1948: Birger Ruud wins silver after surviving Nazi concentration camp

Olympic Ski Jumper Birger Rudd Waxing his Skiis

The year 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of Birger Ruud’s historic ski jumping silver medal from the 1948 St. Moritz Games. Why is the silver historic? It’s more than just a silver medal: Ruud won back-to-back golds in ski jumping in 1932 and 1936 before being imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp and returning to the Olympic podium in 1948. 

Birger Ruud was born August 13, 1911 and grew up in the Norwegian mining town of Kongsberg. He got a taste of the Olympics when he was 16: Ruud’s older brother Sigmund won a ski jumping silver medal at the 1928 St. Moritz Games. Sigmund is credited with helping to develop the “Kongsberg style” of ski jumping, where the jumper has his ankles forward and his body bowed at the waist. While it’s not the traditional style used today, it was used to great success at the time.

By age 20, Ruud was ready for the Olympic stage himself. He won the 1931 World Championships and followed it up by winning ski jumping gold at the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid. Ruud was announced as the winner after a four-hour delay in scoring computations. He led a Norwegian medal sweep, as countrymen Hans Beck won the silver and Kaare Wahlberg took the bronze.

Ruud competed in two sports – a rarity – at the 1936 Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. He kicked off those Olympics competing in the inaugural Alpine combined skiing event, marrying the downhill and slalom. Ruud won the downhill phase. Before the next phase, the slalom, the competitors were waxing their skis in accordance with the gloomy weather. Ruud, on the other hand, was aware of a telephone owned by the local tram company a quarter mile away. He phoned a friend and learned that the sun was shining toward the bottom of the course so he changed his skis and wax to better handle the softer snow. He out-raced the field by 4.4 seconds, missing one slalom gate. In 1936, athletes were penalized six seconds for each gate missed rather than being disqualified. The penalty cost him a chance at the podium and he ultimately finished in fourth place.

Ruud won the ski jumping world title again in 1935. At the 1936 Olympics, Ruud became the first ski jumper to defend his gold medal. Countryman Reidar Andersen earned the bronze medal, while Sweden’s Sven Eriksson captured the silver.

Ruud remains the only person to come close to winning medals in Nordic and Alpine skiing events based on the results of the 1936 Games. He won his third and final world title in 1937.

During the German occupation of Norway, Ruud was instructed to host competitions that underlined the Nazi’s agenda and ideals. He refused, and instead helped organize illegal competition.

The 1940 and 1944 Olympics were canceled due to World War II. On March 14, 1943, the New York Times reported that Ruud was placed in the Grini concentration camp in Norway by the Nazis. He was sent along with his older and younger brothers, Sigmund and Asbjoern, and a fourth famed Norwegian ski jumper.

Reports on the legnth of his imprisonment vary. In March of 1944 the Scandinavian Telegraph Bureau said in a dispatch reported to the Office of War Information that Ruud had been released. That same report also mentioned that he was supposed to be sent to Germany, where he would get “extensive freedom of movement,” but that plan “never materialized.” After being released, he aided the Resistance using his skiing skills. His work allowed him to find and hide ammunition that was dropped from British airplanes.

The 1948 Olympics were the first to happen after World War II. Ruud was sent to St. Moritz as an assistant coach of Norway’s ski jumping team, which included his younger brother Asbjoern. He dutifully checked the weather report the night before the competition. He noted that conditions would be poor and at 10 p.m., substituted himself in for less experienced jumper George Thrane.

His actions were rewarded with a silver medal and later described it as his greatest achievement. He was part of a Norwegian sweep: Petter Hugsted won the gold and Thorleif Schjelderup took the bronze. Ruud became the first ski jumper to win a medal in three different Olympic Games.

He was inducted into the International Ski Racing Hall of Fame in 1970, where former President Gerald Ford acted as host to the Vail, Colorado ceremony. Ruud flew in from Norway and Alpine skied in the Rockies – the first time he admitted he’d done so in about 10 years. He had ski jumped more recently, only about two years ago, on a “very small hill near Oslo,” he said at the time.

“I think if I were competing today,” he reportedly said to the New York Times, “I would specialize in ski jumping. Downhill is just for fun.”

Ruud and Hugsted, the 1948 gold medalist who remained a lifelong friend, set up the Kongsberg Ski Museum in their hometown. It focuses primarily on ski jumping from 1925 to 1955, the high point for Norwegian ski jumping.

At Norway’s Lillehammer Olympics in 1994, Ruud was chosen to light the flame at the Opening Ceremony. He had to withdraw from the honor due to a health issue.

Ruud died in 1998, at 86 years of age. Though he was a three-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, it is the 1948 silver medal – earned 70 years ago this year – that he is most remembered for.

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