Saturday, 21 May 2016

The 1960 Winter Olympics, Part Three: The Men's Competition


"Pave paradise, put up a parking lot." Joni Mitchell beautifully chirped these lyrics in her much loved hit "Big Yellow Taxi". Ten years prior to that song's release, many of the world's best figure skaters gathered at the newly constructed Blyth Memorial Arena in Squaw Valley, California, hoping their dreams would come true. For a select few they did; for many others they did not. After a roof collapse, the Blyth Memorial Arena was demolished in 1983 and replaced by - you guessed it - a parking lot. Under that concrete and out of the past, the tales of the 1960 Winter Olympics beg to be revisited. This week, we are digging deep and excavating some sensational skating stories from the swinging sixties in Squaw Valley:

THE MEN'S COMPETITION

With the gold medals in the pairs and women's events going to skaters from North America, the already Paramount - pardon the California pun - pressure on David Jenkins was only compounded.
Leaving his coach behind in Colorado, the five foot six, one hundred and twenty five pound medical student at Western Reserve and three time World Champion was burning the clock at both ends, training in the evenings and on weekends. In his 2011 Manleywoman SkateCast interview, Jenkins offered great insight into the events leading up to his 1960 Olympic experience: "In the summer of 1959, before the Olympics, I’d been injured. I'd had a nasty slash in my leg that put me in a cast. So I went back to medical school in a cast, with a nerve partially severed. People were wondering whether I would get to skate at all, but in an odd sort of way it took pressure off me. I had no conflict with school, because I couldn't train. Maybe that’s just the odd psychology of the way you look at things, but I didn't start training until mid-December, which was only seven or eight weeks before the Olympics. And then I left school for three weeks, and that was the part that was very hard, to leave medical school for a whole three weeks. But I needed to get out to high altitude and to be with my coach, and to be in particularly good shape because it was outdoor ice in 1960." He actually delayed his departure for California by ten days just to get in extra training time in Colorado Springs with coach Edi Scholdan.


When the men's compulsory figures got underway on February 24, 1960, Jenkins was only one of nineteen skaters from ten countries... each trying their absolute best to carve the finest eights of their careers. After the first day, Jenkins was in fact third behind another twenty three old - the two time European Champion Karol Divin of Czechoslovakia - and France's Alain Giletti. On February 25 when the school figures concluded, Jenkins was able to move up to second place. He was still over twenty points behind Divin (much of it, according to him, from one judge) and had some serious ground to make up if he was to achieve his own impossible dream on the Olympic stage.

Karol Divin of Czechoslovakia

When it came time for the free skate on February 26, 1960, the bleachers were packed and the field was down by one. Austria's Norbert Felsinger, who was sixth in the figures, took a nasty fall during practice and hit his head against the boards and opted to withdraw. Of the remaining men, many sported injuries. Divin was recovering from a groin muscle injury a month earlier, Jenkins had been in a cast only months previous and American Robert Brewer was hampered by a strained muscle. Despite many being injured, by all accounts the quality of skating amongst the leaders was quite first rate, to borrow from the legendary Dick Button.

Among the earlier competitors, Germany's Tilo Gutzeit - who had dropped from sixth to tenth after bombing his final figure the day before - gave a solid performance consisting of all double jumps. Fourteen year old Canadian Champion Donald McPherson made up for a weak showing in the figures with a program that Harald Lechenperg in his book "Olympic Games 1960 Squaw Valley-Rome" described as "truly beautiful". Future Olympic Gold Medallist Manfred Schnelldorfer showed his "neat style, his overall program marred unfortunately by some empty moments" and moved up a spot. American Tim Brown's skate was "another fine one marked by a series of very steady double jumps at a furious tempo."

The morning of the men's free skate, The Montreal Gazette had superstitiously noted that Donald Jackson's fourth place finish in the compulsories was "a bad omen". Ultimately, the student of Pierre Brunet proved the newspapers back home wrong and let his skating do the talking, narrowly edging another Brunet student - Giletti of France - for the bronze medal. This had to be more than a little satisfying for Jackson, who spoke in the 1977 George Gross biography "Donald Jackson: King Of Blades" about his frustration with Mr. Brunet's lack of presence in Squaw Valley and choice to devote most of his time to Carol Heiss Jenkins. Contrarywise to Jackson, Divin's free skating performance in Squaw Valley was largely described by reporters with such adjectives as "uninspired" so we can only hesitate to guess that the best man ultimately won.


That man, of course, was David Jenkins. The "United States 1960 Olympic Book" from the United States Olympic Committee refers to his come from behind victory: "Now it was up to Jenkins, reigning and three-time world champion and considered the outstanding free skater of them all, to make it up in his specialty. And make it up he did, in an electrifying display of leaps and whirls and acrobatic twists... He displayed his triple Salchow and triple loops, and at stage, when he leaped high and came into a sit-spin, the crowd was breathless, fearful he would tumble, but he didn't."


After a massive ovation, Jenkins got his marks which were mostly 5.8's and 5.9's... and one 6.0! That perfect mark that came on the second set came from Emil Skákala, the judge from Jenkins' chief rival Divin's homeland of Czechoslovakia. How's that for the Olympic spirit? I love it. Afterwards, Jenkins said "I think it was the best I've done under pressure". I'd say the timing was right, wouldn't you?

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