Five Winter Olympians Who Forever Changed Their Sports

Considered bizarre at first, these athletes’ techniques ultimately became the gold standards for their sports

A ski jumper flashes a V. Photo courtesy of Flickr user tpower1978.

Hard to believe, but it’s been almost 50 years since a 21-year-old college student named Dick Fosbury created a sensation at the Mexico City Olympics by using a dramatically different—and better—way to clear the high jump bar.   

Instead of following the conventional approach where a high jumper would leap, then roll his body over the bar, with his face down, Fosbury did pretty much the opposite—his head cleared the bar first, followed by his body, which flopped over, face up. The technique became known, of course, as the Fosbury Flop.

Before the Olympics, purists lambasted Fosbury; the media ridiculed him, one newspaper referring to him as the “World’s Laziest High Jumper.”  But then, he not only won the gold medal in Mexico City, but set a new Olympics high jump record—7’4 ¼”. At the next Olympics, in 1972, almost three out of four of the high jump competitors were using some version of the flop.

A matter of style

But Fosbury had one big advantage—he competed in an event where only results mattered. No style points are awarded in high jumping. That’s not the case, however, for some of the more high-profile Winter Olympics events—from figure skating to snowboarding to ski jumping—which has often discouraged winter athletes from pushing in new directions. 

Olympics judges are trained to value tradition and classic techniques. Why be innovative if it can cost you points…and a medal?

Still, winter sports have had their share of athletes who, like Fosbury, forever changed an Olympic event, men and women who introduced a move or technique that was once considered radical but is now standard.

Here are some of the all-time greatest innovators of the Winter Games:

Jan Boklov: V was for victory...eventually

(Bob Thomas/Getty Images)

Jan Boklov transformed the sport of ski jumping while in mid-air. During a jump back in 1985, the Swedish skier knew that he was in trouble as he flew through the air; to avoid crashing, he spread the front of his skis apart. Not only did he not crash, but he realized that he had jumped about 15 feet farther than usual. So Boklov stuck with this less than elegant technique, refining it so that the backs of his skis touched, and clearly formed a V. The distance of his jumps kept growing.

Science supported him—by spreading his skis and displacing more air, Boklov was gaining more lift and, ultimately, distance. But the judges thought he looked hideous—in mid-air, Boklov seemed so much less graceful than the other jumpers who stuck to the classic form of keeping their skis parallel, in front of their bodies. So, although Boklov started to outjump his competitors, he had a hard time winning at first because judges docked him so heavily on style points.  Despite his long jumps, he finished seventh at the 1988 Olympics. 

The following year, however, Boklov won the world championship, despite being penalized by judges, and younger, up-and-coming jumpers started to copy his style. By 1992, the International Ski Federation had all but eliminated the penalty. Today, the V-style is the standard.

Sonja Henie: And it's on with the show

(Wikimedia Commons)

Back in the first part of the 20th century, women’s figure skating was a dismal affair. The skaters, in their calf-length dresses, performed a predictable series of pretty dull exercises. Then along came Sonja Henie.

Only 11 years old when she competed in her first Olympics in 1924, the Norwegian skater so impressed the judges with her moves, including a jump into a sit spin, that she ranked third in the freestyle part of the competition. But she was so weak in the compulsory figures that she ultimately finished last. 

Within three years, though, Henie won her first world championship and then, a year later, her first Olympic gold medal. She would win nine more of the former and two more of the latter and completely dominate her sport for the next decade. 

Not only did she captivate crowds with her spins—she had 19 different ones she incorporated into her programs—but she turned figure skating competition into a show. She was the first female skater to wear a short skirt and white skating boots. More importantly, Henie actually choreographed her routines, combining grace and drama to create ballets on ice.

So, the outfits, the movements to music, the storytelling on skates—they all started with Sonja Henie. 

Dick Button: Spinning class

(AFP/Getty Images)

Beginning with the 1948 Winter Olympics, when, at the age of 19, he became the youngest male figure skater to win a gold medal, American Dick Button built a reputation for being the first person to pull off new, difficult moves in competition. He landed a double axel—a jump where the skater rotates in the air two and a half times—for the first time during practice at those Olympics, then nailed it again during the free skate competition.

Each year, for the next four years, Button unveiled a new combination move in competitions. In 1949, it was a combo of two double loops, in 1950, a triple double loop and in 1951, a double axel, double loop. Then, at the 1952 Olympics in Oslo, Norway, he landed a triple loop in his free skate program, becoming the first skater to do a triple jump in competition. That jump won Button his second gold medal. His moves became de rigueur for any skater hoping to stay competitive, and Button’s innovative style was a big factor in the free skate part of competitors’ programs becoming more important than the compulsory figures, in which skaters were required to trace figure 8s and other designs. Today, compulsory figures are no longer a part of international events. 

Bill Koch: Who needs blades?

(Getty Images)

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, was the 30-kilometer cross-country race by a young American skier from Vermont named Bill Koch. Amazingly, he won the silver medal, the first time an American had ever earned an Olympic medal in a Nordic skiing event. 

Koch could not repeat that success four years later in Sarajevo. Later that year, though, while competing in a marathon skiing race in Sweden, he noticed competitors who used an unconventional way to propel themselves forward. Instead of alternately kicking and gliding, those skiers looked as if they were skating on their skis, leave one ski in the track while pushing off with the other.

And that made Koch wonder why he couldn’t try that technique in shorter races. It was a smart move. Using that style, known as “skate skiing” or “marathon skating,” Koch won the overall World Cup title in cross-country skiing in 1982, as unlikely an accomplishment for an American as his silver medal had been.

Not surprisingly, traditionalists reacted with disdain to Koch’s technique; some said it shouldn’t even be considered skiing. While they were unable to ban it outright, they did pass rules forbidding cross-country skiers from “skating” during the first and last 200 meters of a race.

Today, skate skiing is the style of choice for many cross-country racers, although there are still events in which only the classic gliding can be used. And, in the true spirit of compromise, there are now cross-country skiing events known as “double pursuit” races. For the first half, competitors use the classic technique; for the last half, they ski in the style that Bill Koch introduced to the world. 

Shaun White: Sell it to the judge

(Wikimedia Commons)

When it comes to the athletes competing in this year's Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, no one has a bigger reputation for doing original moves than American snowboarder Shaun White. When he won his second Olympic gold in the snowboard halfpipe event four years ago in Vancouver, he sealed the deal with a move he named the “Double McTwist 1260,” a dangerous, spiraling routine that includes three and a half twists and two head-over-heels flips in mid-air. Heading into Sochi, he’s mastered another stunning move—a frontside double-cork 1440—in which he rotates four times while doing two front flips.

But White is in innovator in another, more calculating way. He doesn’t believe in unveiling his new moves in competition, hoping to dazzle the judges with a move they’ve never seen before. No, White wants judges to see his latest stunt before they judge him. For instance, in December, he briefly posted on YouTube a video of his frontside double-cork 1440. (It has since become unavailable.) 

The reason is that in snowboarding, unlike in figure skating, competitors don’t have to tell the judges in advance what moves they’ll be using and if a judge sees something for the first time during competition, he or she may be reluctant to give it a high score. A judge may need to see a new move half a dozen times before being able to understand the mechanics involved and evaluate its difficulty.

White has learned this lesson from the case of Jonny Moseley, an American mogul-skiing champion who didn’t win a medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 despite performing to perfection a revolutionary trick he called the “Dinner Roll.” He received lower scores than his competitors who stuck to more familiar twists and turns.

Afterwards, Moseley put it his way, “Tricks can be deceiving.” 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.