The 1952 Winter Olympic Games
In February 1952, a pound of coffee cost thirty seven cents, Louis St. Laurent was Canada's Prime Minister and one of the top news stories was the crash of National Airlines Flight 101 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. "An American In Paris" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" were nominated for Academy Awards, Johnny Ray and The Four Lads' song "Cry" topped the Billboard music charts and over sixty of the world's best figure skaters gathered in Oslo, Norway to compete for top honours at the 1952 Winter Olympic Games. Let's take a look back at things played out at this fascinating event!
SETTING THE STAGE
Though a rink in Hamar and the Tryggivann Stadium at Holmenkollen were 'considered' in the event that Mother Nature didn't want to cooperate, the two initial venues for the figure skating were ultimately used. The pairs event and men's and women's free skating were contested on natural ice in the open air Bislett Stadion, with school figures contested at the Jordal Amfi rink, an open air artificial ice rink behind the Stadion lined with long, wooden stands for approximately nine thousand spectators.
Yvonne Sugden, Nancy Hallam, Barbara Wyatt, Yolanda Jobin, Jeannette Altwegg and Susi Wirz training at Suvretta House in St. Moritz, Switzerland in advance of the 1952 Winter Olympic Games
The Canadian team consisted of Marlene and Vevi Smith, Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden, Suzanne Morrow and her mother who served as team manager, Norman Gregory and judge Donald Gilchrist. All but Suzanne (who was already in Europe) and Gilchrist flew from Montreal via T.C.A. to London on January 30, 1952, where they caught a connecting British European Airways flight to Oslo. As the plane approached the Oslo airport, a blinding snowstorm caused grave concern among the skaters and there was some discussion as to whether they'd be able to land or would have to be diverted to another airport. Ultimately, the runway was illuminated with flares to guide the pilot into making a safe landing, but the skaters were quite rattled on deplaning. They were greeted at the airport by the wife of Canadian ambassador to Norway Edward Joseph Garland, Per Flaaten, liason between the Norwegian and Canadian Olympic Committee, and W.T. Pickering, the Canadian Olympic Team's chef de mission. From there, the skating team checked into the Savoy Hotel until their quarters at the Olympic Village in Sogn were ready. Norman Gregory recalled, "The Olympic Village quarters, while very plain, were quite comfortable. The rooms were bright and clean and the meals excellent, although there was a very definite shortage of fresh fruit for the first few days, however, that was rectified when the Norwegians brought in large quantities of Spanish oranges which were far superior in taste to the oranges available in Canada. One of the physical disadvantages of Oslo as the center for the Olympic Games, certainly as far as the figure skaters were concerned, was the distance that had to be travelled to get to practice rinks, as these were widely scattered one from the other and not very convenient to get to by means of tramway... It might be added, that for the last few days, the Norwegians provided a bus service between the Olympic Village and the various rinks." France's Jacqueline du Bief recalled the Olympic Village in Oslo thusly: "Small grey houses, grouped in the form of a horseshoe round a grim, snow-covered courtyard - entirely cut off from the city - had been summarily fixed up to form the general quarters of the competitors; the Olympic village. Each house, like a consulate, bore the name of a country and housed its own representatives, so that people frequently said: 'I am going to France' or 'Meet me in an hour's time in England.' In fact, when you set foot in one of these houses you felt you were actually going into the country itself and you could give yourself a nice trip round the world without leaving the little grey courtyard. The team spirit everywhere in this little Olympic village was wonderful."
