Sunday, 19 April 2015

#ILikeBigBracketsAndICannotLie: An 1893 Judging Controversy No Other Brother Can Deny


You almost half to laugh and wonder if that's how it all would have gone down on Twitter. On January 21 and 22, 1893 in Berlin, there sure was an AWFUL LOT of drama for a competition consisting of but eight men performing figures. The competition in question was the 1893 European Figure Skating Championships, which were sponsored by the Berliner Eislaufverein (Berlin Skating Club) and organized by The German Empire's skating association.

An important preface to what went on in Berlin that January is a quick lesson in European politics. At the time of the event, The German Empire consisted of twenty seven territories, the main one being the Kingdom Of Prussia. At the time, Austria and Hungary were united constitutionally as the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Austria-Hungary) so technically the judging panel at this event was as stacked as they come. Two Austrian and two Hungarian judges meant four judges from the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the panel to the host country's two. The seventh and final judge on the panel at the event was from Sweden.

True to Murphy's Law, everything that had the potential to go wrong most certainly did. Adding to the chaos of a stacked panel, the ISU had only formed the previous year and in its infancy had not yet adopted any universal structure or criteria to give judges to work with. The Berliner Eislaufverein (chaired by the previous year's champion Oskar Uhlig) named Sweden's Henning Grenander as the winner, whereas the German Empire's Federation named Austria's Eduard Engelmann Jr. as the gold medallist. In his book "Figure Skating in the Formative Years: Singles, Pairs, and the Expanding Role of Women", James R. Hines explained that "the discrepancy resulted from different interpretations of the scoring rules, which could result in a tie depending on one's interpretation of them. In point totals, Grenander received 1,988, Engelmann 1,987, but if half-points were considered, the result was a tie. Compulsory figures, which Engelmann won, served as a tiebreaker. The problem was never resolved, but the published record of the ISU lists Engelmann as the champion, with a footnote in the past tense stating that 'The European Championship for 1893 had been declared invalid by the 1895 Congress.' The European Championships for the next two years experienced a marked decrease in participation, perhaps as a result of the scoring debacle." American skating historian Benjamin Wright stated that the confusion "nearly resulted in the demise of the fledgling union."

Wright was right. The event sparked major controversy and debate amongst office holders, so much so that office holders almost resigned but it WAS all an impetus for immediate change. By a mail vote, Swedish sports pioneer (and organizer of the Nordic Games) General Viktor Gustaf Balck was elected as ISU President and according to Ron Edgeworth's paper "The Nordic Games And The Origins Of The Olympic Winter Games", "one of his first actions in becoming President was to obtain the adoption of proper rules for the conduct of the competitions in both figure and speed skating at the next Congress."

So who really won in Berlin that year? Grenander? Engelmann? The four judges from Austria-Hungary who more than likely were favourable in their scoring towards Engelmann and bronze medallist Georg Zachariades? I think ultimately it took growing pains for the new organization to grasp that criteria had to be established for its judges in order for competitions to be more fair to skaters. It took decades but the one judge per country rule certainly made a difference as well. It is funny though. You look at questionable judging then versus now with this highly detailed IJS system and at least then the ISU truly debated systematic problems in judging in their Congress... and you knew who the judges were and where they were from.

Bet you are wondering what comes next on the blog? MORE interviews, MORE skating history, MORE interesting articles for you to read, that's what! Stay tuned to the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard and my Twitter feed at http://www.twitter.com/ohh_N and thanks as always for your support and most importantly... spreading the word!

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