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Despite flirting with Adolph Hitler, Sonja Henie emerged as America's sweetheart during the build-up to World War II.  She's pictured here on the cover of Time Magazine in 1939.
Despite flirting with Adolph Hitler, Sonja Henie emerged as America's sweetheart during the build-up to World War II. She's pictured here on the cover of Time Magazine in 1939.

Huge Winter Olympics Controversy (in 1936, that is)!

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The opening ceremonies for the Sochi Winter Olympics are this Friday. The build-up to this year's Olympic Games been packed with subplots and controversies - everything from gay rights to terrorism to Russian corruption.

But those political undercurrents are nothing new to the world of winter sport. One of the very first famous Olympians - figure-skater Sonja Henie - was a huge star in the 1930s and '40. She won her second gold medal in Lake Placid in 1932.

But Henie was also a divisive, controversial figure. Her life is being remembered in an expanded exhibit at Lake Placid's Olympic Museum.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Be sure to bookmark NCPR's Sochi Olympics page, for up-to-minute information about athletes from our region competing in Russia.

The museum sits right next door to the big ice rink where Sonja Henie won her second Olympic gold medal. A few minutes after I arrive, curator Alison Haas starts thinking out loud about whether she actually likes Sonja Henie. “Oh, this is – this is dangerous territory," Haas laughs.

The exhibit in Lake Placid expands the Olympic Museum's focus on Sonja Henie, one of the greatest athletes to have won gold in Lake Placid. Photo: Andy Flynn
The exhibit in Lake Placid expands the Olympic Museum's focus on Sonja Henie, one of the greatest athletes to have won gold in Lake Placid. Photo: Andy Flynn
Nearly half a century after the great Norwegian figure skater passed away, Sonja Henie remains a towering figure, iconic in the sport but also controversial.

She was a dominant presence on the ice for decades, her grace and lyricism captured in newsreels and later in eleven Hollywood films.

If you think the commercialization and hyping of the Winter Olympics is a modern phenomenon, Henie turns that idea on its head. She competed in the very first Winter Games in 1924 and got clobbered.

But by 1932, when she traveled here to Lake Placid, she was already an international star.  In an age that celebrated amateur athletics, especially among young women, Henie was happy to receive gifts and cushy treatment from her wealthy fans.

“This is a great opportunity for me to send my greetments to my American public," she croons in an old bit of newsreel footage, "and also to thank them for this beautiful car!”

An early image of Henie skating. Photo: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-11013A,_Sonja_Henie.jpg">German Federal Archive</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
An early image of Henie skating. Photo: German Federal Archive, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Henie did a couple of things that changed the sport of figure skating forever. 

She incorporated far more dance, more grace; she was an unrivaled athlete, but also played like an entertainer to the audience and judges.

Those innovations won her three consecutive Olympic gold medals and eleven back-to-back world championships—a record that still stands today.

But Haas Alison Haas says Henie also worked deliberately to make the sport sexier, more feminine.  She shows me a dress that Henie wore while skiing in ice shows in the 1950s.

“If we go around to the front of the dress you’ll really see how revealing it is with the plunging neckline down to her belly button.”

Learn more about Sonja Henie from Andy Flynn's Adirondack Attic.

It looks like something Beyonce might wear. This flare, this fierce instinct for self-promotion, rocketed Henie to stardom, but it also got her in trouble.

In the lead-up to the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany, Henie was captured in newsreels flirting with Nazi officials and even with Adolph Hilter himself.

And there she went and gave a Hitler salute during the Olympic games and shook hands with Hitler
One of her rivals, Swedish skater Vivi-Anne Hulten was interviewed about the scandal for a documentary in the 1990s.

“And there she went and gave a Hitler salute during the Olympic games and shook hands with Hitler and everybody said she became his girlfriend.”

That last bit about a romance with Hitler—that's fiercely disputed, even discounted by many historians. But the rumors and the backlash were fierce.

Still, Henie was so skillful at polishing her image that even during the build-up to World War 2, she was able to recover and bounce back. 

Sonja Henie and Adolph Hitler met repeatedly in the 1930s, fueling rumors about their relationship. Photo source: Unknown
Sonja Henie and Adolph Hitler met repeatedly in the 1930s, fueling rumors about their relationship. Photo source: Unknown
She signed a deal in Hollywood with Twentieth Century Fox, and went on to make blockbuster films like Second Fiddle with Tyrone Power and Rudy Vallee.

“Today the greatest name in the picture business—the greatest star in the Hollywood heavens. So you’re the lucky girl who’s playing Violet Johnson. They certainly took a long time finding you. I guess they just got tired of looking. They may be sorry before they’re through…oh, not a chance.”

At her peak, Henie was #3 at the box office, behind Clark Gable and Shirley Temple. Curator Alison Haas clearly doesn't feel much affection for Henie; it's generally agreed that off the ice she just wasn't very likeable. But for a woman in the 1930s to translate a career in amateur sport into a media empire, with ice shows, film contracts, lines merchandise— Haas says that was unheard of.

"I find it amazing that she just had this business sense to put a dollar sign behind that gold medal, to understand the commodity that she could become herself. She really paved the way for other athletes that came after her."

Sonja Henie passed away in 1969, just 57 years old, after a fight with leukemia. Through her long career—all the films, the traveling shows, the fashion and scandals—she kept coming back to her amazing, graceful dance on ice. The tight athletic pirouettes, the playful sweeping arcs.

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