At the Opening Ceremonies held at the Bislett Stadion, chairman of the organizing committee Olaf Ditlev-Simonsen called for a moment of silence in sympathy for British team, who were mourning the loss of King George VI... harkening back to the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen where the British team were mourning the death of King George V. Captain T.D. Richardson's wife Mildred, who was in Oslo covering the event for the British press recalled, "In Norway they have somewhat strict and rather odd laws governing drinking. So it was difficult, indeed almost impossible – to get a quick one, without having a meal. As you can imagine that was not very popular with the Gentlemen of the press! So, as we were all housed in the specially built and very comfortable Viking Hotel, a deputation (not a 'demo' we hadn’t heard of such things in those happy, far off days) went to the powers-that-be and after some difficulty, had a bar - ostensibly only for press – installed in the hotel. Of course the news quickly spread around and the rush to be there at the opening had to be seen to be believed! I’m afraid that, charming and anxious to be helpful though they were, our Norwegian hosts were not always as efficient as they might have been. For example, one day – the Saturday before the Opening Ceremony – on returning to the hotel at lunchtime, I got a phone call from London. It was 'The Observer', asking why they had not had my ‘piece’ on the general atmosphere in Oslo, etc. I told them that I had had no such request and they replied that a communication had been sent some days before, saying they wanted something for their 'Sporting Print', a very prestigious slot on the back page of 'The Observer' at the time. Would I call them back in half an hour – it being Saturday - with my 'piece'? Well I did and it was in print on Sunday! On another occasion we met the Mayor of Oslo at some reception and he said how sorry he was that we did not go to a banquet held some nights previously where we were to be guests of honour – as the only press men (people today of course), who had also been competitors in the Winter Games. So we explained that we had not received that invitation and how disappointed we were. It never turned up among our papers."
Ria and Paul Falk (left) and Tenley Albright (right) in Oslo
The weather, though fiercely cold at times during the Games, in other instances caused chaos for the organizers in advance of the Games. At one point, a lack of snow forced the Norwegian Army to step in and import snow from the northern mountains by lorry to keep the Holmenkollbakken ski jump in operation.
Fortunately, Mother Nature cooperated during the figure skating events. Swedish skating historian Gunnar Bang recalled, "You could count on between 12-15,000 people [at] every event." In fact, no less than thirty two thousand spectators showed up for the women's free skate at the Bislett Stadion... at least three thousand over capacity. However, during the women's school figures, a packed crowd at the onset dwindled to only a handful of bodies in the bleachers by the end of the competition.
THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION
The women's school figures, contested during the mornings of February 16 and 17, 1952, were the first of the figure skating events in Oslo. 1927 World Bronze Medallist Karen (Simensen) Klæboe, the chair of the figure skating committee of the Norwegian Skating Association, made history as the first female assistant referee at the Olympic Games.
Australia's Nancy Hallam and Gweneth Molony (left) and Erika Kraft of Germany, Jeannette Altwegg of Great Britain and Jacqueline du Bief of France training in Oslo
Prior to the Games, an Austrian judge came to Paris to try to coax Jacqueline du Bief, who'd declined an invitation to perform an exhibition in Vienna, to reconsider. He threatened, "Skate. The Games are to be held in a fortnight. You need help - we shall be grateful to you... If you don't skate, we shall 'kill' you at the next competition and all Central Europe will do likewise," he purportedly told her, adding fuel to the rumours that were circling Paris at the time that there was going to be some funny business going on with the judging in Oslo. She stood by her refusal. During the school figures in Oslo, one of the Austrian judge's cronies showed up and said, "You are doing badly and you will need a lift up. Our competitor is in the same position for the test in the 'free' for this evening and if you will promise us that the French judge will look favourably on him we will make it up to you on your points for the figures, for this afternoon." She told him where to go and how to get there and placed fourth, behind twenty one year old Jeannette Altwegg of Great Britain, sixteen year old Tenley Albright of Newton Center, Massachusetts and seventeen year old Sonya Helen Klopfer (Dunfield) of Long Island City, New York.
Jeannette Altwegg's lead in the figures was substantial. All but American judge Harold C. Storke (who placed Albright first) had her firmly in the lead by over forty points. As the figures counted for sixty percent of the total score, Altwegg - a figures specialist who was no slouch as a free skater - had all but won Olympic gold before the free skate barring a complete disaster.
