In February 1936, the Bavarian resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen played host to perhaps the most controversial Winter Olympic Games in history... and yes, I'm including Salt Lake City in 2002, honey. From judging controversies to Sonja Henie schmoozing with Adolf Hitler himself, the stories from the figure skating competitions in 1936 are almost legendary, yet so many of them have been glossed over or largely forgotten. Today on Skate Guard, we're going to dust off some of these these tales and have hopefully gain a greater understanding as to the larger picture of what really went down as Nazi Germany played host to the world's best figure skaters.
THE 1936 EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIPS
SETTING THE STAGE
The figure skating competitions in Garmisch-Partenkirchen were held at the Olympia-Kunsteistadion, a 100 X 200 rink with a 30 X 60 area sectioned off and developed for the men's, ladies and pairs event. The capacity was ten thousand and seating consisted of wooden bleachers which surrounded the ice surface. For the first time in history, Hollywood scouts were in attendance looking for professional skating talent and it was at these Games that Sonja Henie, Jack Dunn, Věra Hrubá Ralston and countless others were identified for potential recruitment. Two other notable firsts about the 1936 Games were the fact that they were the first Olympics where an open marking system was employed and the first time both men and women skated the same six school figures, which were decided upon by the host federation.
Karl Schäfer and Ernst Baier
The British figure skating team competed in a cloud of sadness over the death of King George VI, who passed away on February 6, 1936, and skated the entire competition wearing black arm-bands to express their mourning. However, as I hinted at before when mentioning the Nazi presence at the European Championships in Berlin, the political undercurrent of the Games was unmistakable from the beginning. Prolific British skating author and judge T.D. Richardson wrote, "My wife in her capacity of non-playing captain of the team went down to Garmisch-Partenkirchen from St. Moritz about ten days before the games started and there she found organisation and bureaucracy run mad. The complete dossiers of all the competitors and officials had to be in quadruplicate and sometimes more than that, with the most absurd, intimate details. To give an example of the foolish inflexibility of the authorities and the length to which the regimented German mind of that time would go, the
following will suffice. She wanted passes for the parents or persons accompanying the skaters many of whom were very young to enter the stadium, the dressing-rooms, restaurant and so on reserved for competitors and officials, during the practice time, which sometimes meant attendance there from 6.30 a.m. to late at night. Do you think this simple request could be granted? No! It was met with a blank refusal. They were told they must have tickets. But there were no tickets left. All tickets were now unobtainable. It was in vain to say that the only thing the parents wanted was to be with their children and keep an eye on them. It was only after days of argument and after I arrived, by both of us banging the table harder and shouting louder than Ritter von Halt, the organiser, a typical arrogant Nazi, and by threatening to take the whole team back to London, which in point of fact could not have been done, for wild horses could not have stopped the competitors skating, that at last my wife got six cards with 'Please admit to all parts of the stadium at all times', and then peace reigned. I think von Ribbentrop, whom I knew very well, and to whom I complained, had something to say behind the scenes, where Ritter von Halt and a rather sinister individual with a French name, a Baron le Fort, were really enjoying their temporary taste of power."
THE PAIRS COMPETITION
Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier
The first gold medal to be awarded in 1936 went to the pairs, who contested their free skate on February 13, 1936. With Hitler in the audience, a whopping eighteen pairs representing twelve countries sought the title, the only withdrawal being the Swiss pair of Ruth Hauser and Edwin Keller. It was moderately cold and the sky was described as being a "deep sky blue" as judges settled in for a four and a half hour competition.
Emilia Rotter and László Szollás
The favourites were Hungarians Emilia Rotter and László Szollás, both Jewish, who had won the three World titles preceding the 1936 Games. Considering the politics of the time, it's probably no surprise they were able to finish no higher than third. The gold medal went to Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier, the Germans. Much of their program was shadow skating and the judges seemed to appreciate their speed and rhythm. Baier, according to the February 13, 1936 issue of "The Miami News" composed the music the pair skated to "as they swung through their repertoire of long curves, difficult spins and daring jumps."
Ilse and Erik Pausin
However, as we discussed in "A Pause For The Pausin's", the crowd favourites were the young Austrian pair of Ilse and Erik Pausin, who skated with youthful exuberance in their performance set to Strauss' "Tales From The Vienna Woods". Ultimately, seven of the nine judges had Herber and Baier first, the Austrians giving the Pausin's the nod and the Hungarians voting for Rotter and Szollás. A second Hungarian duo, Piroska and Attila Szekrényessy, finished fourth, followed by Americans Maribel Vinson-Owen and George Hill.
