Skip to main content

Sugar House Journal

Ski & Snowboard News / How Wheaties kept champion Alf Engen out of the 1936 Olympics

Feb 23, 2018 09h37 ● By Harriet Wallis

Alf in the air / all photos courtesy of Alan Engen

Legendary extreme athlete Alf Engen, known as the greatest all-around skier ever, won 16 national ski jumping titles and many of his jumps set world records. And he won national titles in all four ski disciplines: ski jumping, cross country, downhill and slalom skiing.

But he was banned from competing in the 1936 Olympics because of a Wheaties cereal box.

As background, Engen came from Norway to the United States in the 1920s and became an American citizen in the early 1930s.

In 1935, the U. S. Olympic Ski Jumping Finals were held at Ecker Hill near Park City. He rocked the event by out jumping everyone. He was immediately named as a member of the U.S. Winter Olympic Ski Jumping Team which would compete in the 1936 Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

Alf at Ecker Hill c. early 1930s

Also in the early 1930s, food manufacturers perfected producing cereal that could be eaten right from the box. Manufacturers had to convince families to switch from their traditional cooked cereal to this newfangled ready-to-eat cereal. They decided to market it by putting images of all-star athletes on the box.

Four athletes appeared on the Wheaties box -- Bob Kessler, basketball star; Mike Karakas, champion hockey player with the Chicago Blackhawks; Kit Klein, women's speed skating champion; and famed skier Alf Engen.

This is the box that did it

But just before he was scheduled to leave, Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee and a zealous supporter of amateurism, ousted Engen from the team because his picture had appeared on the Wheaties box. He declared that Engen's image on the cereal box made him a professional, not an amateur athlete.

Olympic rules have changed radically in the 82 years between those 4th Winter Olympics (IV) in 1936 -- and this year's 23rd Winter Olympics (XXIII).

"Engen said he didn't remember getting any money from the cereal company, 'Just a lot of Wheaties. I think I gave everyone in Salt Lake City free Wheaties.'"

Ironically, shortly after the Olympics, Engen jumped against -- and he beat -- both the gold and silver medalists from the Olympic Games -- Norweigian gold medalist Birger Ruud and Swedish silver medalist Sven Eriksson.

Later in life, Engen helped design more than 30 ski areas in western United States. He pioneered deep powder skiing techniques, and he's fondly remembered for his ski school at Alta.

Alf and the entire skiing Engen family are remarkable. It's the only family to have four family member in the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame: Alf, his two brothers Sverre and Corey, and his son Alan.

Alan lives on in his father's tradition. He's a champion skier and athlete as well as an accomplished scholar, author, and historian. He carries on the Engen tradition of serving the skiing community.

He dreamed of displaying hundreds of Alf’s ski trophies and memorabilia for the public. The dream grew into the $10.5 million Alf Engen Ski Museum at the Olympic Park in Park City. Visitors can also learn about avalanches, sit in a real bobsled, try their knack at interactive ski jumping, and more. The museum was funded entirely by private donations, including donations from Utah’s famed and philanthropic Quinney and Eccles families. There is no admission charge. Visit and enjoy the museum.