Jacqueline du Bief (left) and Erika Kraft (right) practicing in Oslo
Jacqueline du Bief described the atmosphere in the dressing room during the women's free skate on February 20, 1952 thusly: "Any ordinary person entering that room would have thought herself in a place full of lunatics. Jeannette, very calm and concentrating on herself, was waiting seated on a bench, her eyes lost in space, whilst Ginny Baxter was sitting cross-legged on a massage table playing patience, and Tenley Albright, stretched out on another table with her eyes tightly closed, remained motionless as a statue, with the aim of relaxing. All around, the others - in various stages of undress - were getting themselves ready. Some were smiling, some were on the defensive already, others were exchanging a few words with their mothers or teachers, in low tones so that they should not disturb their fellows. But the nervous yawns, the deep sighs, the hoarse voices revealed the general tension better than all else. Soon the first competitor, outwardly quite cool but inwardly shaking with fright, left the dressing-room, giving the signal for the start of the competition. The competition, which for many of us was to be the last or the one before the last, represented that for which we had striven every day for about ten years - that for which we had so long hoped. From now onwards, there was the regular movement of competitors going out to the rink, punctuated by an occasionally uttered 'Good luck' - the returns that were either tearful or victorious but were always noisy and breathless, accompanied by a wave of cold air from 'out there' - affecting more and more the nerves of those who were waiting their turn and trying to conquer their mounting fears."
Tenley Albright, Jeannette Altwegg and Jacqueline du Bief on the Olympic podium
Jeannette Altwegg's performance in Oslo was by no means a disaster, but up against some very strong free skaters, she only placed fourth in the free skate, with ordinals ranging from third through ninth. du Bief, eleventh of the twenty women to skate, performed exceptionally well and had the highest point total in the free skate but Detroit's Ginny Baxter earned four first place ordinals... besting even the innovative du Bief in that phase of the competition. Garnering considerable press back home in England, Jeannette Altwegg became the only British athlete to win a gold medal at the Oslo Games and the first British skater since Madge Syers in 1908 to win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. Tenley Albright took the silver and du Bief the bronze, followed by Klopfer and Baxter. Canada's three entries - Suzanne Morrow, Marlene and Vevi Smith - placed sixth, ninth and thirteenth. Great Britain's Valda Osborn, who placed only thirteenth, had the unusual distinction of receiving a third place vote from Swiss judge Henri Mügeli. Altwegg announced her retirement from figure skating the day after winning Olympic gold, to the dismay of professional ice show impresarios and praise of Olympic officials, who delighted at the fact she'd rather retire from sport altogether than become a professional athlete.
Suzanne Morrow later alleged that in Oslo, her mother was approached by - wait for it - the Austrian judge saying that if the Canadian judge he placed Helmut Seibt second behind Dick Button in the men's event, he would in turn ensure that Morrow earned the women's silver. He claimed that if the Canadians didn't accept the offer, he'd offer the same deal with the Americans, ensuring Tenley Albright a silver. Mrs. Morrow approached Norman Gregory, telling him that her daughter didn't want any part in it. He later refused to take action against the Austrian judge unless Mrs. Morrow produced a witness.
THE MEN'S COMPETITION
If the media's 'darling' of the Games was Jacqueline Vaudecrane's twelve year old student Alain Giletti, its 'bad boy' was eighteen year old Michael Carrington of Streatham. The young British Champion found himself at the center of controversy when NSA officials sent him home prior to the men's competition due to "unsatisfactory conduct." Two British officials asked the NSA to reconsider but Mildred Richardson recalled, "Unfortunately he seemed to imagine that being a member of the Olympic Team entitled him to behave in a most irresponsible manner, and that the rules of behaviour - attending practice sessions for example - did not apply to him. There were other foolish demeanours which could not be overlooked so that we – that is the Senior Officials of the NSA who were in Oslo which included T.D.R and myself – after much soul searching, decided that we must send him home. Fortunately we still had in the men's team such stalwarts as Michael Booker who was our champion 6 times, but it was a most unfortunate affair, causing great upset and distress to us all."
