochi, it's 95. And the odds of flying into the crowd of spectators standing right next to the landing zone seems much lower.
The guy in the first image above didn't fall down at its conclusion: he finished. It's not clear what race is shown in the 1932 clip, but it could be the 5,000-meter — the same as in the clip from Sochi. In Sochi, competitors go in two-man heats, competing against each others' times. At Placid, you see a huge cluster of guys flying around the final curve (one not able to stay on his feet).
Of course, the apparel is also different. The Netherlands' Sven Kramer, who won gold in the Sochi race seen above, is wearing skintight, scientifically-developed suit with flat skates and a completely covered head to optimize speed. The guys in 1932 appear to be wearing mittens.
The 1932 bobsled competition is just terrific. It's basically a snow chute carved in the middle of a forest, on which two guys are riding an actual sled. It's hard to tell how fast they're going, but it's a decent clip.
In Sochi, that will be much different. The run above is from Vancouver in 2010, but this year's Games will be similar: aerodynamic sleds with well-trained riders in streamlined helmets whipping around curves with high walls and few spectators.
The two Games do have one thing in common when it comes to the bobsled. To build that 1932 track, organizers wanted to build through a protected forest. Unlike in Sochi, the environment was protected as they developed the track.
The pair of guys at top was one of the bobsled pairs that competed in 1932. Football helmets, goggles, and Olympian sweaters. The pair of women at bottom would not have been able to compete in the bobsled competition in 1932. And had they shown up in the bobsled team's not-particularly-subtle uniforms, the reaction would have likely been less than welcoming.