Maribel Vinson-Owen and George Hill
Judith A. Steeh's 1971 book "Olympiad 1936: Blaze of Glory for Hitler's Reich" recalled Vinson-Owen and Hill's program thusly: "Although the last part of their program was executed faultlessly, their opening - which consisted of difficult Lutz jumps - did not go as well as planned." Scores for Canadians Louise Bertram and Stewart Reburn were all over the place. The Swedish and Norwegian judges had them third and fourth while German and Austrian judges had them in thirteenth and fourteenth. They finished sixth.
THE MEN'S COMPETITION
One notable name missing from the men's roster at the 1936 Winter Olympics was Belgium's Robert van Zeebroeck, the 1928 Olympic Bronze Medallist. He had planned to stage a comeback and did register to compete, but did not ultimately attend. Because of heavy snowfall on February 9 and 10, 1936, the ice had to be constantly cleared to allow judges the chance to scrutinize the men's figures better. The weather was so terrible that Canadian judge John Machado contracted pneumonia after being out in the snow and freezing cold for the seventeen hours it took to judge the event and ended up having to be replaced mid-competition by a German judge, Fritz Schober. Reigning Olympic Gold Medallist Karl Schäfer took a commanding lead from the start over his closest rival from the European Championships, Henry Graham Sharp.
He was able to maintain it in the free skate as Sharp struggled and Germany's Ernst Baier moved up from third to second to win his second medal of the 1936 Games. Felix Kaspar of Austria leaped from fifth to claim the bronze with his spectacularly high jumps. Canada's Bud Wilson settled for fourth. The February 15, 1936 issue of "The Montreal Gazette" noted that "in precision, Wilson left little to be desired, but he did not execute his program with the same dash shown by some of the other contestants. The hard ice surface on which the competition was run off caused many of the contestants to tumble. Wilson escaped such an accident, as did [Schäfer]."
Felix Kaspar and Bud Wilson
Fifteen year old Freddie Tomlins, the youngest man on Great Britain's Olympic team, placed tenth. Howard Bass recalled that "Freddie told Graham [Sharp] that he intended to get 'old Schickelgruber's autograph' and proceeded by devious means to bore his way right through Hitler's S.S. bodyguard, reputed to be impassible, and went straight up to the surprised dictator and handed him a pencil! He got the autograph, but what the S.S. guards got afterwards was, I gather, less rewarding." Freddie's teammate Belita Jepson-Turner later recalled, "I don't know what he said to one of the soldiers but they threw him out in his skates and his tights and his little badge and number and everything - threw him right out into the snow - and left him out there for about two hours, locking the door of the arena." Later, the manager of the Japanese Olympic team was so impressed by Tomlins' efforts on the ice that he showered him with gifts, praises and an invitation to come perform in Japan.
Geoff Yates, Henry Graham Sharp and Freddie Tomlins. Photo courtesy Elaine Hooper, the National Skating Association Archives.
The weather played a large factor in the results of the 'hothouse' American skaters: Judith A. Steeh recalled,"The Americans in the contest were badly bothered by the weather which was cold and windy, with a real blizzard on the second day, as well as by the fact that they were not used to performing on an outdoor rink; the best performances came from 17-year-old Robin Lee of St. Paul and Erle Reiter of Minneapolis who finished twelfth and thirteenth." There was some serious national basis going on in the case of the Hungarian judge, László von Orbán, who placed his country's skaters Elemér Terták and Dénes Pataky second and third, while none of the other judges had them higher than seventh or eighth. Perhaps less known, the skater who finished in twenty fifth and last place - receiving last place ordinals from every judge in both figures and free skating - was the oldest participant in the 1936 Winter Olympic Games and the oldest Olympian from Latvia in history. Forty six year old Verners Auls was the founder of the Rigas Ledus kluba in Riga.
THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION
The infamous 'Sonja and Hitler' photograph
Now, if you want to talk controversy... the stories surrounding Sonja Henie's third Olympic gold medal win in 1936 were nothing short of unbelievable. Before the Olympics had even started, the Henie's had visited with Hitler in Germany. During a 1936 show in Berlin, she gave him the Nazi salute and said "Heil, Hitler". Richard D. Mandell's 1971 book "The Nazi Olympics" aptly notes that "the two durable heroes of the German Winter Olympiad were Sonja Henie and Adolf Hitler. Only the undisputed empress of winter and the increasingly secure master of the Third Reich possessed the magic required to fascinate the masses at Garmisch and had the ranks of 'stars' in the world at large. The two were demonstratively together a great deal. They fed on each other's staged smiling ('Was it his corsage?') - she in clinging white; the Fuehrer slicked hair and wrapped in massive black leather overcoat." Henie's competitors were acutely aware of the political game being played. Vivi-Anne Hultén recalled, "Everybody said she became his girlfriend." Henie was so popular with the German public that police even had to play crowd control as people without tickets fought to get into the arena to watch her skate.
Women's competitors in Garmisch-Partenkirchen
Left: Sonja Henie; Right: Cecilia Colledge
I don't think anyone would have had the happiest time in the dressing room in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Between Belita Jepson-Turner's infamous stage mother Queenie, a murder of angry Henie's and a sea of Nazi officials, it can't have been a very pleasant atmosphere. In the November 13, 1949 issue of the "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette", Věra Hrubá Ralston recalled: "I remember the day so well. I was in my dressing room and my roommate was there fixing her stocking. Two Storm Troopers knocked on my door. They said, 'Herr Hitler would like to see you.' I was a little scared. Because when the Czechs had marched by his box, they wouldn't give the Nazi salute. I just bowed. Once a Czech, always a Czech. I felt, I don't know - just blank, doing what I was told. Hitler's eyes were very starey. Like he wanted to hypnotize you. When he shook hands, it hurt my hand. He was very abrupt. Very military. Goering and Goebbels were in the box too. Hitler said, 'How do you do? How do you like Germany?' He said it was a beautiful job I had a done. Then he said 'I think a fine girl like you should skate under the German flag. I said 'No, thank you, Herr Fuehrer, I am very under mine. I couldn't tell them that you'd rather die than skate under Hitler. Hitler said 'Well as long as you're happy'. He posed for a picture shaking hands with me. Then he said 'Good to see you... goodbye.' Very abrupt and very military again. I went back to the dressing room and all the girls came running up asking what happened. It got out that I wouldn't skate for Hitler. I lost the competition to Sonja." Hrubá Ralston claimed that she was given a cup inscribed with Hitler's name by the Nazis and years later, when her father was imprisoned in Prague for his political beliefs under Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazis found that very cup when they ransacked the family home. Was it literally his get out jail free card? Here's the thing... considering that she, in another interview, claimed "I looked [Hitler] right in the eye, and said that I'd rather skate on the swastika. The Führer was furious", I personally have suspicions as to the veracity of her storytelling. Both make for great stories though.
High drama was again the name of the game on February 15, 1936 as the women took to the ice for their free skating performances. Cecilia Colledge, skating second of twenty three competitors, came out and gave the Nazi salute. The German audience loved it. Her music started and then stopped due to 'technical problems' and she was allowed to start again. Despite a near stumble early in her program, she recovered to give what was by all accounts a brilliant performance. Later, when Henie came onto the ice, the crowd was oddly silent. However, after she gave a near-perfect performance, the audience went wild with applause. It was pretty clear how this was all going to go... and the judges concurred.
Henie won Olympic gold for a third time, with Colledge second, Hultén third, Liselotte Landbeck fourth and Maribel Vinson-Owen fifth. In a 1999 "Newsweek" article, Colledge recalled, "On the podium after the Olympics, there were no kisses, no handshakes, not even a word." Hitler presented Henie with a giant autographed photo of himself along with her Olympic gold medal. As the legend goes, that same picture, placed atop a piano in Henie's Oslo home by a fast-thinking caretaker, spared her a lot of trouble during World War II. The controversial 1990 book "Queen of Ice, Queen of Shadows: The Unsuspected Life of Sonja Henie", penned by Raymond Strait and Henie's brother Leif, claimed that after receiving the photo and medal from Hitler, the Henie family sat down for lunch with the devil himself. Pretty disgusting stuff if you ask me. Was it all political? Dick Button doesn't think so. In a February 11, 2014 "Vanity Fair" article, he commented, "I don't think Sonja Henie was a political person in any way, shape, or form. She was an opportunist... I don't think she could have cared less who Hitler was, except for whatever power he had and what it would do for her career." Whatever the case may be, their unquestionable connection was the story of the 1936 Games; one that cast a dark cloud over the entire figure skating competition.
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