Michael Carrington claimed he had practiced eight hours a day and given up his job the year prior to practice for the Games... hardly the actions of a skater who didn't take the Olympics seriously. Quoted in the February 18, 1952 issue of "The West Australian", he claimed, "An official came on Friday morning to take me to the airport for the first plane to London. I was warned of his arrival and was not available. He packed all my clothes and took them out of the camp." He refused to leave until he was given "a satisfactory explanation" and was later suspended by the NSA for eight months, barring him from the chance of defending his national title.
If Giletti and Carrington had captured the attention of the press, Harvard University Dick Button had dominated it. Prior to the Games, he told an Associated Press reporter, "I don't skate against anyone. I'm skating against perfection. I want to skate my best and I want everyone else to do his best." However, the athletic director at Harvard took the unusual step of sending out a news release stating that Button would attempt the triple loop jump in Oslo. In his book "Dick Button On Skates", Button recalled, "This departure from custom was made for two reasons. First, if a rival had not already begun work on a triple jump, I felt he did not have time to catch up with me before the Olympic Games. Second, it would be wise to warn the judges that I was prepared to present a radical new jump at Oslo, otherwise it might go unrecognized; the judges might well ask themselves whether that was a triple revolution or an optical illusion."
When the fourteen men took to the ice on February 19, 1952, it was absolutely clear to everyone that Dick Button was in a class by himself. He earned first place ordinals from every judge and (like Altwegg) amassed a lead of over forty points over his closest competitor, Helmut Seibt of Austria. Jimmy Grogan of the United States, Peter Firstbrook of Canada, Carlo Fassi of Italy, Hayes Alan Jenkins of the United States and young Alain Giletti of France followed, but with Button's upcoming triple loop attempt in the free skate and his impressive arsenal of other jumps and spins, his competitors were truly in a competition for the silver.
The men's free skating competition, held on February 20, 1952, was attended by thousands of figure skating aficionados and curious onlookers who wanted to see Button attempt his triple loop for the first time. In "Dick Button On Skates", Button recalled, "I had only a brief warm-up while the judges took their seats, and coaches called last minute instructions. A whistle blew shrilly, a little man carrying score cards slipped and slid across the band of ice rimming the competitive area, and the referee rose from his center chair. The men gathered around him as he reiterated to the skaters, in several languages, that should shoelaces break, they could start over; should they want more warm-up time, they could have it; and did they know the order of skating? Affirmative an- swers and nervous gestures answered him. Pulling on sweaters and coats, tucking hanging shoelaces into their boots, the skaters hurried back to the warmth of the dressing rooms to wait their turn. Was I nervous? Let me put it this way: Yes. This was to be the crowning effort of years of practice. To be sure, I had a very substantial lead in school figures, but if I could not perform the triple loop, even though I should manage to win, the effort would be, in part, a failure... Once again I heard my familiar competitive music. The be- ginning phrase always startled me out of the sluggish feeling that usually came over me before the competition began. I raised my arms, took an opening step and forced myself into the opening spin. I thought over and over only that I had to take the program coolly. After thirty seconds, one Axel and a double Lutz, I had the feel of the ice. The next jump would tell whether weeks of work had been successful - whether I would be the first to do a triple jump in competition. Would it work? Would it work? Now when I needed it most, would there be a hitch? The least fault in timing, the least rut in the ice at takeoff... I took the four-five-six preparation step and moved toward the edge into the loop. I forgot in momentary panic which shoulder should go forward and which back. I was extraordinarily conscious of the judges, who looked so immobile at rinkside. But this was it. The edge cut the ice and my arms lowered, shoulders turning against the rotation to allow a grip that would follow through. My knees closed as my feet crossed in the air. The wind out my eyes, and the coldness caused tears to stream down my cheeks. Up! Up! Height was Vital. Round and around again in a spin which took only a fraction of a second to complete before it landed on a clean steady back edge. I pulled away breath- less, excited and overjoyed, as applause rolled from the faraway stands like the rumbling of a distant pounding sea. The rest of the program hardly mattered. I was let-down, serious, over-concerned, forgetting that this should be really all enjoyment. I finished the five minutes, now but an instant. Only when I left the ice did I realize I was exhausted. Photographers popped flashbulbs; reporters asked questions. I had laced my boots so tightly that circulation had stopped. My feet were numb. Knots had to be cut before I could remove my boots. The struggle was over."
