Photo courtesy Elaine Hooper, BIS Archive
Britons were still in shock after the Kegworth air disaster just weeks prior that had left forty seven dead at East Midlands airport. A new law allowed pubs in England to remain open for twelve hours each day, except on Sundays. The popularity of a new cookbook compiled Linda McCartney converted many to vegetarian cooking. Tom Hanks starred in the number one box office film "The 'Burbs" and Phil Collins topped the music charts with his hit "Two Hearts".
The year was 1989 and from January 17 to 21, the best of the best in European figure skating could be found on a temporary ice surface in the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, England, dazzling audiences with twist lifts, twizzles and toe-loop's.
Photo courtesy Elaine Hooper, BIS Archive
The 1989 European Championships were the first ISU Championships to be held in England since 1950 and the first European Championships held in England in fifty years. At the 1939 Europeans, a trio of British women (Cecilia Colledge, Megan Taylor and Daphne Walker) had swept the podium. A lot had changed in figure skating since the gloomy post-War days of rationing. By 1989, the Europeans were televised in twenty eight countries and one hundred and five entries from twenty nations participated.
Photos courtesy Elaine Hooper, BIS Archive
The event tied in with the City of Birmingham Centenary Festival and in addition to the great skating, visitors to the Venice of the North enjoyed a grand firework display, an organ recital at town hall, a centenary service at St. Philip's Cathedral and an art exhibition presented by the Royal Birmingham Society Of Artists. At the gala opening of the 1989 Europeans, there was a special number celebrating Great Britain's rich skating history, featuring Robin Cousins and children from Birmingham and four other clubs in the Midlands. At the closing exhibition, the skaters performed before Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal Anne. John Curry and Bobby Thompson acted as the British team's national coaches.
Photo courtesy Elaine Hooper, BIS Archive
As was so often the case in the seventies and eighties, there was confusion surrounding the Soviet team. Two different lists were sent by the USSR Skating Federation to the British organizers. One list had Viktor Petrenko and Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov; another didn't. At the eleventh hour, the hosts discovered the trio of Olympic medallists were not competing. Petrenko was sick and Gordeeva had an ankle injury. Courtney Jones (who chaired the Organizing Committee) told reporters, "It's a little bit sad and naturally we are disappointed. We didn't realize until the Soviets arrived that [Ekaterina Gordeeva] and [Sergei Grinkov], and [Viktor Petrenko], weren't competing. But there are so many other good skaters and we are very nearly sold out."
Photo courtesy Elaine Hooper, BIS Archivew
ISU rule changes were significant talking points in Birmingham. Tighter doping controls had been introduced, with more random testing occurring during practices. A new rule forbidding revealing or exhibition style' costumes in response to the showy outfit Katarina Witt had worn when she won the previous season at the European Championships allowed judges to deduct up to 0.2 from their marks for outfits that weren't "modest and dignified in nature." As we'll see in today's blogs, the fashion infractions in Birmingham almost overshadowed the great skating.
THE PAIRS COMPETITION
With Gordeeva and Grinkov out due to injury and former Olympic Gold Medallists and reigning World Champions Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev retired, the heavy favourites in Birmingham were fellow Soviets Larisa Selezneva and Oleg Makarov. The 1984 Olympic Bronze Medallists and 1987 European Champions, who trained in St. Petersburg, had won medals at both the 1988 Europeans and Worlds and finished just off the podium at the Calgary Olympics.
This wasn't Selezneva and Makarov's first time at the rodeo and they skated strongly in the original program to take the lead entering the free skate. With side-by-side triple toe-loop's, they narrowly defeated East Germany's Mandy Wötzel and Axel Rauschenbach in a five-four split of the judging panel. The bronze went to Soviets Natalia Mishkutenok and Artur Dmitriev.
Axel Rauschenbach recalled, "After winning the silver medal at the European Championships in 1989 in Birmingham, we had a serious accident just before leaving for the World Championships in Paris 1989. Mandy had a serious head injury after a collision with my skate. This accident threw us back. We never again reached the form we had before the accident."
