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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

During this opening week of the Olympics, we're about to visit the story of Olympics past. An exhibit at the Olympic Museum in Lake Placid, New York, tells the story of the world's first great figure skater. She was a huge and also controversial star in the 1930s and '40s.

Here's Brian Mann of North Country Public.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Sonja Henie grew up in Norway and was a dominant presence on the ice for decades, her grace and lyricism captured in newsreels and later in eleven Hollywood films.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now (unintelligible), our petite star to entertain you with an exhibition of free skating.

MANN: Henie competed in the very first Winter Games held in 1924. She was just 12 years old and got clobbered. But by 1932, when she traveled here to Lake Placid, Henie was already an international star and already raising eyebrows. In an age that celebrated amateur athletics, especially among young women, she was happy to receive gifts and cushy treatment from wealthy admirers.

SONJA HENIE: This is a great opportunity for me to send my greetments to my American public, and also to thank them for a beautiful car.

MANN: In that newsreel, she's posed grinning next to a shiny new automobile.

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.

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MANN: Those innovations won Henie three consecutive Olympic gold medals and 10 back-to-back world championships - a record that still stands today. But Alison Haas, who curated the exhibit here, says Henie also worked deliberately to make the sport sexier, more feminine. She shows me a dress that Henie wore while skating in ice shows in the 1950s.

ALISON HAAS: 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...

MANN: Belly button.

HAAS: Belly button, yeah.

MANN: Yeah. Wow, that is risque.

It looks like something Beyonce might wear. 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 Hitler himself. One of her rivals, Swedish skater Vivi-Anne Hulten, was interviewed about the scandal for a documentary in the 1990s.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ICE WARS: THE PREQUEL")

VIVI-ANNE HULTEN: And then she went and did a Hitler salute during those Olympic Games, and shook hands with Hitler and everybody said she became his girlfriend.

MANN: 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 II, she was able to recover and bounce back. She signed a deal in Hollywood with 20th Century Fox and went on to make blockbuster films, like "Second Fiddle" with Tyrone Power and Rudy Vallee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SECOND FIDDLE")

TYRONE POWER: (as Jimmy Sutton) The greatest name in the picture business.

RUDY VALLEE: (as Roger Maxwell) The greatest star in the Hollywood heavens.

POWER: (as Jimmy Sutton) So you're the lucky girl who's playing Violet Johnson. They certainly took a long time finding you.

HENIE: (as Trudi Hovland) I guess they just got tired of looking. They may be sorry before they're through.

POWER: (as Jimmy Sutton) Oh, not a chance

MANN: At her peak, Henie was number three at the box office, behind Clark Gable and Shirley Temple. Curator Alison Haas says for a woman in the 1930s to translate a career in amateur sport into a media empire, with ice shows, film contracts, lines of merchandise, that was unheard of.

HAAS: I find it amazing that she just had this business sense to put a dollar sign behind that gold medal and make people understand the commodity that she could become herself.

MANN: So when you see those graceful ice dancers in Sochi - with their athleticism and their big-money endorsement deals - for better and for worse, Sonja Henie paved the way for all that.

For NPR News I'm Brian Mann in Lake Placid, New York.

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