Helmut Seibt, Dick Button and Jimmy Grogan on the Olympic podium in Oslo
Unanimously first with his history-making free skate, Dick Button became the first North American skater to successfully defend an Olympic title. On the strength in his lead over Grogan in the figures, Seibt narrowly captured the silver medal. Canada's Peter Firstbrook settled for fifth, behind Hayes Alan Jenkins, who placed third behind Grogan in the free skate.
THE ICE DANCE EXHIBITION
While the men's free skate marks were being computed, Americans Carol Ann Peters and Danny Ryan and Canadians Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden each exhibited compulsory dances at the Bislett Stadion in almost pitch black darkness. Ending their exhibition, the teams switched partners on the Fourteenstep corners. Staged too late at night to capture much attention from the tired spectators, the demonstration perhaps failed to generate media attention for the first 'official' World Championships in ice dancing in Paris only days later. In case the name Danny Ryan sounds familiar, he was sadly one of the victims of the 1961 Sabena Crash.
THE PAIRS COMPETITION
Karol and Peter Kennedy, Ria and Paul Falk and Marianna and László Nagy on the Olympic podium in Oslo
Held on the evening of February 22, 1952, the pairs competition decided the final figure skating medals of the Oslo Olympics. The clear favourites amongst the thirteen team field were the married Germany couple Ria (Baran) and Paul Falk and Seattle siblings Karol and Peter Kennedy, who had both won World titles previously. The 'Kennedy Kids' earned first place ordinals from the American and Norwegian judges and were tied with the Falk's by the Swedish judge, but the judges from Canada, Great Britain, Switzerland, Hungary and Austria all had the Germans solidly in first with marks ranging from 5.6 to 5.8. Baran and Falk's winning performance was skated to Beethoven's "Egmont" overture and Carl Maria von Weber's "Oberon".
The Kennedy's settled for silver, ahead of two another sibling teams... Hungary's Marianna and László Nagy and Great Britain's Jennifer and John Nicks. At the World Championships that followed in Paris, Peter Kennedy, the son of a dentist, found himself at the center of controversy when he allegedly assaulted a press photographer. He received suspensions from both the USFSA and ISU following the incident.
The Falk's and The Kennedy's
The Canadian and American judges both had Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden third, but a trio of seventh place ordinals from the German, Swedish and Hungarian judges kept them out of the running. Dick Button recalled, "From the start, Ria and Paul Falk outshone any other pair I have ever seen. There are only a few skaters who attain the level of greatness and the Falk's were of this number. Like Manolete, the Spanish bullfighter who scorned tricky passes and concentrated on simple classic moves that reached perfection, the Falk's specialized on single jumps, simple lifts, and parallel skating that was always in unison. The exact matching of their styles and physiques made their complete similarity possible."
THE CLOSING CEREMONIES
Marianna and László Nagy
During the Closing Ceremonies at the Bislett Stadion, the official report of the 1952 Olympic Games recalled, "Jeannette Altwegg, Great Britain and György Czako of Hungary gave the spectators lovely figure skating displays, while Marianna Nagy and her brother László, of Hungary, did their impressive pair skating to the music of 'Donauwellen'. The ice dance which finished the figure skating exhibition was carried out by 40 children in national costumes, led by ballet master Otto Thoresen in his Morgedal costume."
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