Great Britain's Cheryl Peake and Andrew Naylor hung on to fifth place despite a couple of errors.
If the crowd had their back, the British judge didn't. Mary Groombridge gave them their lowest marks - 4.8 and 4.9. She had the other British pair, Lisa and Neil Cushley, ahead of them. Speaking of judging, you'd think the pairs event in Birmingham was ice dance. The teams finished in the exact same order in the original and free programs. Perhaps more luckily, the escaped the Birmingham costume drama...
THE MEN'S COMPETITION
Twenty five year old Alexandr Fadeev was seeking his fourth European title in nine years. The 1985 World Champion had dominated the previous year's event in Leningrad from start to finish, but outside of his home country things at first appeared a little different. In an upset, Oregon born West German skater Richard Zander won the school figures over Fadeev. To give some context to that result, Fadeev had won the figures at the Calgary Olympics and Zander had been ninth.
Alexandr Fadeev rebounded with a stellar original program, winning that phase of the event over Poland's Grzegorz Filipowski, Czechoslovakia's Petr Barna and the Soviet Union's Dmitri Gromov. Richard Zander finished only tenth, dropping to sixth in the overall standings entering the free skate, but was forced to withdraw due to the same back injury that had almost forced him to retire the previous season. Fadeev's costume for the original program was wild. He wore gloves with what one reporter referred to as "long glittering Florence Griffith-Joyner style claws" and had a sequined parrot on the back of his outfit. Despite this, many judges didn't give him the now mandatory 0.2 costume deduction. Four of them gave him a 5.9.
In the free skate, Alexandr Fadeev brought the house down with an eight-triple performance and earned four perfect 6.0's for artistic impression on the way to his fourth European title. Grzegorz Filipowski, Petr Barna, Dmitri Gromov, Daniel Weiss and Viacheslav Zagorodniuk rounded out the top six. Famously, British judge Vanessa Riley implemented a mandatory 0.2 deduction to Alexandr Fadeev, who wore white pants that left little to the imagination, prominently showcasing Sasha Jr. She told reporters, "There's no point in having rules if you don't use them. The rules say costumes must be modest and dignified. Fadeev's clearly wasn't. I therefore deducted 0.2 from the artistic impression mark, making it 5.6. I still had him first." At the Worlds in Paris, Fadeev wore a pair of jockey shorts over his jockstrap to avoid getting dinged for his dingle.
In Fadeev's 2009 interview with Allison Manley on The Manleywoman SkateCast, he recalled, "Back in time, the professionals, the ballet dancers, they wore the dance belt, which is basically [a] G-string, the male version... which is supposed to give the nice forms instead of just the Speedo under the white costumes, which if black it always shows. So my choreographer was the ballet expert, a costume designer, and he designed it. But I think it was the first time anyone was wearing that, so I think that’s why the judge did not understand that. I think it's a misunderstanding."
THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION
Left: Claudia Leistner. Right: Joanne Conway.
Katarina Witt, Kira Ivanova and Anna Kondrashova had all left the amateur ranks and East Germany's Simone Koch had withdrawn, leaving twenty four year old Claudia Leistner of West Germany as the favourite in Birmingham. She had won the bronze medals at the 1983 and 1985 European Championships and placed ahead of both Jill Trenary and Midori Ito at the 1988 Worlds in Budapest. She took a strong lead in the figures, which had been reduced in number from three to two. Joanne Conway, Natalia Gorbenko, Natalia Lebedeva and Željka Čižmešija rounded out the top five. Seventeenth in her debut at Europeans was a young Surya Bonaly. She shook things up with a get-up which Vanessa Riley described as "more of a court jester's outfit."
