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OLYMPIC HISTORY: 1932 Czech Olympian was devoted to skiing

April 16, 2015
By Alison Haas , Lake Placid Olympic Museum

I hesitated before I opened an email from an unknown sender with the foreign name, Matej Les.

Luckily, the subject title saved me from deleting a research request that would later reveal the story of a determined and brave Olympic ski athlete.

The email came from a young gentleman writing from the Czech Republic, searching for any information we might have of his great-grandfather, Antonin Barton, a skier who competed at the 1932 Olympic Winter Games for Czechoslovakia. Barton died two years prior to his great-grandson's birth, and Matej had only seen one photograph of him competing at the Olympics.

Article Photos

Photo courtesy of Lake Placid Olympic Museum
Antonin Barton, Czechoslovakia Olympic ski team member, Lake Placid, c. 1932

For the museum this was a simple request, and we quickly sent three photographs, one of which staff believes to be one of the most electrifying ski photographs in our collection. This is the response we received from Matej:

"I am totally speechless and thankful for the work you have done. I have never seen those pictures you have sent me, so it is a great day. I showed these pictures to my grandmother, the daughter of his, and she was crying and telling me to thank you so much. I really thank you and because I'm positively shocked. I will take a deep breath and enjoy what you have done for my family."

Struck by Matej's response, we began to exchange more emails, and Matej began to reveal the story of his great-grandfather, a man he only knows through photographs and memories of family members.

Born in 1908, Antonin Barton was the son of a cabinet maker and one of Czechoslovakia's first ski makers. In Barton's memoir, he wrote about his native town of Vysoke nad Jizerou, "All children were born with little skis on their feet. Every one of us had a dream to jump once on the real ski hill, and I tried it for the first time at the age of 16. As I set off I was terrified and landed in a somersault, but I knew the jump was worth the somersault. I experienced something really new and beautiful, and all the fear went away, and I climbed back to the top of the hill to jump again."

After this experience, ski jumping quickly became Barton's passion. He would work daily at his father's factory until 4 p.m. and under the light of the moon, Barton skied and practiced jumping on the small hills in his town. On Sundays, he would ski roughly 12 miles to the large ski hill with his skis strapped to his backpack, have time to take one or two jumps and race back home.

His determination paid off, and in 1931, Barton became the national champion of Czechoslovakia and earned a spot on the nordic combined ski team that would travel to Lake Placid for the 1932 Olympic Winter Games, where he had the honor of carrying the flag during the Opening Ceremony.

It was at these games that Barton finished in sixth place in the 18 km combined ski event, behind the Scandinavian skiers. This was considered a triumph for not only Barton but the whole team and the country of Czechoslovakia.

After the 1932 Olympics, he was a favorite to win the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany. Unfortunately, he had a serious bike injury in 1935 when he broke his leg, and the accident ended his competitive skiing career. It was then that he followed in the ski tracks of his father and devoted himself to being a ski maker in the family's factory.

Shortly after World War II, Czechoslovakia became ruled by the Communist Party, and they stole Barton's ski factory and his home, and banned him from making skis.

During the era of the Communist Party rule, thousands of Czechoslovaks faced political persecution for various offenses, including trying to emigrate from the Nazi German empire. Those who were suspected of anything that could be anti-regime activity would have their private companies nationalized.

Stories have been told about Barton and his friends pretending to be ski training in the night while they hid skis in the woods so the partisans could move easily in the snow.

Barton was credited to being a defender of human rights, and as his great grandson wrote, "Even in the dark time of communist era in our country, he was never frightened to say what he thought was right."

Barton tried to reclaim his ski factory, and finally after seven years, they allowed him to buy everything back, but it would remain ruled by the National Communist Committee. Until his death in 1982, he was never free to work and make skis as he would have liked.

Today Antonin Barton's great-grandson Matej Les owns the factory, but it is currently not in operation. Matej hopes that "maybe one day I would like to start making something there."

If you would like to learn more about the other athletes who competed in Lake Placid during the 1932 Olympic Winter Games, please visit the Lake Placid Olympic Museum on Main Street in the Olympic Center. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information about the museum, visit our website at www.lpom.org.

 
 

 

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