Gross .vs. Häsler: A Sixties CFSA/ISU Feud

Austrian stamp commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the Wiener Eislaufverein, released in conjunction with the 1967 World Championships

In 1967, Canada sent a promising team of youthful talent to the World Figure Skating Championships in Austria: pairs team Betty and John McKilligan, ice dancers Joni Graham and Don Phillips and Judy Henderson and John Baily, eighteen year old Valerie Jones of Toronto, fourteen year old Karen Magnussen of Vancouver, eighteen year old Roberta Laurent of Toronto, seventeen year old Jay Humphry of Vancouver and nineteen year old North American Champion Donald Knight of Dundas.

Betty and John McKilligan. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission. 

Before the competition began, well-liked Canadian sportswriter George Gross of the "Toronto Telegram" was initially denied media accreditation by the International Skating Union after an article he wrote categorically questioned the ethics of the ISU's judging system. Sound familiar? Judging has been, as we all know, a hot topic since the ISU's formation. However, I think you'll find (as I did) that the end result of this multi-sided look at mid-sixties skating politics shows that sometimes opening your mouth and calling a spade a spade can enact change, positive or not.

Gross' July 1966 article alleged that Canadian skaters were being victimized by European judges and that World titles were more often than not won through backroom deals in the bars of Europe between judges and officials. It got a warm "tell us something we don't know reception" in the Canadian skating community, but the trouble started when the article was reprinted in "Thin Ice", the journal of the CFSA's B.C. Section.

A clipping of the article made its way to Georg Häsler, honorary secretary of the ISU, and needless to say, he was more than a little ticked. Gross was denied media credentials for the 1967 World Championships but decided to go anyway. Häsler wrote an angry letter and distributed it along with a copy of Gross' original article to all of the ISU's judges, slamming the CFSA for not supporting the ISU. The February 28, 1967 of the "Montreal Gazette" reported, "CFSA president Bert Penfold said he would seek to avoid a public showdown here with ISU secretary Georg [Häsler]. [Häsler], a Swiss, distributed Sunday a reprint of a July, 1966, 'Toronto Telegram' newspaper article... Penfold told The Associated Press the CFSA considered it 'highly regrettable' that [Häsler] reprinted the article, written by George Gross of' 'The Telegram'... Austrian organizers privately blamed [Häsler] for what they felt was an attempt to settle a feud between the ISU and the CFSA... Discussing the controversy over judging practices, Ernest Labin, Austrian ISU representative, said the 'Telegram' article 'is one thing and the republication of it is another. It's too bad these two elements were mixed up. The Canadians seem to be overly sensitive about judging practices. But I have yet to hear that the Canadians have likewise blamed some of their own judges who last year, at the Davos, Switzerland, world championships, seemed to be just as erratic in their work as the Europeans allegedly were. [There are] some spectacular cases of misjudging on the part of Canadians on which the ISU had to take drastic action by imposing suspensions.' Gross, who wrote the article which ignited the trouble, was originally denied credentials by the ISU to cover the Vienna championships but the decision later was reversed. [Häsler], who distributed the reprint, said at the time that Gross 'is free to write anything he wants but the ISU takes offence at publication of the article in the organ of a branch organization of the Canadian Figure Skating Association.' The Gross article had been reprinted in Thin Ice, journal of the British Columbia section of the CFSA. Häsler said the controversy over judging dates back to the Davos championships, where Petra Burka of Toronto, who has since turned professional, lost her world title. 'This had the Canadian association up in arms. They cited various reasons which they felt were the true motives - like animosity against Miss Burka on the part of the judges. The only valid reason, the one that the Canadian association did not cite, was Miss Burka's skating performance.'" In a CFSA statement, Bert Penfold said "we were deeply disappointed to see Mr. [Häsler] take such action on the eve of the world championships. We are hoping to be able to smooth it over so there will be no bad effects. I contacted Mr. Häsler today, but we still have to decide on how to settle the affair without any particular organization or group of skaters getting hurt."

