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Joining the Olympic legend

About 2,500 athletes will descend on Torino for the Games.



(CNN) -- When the Winter Olympics get under way from February 10, a record number of athletes will descend on Torino, Italy, to compete for glory in more events than ever before.

Their battles -- against the clock, the elements and each other -- will be seen by an expected audience of 2 billion people around the globe.

But while the Winter Olympics now draw the world's attention to the very best of snow- and ice-bound sporting endeavor, it was not always so.

Winter sports were originally seen as accessories to the Summer Games. A figure skating event was held at the London Olympics in 1908 and in Antwerp in 1920, when it was joined by ice hockey.

It was not until 1924 that the winter sports got their own showcase, when the first Winter Olympics were held in Chamonix, France.

Those Games went ahead despite the objections of Scandinavian nations, who were worried that their quadrennial Nordic Games would be undermined. Even Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, is also said to have had his doubts.

The Games were not even called the "Winter Olympics" when they were held -- at the time, they were known as International Winter Sports Week. The "Olympic" title was only bestowed two years later.

Only 294 athletes from 16 nations competed in Chamonix, yet the event was considered a resounding success.

New challenge

But while the doubters may have been won over, the weather would prove less accommodating in the years to come.

Organizers of the 1928 Games in St. Moritz had to contend with unseasonably warm weather, forcing the bobsled event to be cut from four runs to two and the long-distance speed skating to be cancelled.

At the 1932 Games in Lake Placid, New York, snow had to be trucked in from Canada to cover some bare patches on the cross-country ski course. Thirty-two years later a similar remedy was required, when a staggering 32,000 tons of snow was brought from higher altitudes to the Olympic venues in Innsbruck, Austria.

But if nature has appeared at times to be opposed to the Games, it has also rescued organizers at the last minute.

A dearth of snow in the lead-up to the last time the Winter Olympics went to Italy, at Cortina d'Ampezzo in 1956, had left athletes unable to train. But heavy falls finally answered organizers' prayers -- on the opening day of the Games.

The snow also arrived just in time four years later in Squaw Valley, California, but only after a snow dance by the local Piute Indians. The Games went to Squaw Valley despite there being absolutely no winter sports facilities on the site -- surely a bid that would raise eyebrows under today's intense media scrutiny.

There were no weather worries in 1968 in Grenoble, France, where snow and icy temperatures greeted the competitors. By this time the Winter Olympics had grown to include 1,293 athletes from 37 countries.

Instead, organizers faced a row with what would arguably prove a far mightier adversary. Officials tried to curb commercialism at the Games by banning trade names from athletes' equipment, but were forced to back down after top skiers threatened a boycott.

The issue reappeared at the next Games in Sapporo, Japan, when Austria's Karl Schranz was suspended for breaching amateur rules. IOC president Avery Brundage had reportedly wanted to bar 40 athletes from participating before settling on merely ruling out Schranz, in a move some saw as scapegoating.

Purists would say the battle against commercialism was finally lost at Calgary, Canada, in 1988, when television revenue more than tripled to U.S.$309 million. By contrast, when the Games were first televised, in 1956, organizers had to pay the Italian broadcasters millions of lira.

Extra time

Competition at Calgary ran for 16 days instead of 12. But this was not, some said, to allow more events or longer competition, but to fit in more advertisements.

In any case, the extra time allowed reporters to focus on athletes such as the Jamaican bobsled team, who would never make it onto the dais but whose presence at the Games exemplified the Olympic ideal of valuing participation for its own sake.

This was personified by Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards of Great Britain, who finished last in the ski jump but became a crowd favorite for never letting being outclassed by his competitors get him down.

With every Olympiad, the Winter Games were gaining in prestige, yet it was not until 1994 that they finally emerged from the shadow of the Summer Games.

The IOC decided to alternate their sporting showpieces every two years, meaning the cold weather specialists were back in action in Lillehammer, Norway, only two winters after fighting it out in Albertville, France.

But soon after the completion of the Games in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, the entire Olympic movement faced a scandal that shook its reputation to the brink of collapse.

In late 1998 it was revealed the bid team of Salt Lake City had bribed IOC officials in order to win the 2002 hosting rights. It was later claimed bribery was a common factor in the bidding process, forcing bidding rules for the Winter and Summer Olympics to be rewritten in the resulting furore.

The 2002 Games were also the most heavily protected in history, being held only months after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Organizers spent $310 million on security, 10 times the total amount estimated to be spent on security in all professional sport that year.

More than 1 billion euros is being spent to bring the Games to Torino. Organizers say almost 5,000 coaches, officials and dignitaries will be in town for the competition, which will be covered by 10,000 journalists.

But more importantly, 2,500 athletes will compete over 17 days for 85 gold medals and a place in Olympic history.

Let the Games begin.

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