It was West meets East in the original program when Claudia Leistner defeated seventeen year old Simone Lang. Seventeen year old Joanne Conway's fourth place finish kept her in second overall entering the free skate, with Natalia Lebedeva in third. With a conservative but daring effort, Leistner took the gold over Lebedeva and her teammate Patricia Neske, who had been only eighth in figures. Joanne
Claudia Leistner claimed the gold with an athletic free skating performance that featured a triple loop, two triple Salchows, a triple toe-loop and a two-footed triple flip. Natalia Lebedeva and Patricia Neske took the silver and bronze, while Joanne Conway dropped all the way down to sixth and Surya Bonaly moved all the way up to eighth.
Claudia Leistner's victory was the first for a West German woman at Europeans since Gundi Busch in 1954. Her former coach Ondrej Nepela, dying in hospital, was able to watch her victory on television. After winning, she told reporters, "It's been a long wait. I hope I can do the same in Paris [at the World Championships]. I would have liked Katarina to have been here so I could have tried to beat her." She was on the payroll of Daimler's Untertürkheim plant, along with almost fifty other West German sporting stars. When she returned home to her country, she received a Mercedes 300 as a gift for winning.
Joanne Conway was quite sick in Birmingham and had actually thrown up half an hour before skating a clean original program, but as is so often the case in skating, many played her rough free skate off as nerves. The British press, hoping for a medal, weren't exactly kind to her. David Whaley, sports editor for the "Sandwell Evening Mail" wrote, "Jolly Joanne 'I can bottle it with the best' Conway has rarely shown she can handle pressure. Then, shock horror, one round to go and in the silver medal spot. Surprise, surprise - down she went and down the drain went the forlorn medal dream."
THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION
With Olympic Gold Medallists Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin having turned professional, Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko were the favourites at the European Championships for the first year. It was their sixth crack at the title and they had medalled every time except their first Europeans back in 1983, when they finished fourth. Notably absent were Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay. Isabelle had undergone knee surgery the October previous and had not recovered sufficiently to compete. From her training base in Oberstdorf, she told an Associated Press reporter, "We are bitterly disappointed at missing the Europeans. It would have been great to unveil our new routine, which has again been choreographed by Christopher Dean, in front of a British crowd."
As expected, Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko took a strong lead after the compulsories - the Yankee Polka and Rhumba. Maya Usova and Alexandr Zhulin finished second; Natalia Annenko and Genrikh Sretrenski third. There was an outcry when Usova's lime green bikini and body stocking for the Rhumba wasn't penalized by many judges. Joan Slater, the coach of British ice dancers Sharon Jones and Paul Askham told reporters, "The British association would not permit our skaters to wear something like that at these Championships. It's totally over the top. They should not show any bare midriff, but that was more like a Latin American ballroom outfit." Usova and Zhulin's coach Natalia Dubova responded, "We didn't realize the costume would create such a furor. The design at the World Championships will definitely be changed and will be fully in agreement with the new regulations."
Klimova and Ponomarenko's "Ain't She Sweet" topped Usova and Zhulin's "Black Bottom" in the Charleston OSP. There was criticism over the fact that Annenko and Sretenski skated in pastel outfits that didn't say Charleston whatsoever, but still ended up ahead of the popular fourth place Hungarian couple, Klára Engi and Attila Tóth and Jones and Askham, who performed more classic Charlestons.
Klimova and Ponomarenko finally won their first ISU Championship with an excellent free dance to Kurt Weill's "Mack The Knife", earning 6.0's from both the Soviet and Italian judges. The Soviet judge also gave a 6.0 to Usova and Zhulin, whose free dance to "The Planets" somewhat stole the show from their elder teammates. Annenko and Sretenski's lovely free dance made up for the criticisms over their OSP.
The third Soviet sweep of the dance podium at Europeans of the eighties did not go unnoticed, nor did the new level of athleticism that that was permeating the discipline. In "The Spectator", John Powers wrote, "Ice dancing, which had its feet firmly in the ground by design, has gone Bolshoi in the last six years. Even dancers are airborne now, and all need to be stronger, lither and fitter than ever before. No part of figure skating has changed more than ice dancing."
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