Now that we've looked at the situation and the ISU's initial action, let's delve a little deeper and explore the brewing animosity between the ISU and the CFSA during this period. In 1963, CFSA President Nigel Stephens (spurred by unusual criticism of Canadian judges at the World Championships) suggested to an ISU official that an exchange program between Canadian and European judges might be worthwhile. The official's knee-jerk reaction was to ask who would finance such a venture. Stephens responded that the CFSA would cover the expenses for both sides but was quickly told, "We would never have a Canadian judge in any competition in Europe." In early 1967, the ISU threatened to strip the 1962 World title from Canadians Otto and Maria Jelinek for a newspaper story under Otto's byline which suggested that the results of some international figure skating competitions were 'pre-arranged.' That same year, veterinarian and Canadian judge Dr. Suzanne Morrow-Francis (a North American and Canadian champion in her own right) was suspended as a judge. Morrow-Francis, the red-coated judge who was nicknamed 'The Red Devil Of Innsbruck' for her unpopular low marks at the 1964 Olympic Games despite the fact her ordinals were in line with the rest of the judges, was suspended in January 1967 for bias after placing an American skater over a favoured Austrian while judging the men's event in the 1966 World Championships. However, it was the fact that she was the only judge in nine that awarded Canadian Champion Donald Knight high marks that got her ousted for 'national bias'. In the January 31, 1967 issue of the "Ottawa Citizen", Morrow-Francis said of her suspension "At first I guess I was hurt. That Red Devil business sort of shocked me. Now I feel differently. They have given me a distinctive label. It's good copy - maybe not the kind we'd prefer - for skating. As for changing to some other colour to avoid attention, not a chance. I'll be the Red Devil from now on. It's one of my favourite colours. I'll be back if they want me." Interestingly, Knight finished seventh at the competition and was a reigning North American medallist when she gave him favourable marks and much of the hoopla over her marks in Innsbruck came down to her placing Belousova and Protopopov (the winners) over crowd favourites Marika Kilius and Hans-Jürgen Bäumler in front of a pro-German crowd in Austria. You can clearly see with the background of what was going on politically at that time how the relationship between the CFSA and ISU would have been particularly charged.

Despite the squawking from both sides, the efforts of Gross and others speaking up inspired incremental change. In Vienna at the 1967 World Championships, Häsler and Donald Gilchrist and Donald B. Cruikshank were forced to meet face-to-face to discuss the debacle. In her book "Reflections Of The CFSA: A History Of The Canadian Figure Skating Association 1887-1990", Teresa Moore recalled, "The Canadians told Häsler that the article was only one reporter's judgment, not an official statement of the CFSA. Häsler must understand, they said, that in North America the press is free to write what they want. They are under no controls as they are in parts of Europe. Gilchrist and Cruikshank showed Häsler other clippings to impress upon him that this was not an accurate portrayal of either the president of the CFSA's feelings on the matter. The Canadians were convincing and Häsler finally relented. Unfortunately, it was too late to retract the letters to the judges, but it was not too late for Gilchrist and Cruikshank to lobby for Canadian representation on the ISU and in talking with Häsler and other ISU members in the days to come, Gilchrist was able to convince them that Canada should have some sort of representation."

In a plot twist at the 1967 ISU Congress just months later, Gilchrist was elected as a substitute member of the Figure Skating Technical Committee. He became the first North American to hold an ISU position. What's more, the ISU revamped its own rules to end disqualification of judges based on marking differences alone and instead imposed a two-year trial period in an issue to address the problem. In a December 20, 1967 letter, Jacques Favart and Georg Häsler wrote: "Despite all measures taken by the Council of the ISU to eliminate major discrepancies in the marking within the judging panel, this unfortunate fact had not been overcome. National prejudice, the forming of groups of judges who favor the reputation of a skater rather than the actual skating, still persists and warning letters, or even sanctions do little or nothing to help. Therefore we decided to propose the following agreement for a two-year period, during which the Council would agree not to write warning letters or to disqualify judges for pure marking discrepancies, other than fragrant examples of national prejudice."

The ISU's band-aid solution was ultimately largely ineffective, for as we all know the Bloc judging in the seventies was particularly infamous, so much so that they actually had to ban Soviet judges from judging at the World Championships in 1977 after a four year period of obvious national bias. The real win was the ISU's acknowledgement that there was a problem. Interestingly, sportswriter George Gross, the founding sports editor of the "Toronto Sun" in 1971, was inducted posthumously into the Skate Canada Hall Of Fame in 2008 and Georg Häsler was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in 1993. Ironically, both sides ultimately got their medals, perhaps posthumously settling a decades old debacle.

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