The 1898 World Figure Skating Championships

Picture it... February 15, 1898. The third of the ISU's sanctioned World Championships converged on London, England and it wasn't an altogether happy affair for everyone involved. The skating establishment in Great Britain at the time were largely proponents of the rigid English Style of skating and weren't - needless to say - too keen on the competitive side of skating nor on skaters who supported the 'new fangled' Continental and International Styles showing up in town and showing off their less rigid skills. The show went on whether everyone liked it or not.

It wouldn't be until four years later when the event returned to London that Madge Syers would compete against the men and set the ball in motion to offer female skaters opportunities to compete in ISU competitions, so in 1898 it was a 'boy's only' treehouse type affair. As the ISU at the time allowed the federations hosting international events to provide more than one judge if an insufficient number of judges arrived, four of the six judges (W.F. Adams, C.E. Bell, A.F. Jenkin and J.H. Thomson) were from Great Britain. Austria's C. Fillunger and Sweden's Clarence von Rosen (who would disturbingly later play a major role in drumming up support for the Nazis in Sweden) rounded out the panel. The competition was held at the National Skating Palace at Hengler's Circus, Argyll Street, which is now better known as the site of the London Palladium. In attendance were King Edward VII (then Heir Apparent to the crown) and other members of the British royal family. By all accounts, the appreciative crowd was packed like sardines to watch the events of this historic first major international competition in England unfold.

In the first phase of the event, twenty seven year old defending champion Gustav Hügel of Austria amassed a twenty point lead on his closest competitor, Gilbert Fuchs of Germany. Henning Grenander of Sweden sat a distant third, with the lone British entry H.C. Holt finishing a disastrous fourth. A fifth skater, Lars Wiik of Sweden, withdrew. When I say Holt was disastrous, I mean disastrous. Holt was no less than seven hundred and ninety two points behind the leader and seven hundred and eleven points behind Grenander. I do not think even a surprise 1898 triple Axel would have got him out of a bind of that kind. One can deduce that as judges were evaluating based on the International Style as described in the ISU's 'Wettlauf-Ordnung' rulebook, it is quite possible that Holt was stubbornly performing in the vastly contrasting English Style and was marked accordingly. Either that or he bombed... but seven hundred and ninety two points behind on school figures is staggering. I'm including a translation of the ISU's explanation of the International Style below so you can see what the judges were looking for:

Let's move on to the second and final phase of the competition: free skating. In "The Book Of Winter Sports", Olympic Bronze Medallist Edgar Syers offered a review of the 1898 men's event: "The skating of Herren Grenander, Stockholm, Fuchs, Munich, and Hugel, Vienna, introduced the
spectators to what was, to most of them, a new art: it was, in effect, not skating at all, in the sense in which it hitherto had been understood. The three competitors, though demonstrating that the broad principles of international skating are alike and consistent, yet indicated clearly the influence of the
several schools to which they belong. The skating of the Swede was energetic, dashing, full of force and swing, that of the Bavarian large, easy, accurate, and with a suggestion of latent power, while the Austrian excelled in light, graceful, rapid movements, combined with perfect rhythm and timekeeping." Apples, oranges and bananas... the unique international stylings of the three visiting men's skaters opened the eyes of British skating to whole new world of possibilities out there.

Interestingly, in an era when compulsory figures counted for so much, it was the free skating event that won Grenander the title. With a one hundred and thirty point lead on the reigning World Champion Hügel, Grenander managed to move up from third to first to edge the more elegant Viennese skater by a mere 8.1 points. Talk about cutting those counters and choctaws close. Let's take a look at the ordinals from this event as found in the 1967 ISU publication "Seventy-five years of European and world’s championships in figure skating":

Going back to the start of this blog where I mentioned that the competition wasn't an altogether happy affair for a minute, Hügel and Fuchs weren't exactly thrilled about being beat by Grenander. According to ISU rules at the time, skaters or federations had to put up a sum of their own money equalling the entrance fee they had paid just to compete just to PROTEST the results, and the Germans and Austrians did, believing that the Swedish judge and two of the British judges (Adams and Jenkin) had been overly generous in their scoring of Grenander in the free skating. Despite the demands of the silver and bronze medallist for the result to be overturned, the protest was ignored by the ISU. Does anyone else smell Sochi or is it just me? After this scandal, Henning Grenander left competitive skating with his reputation as a superb skater and World title intact.

In addition to the judging scandal, I think one of the most notable aspects of this competition was truly how it exposed Great Britain to a whole new world. There continued to be detractors though. Two days later in The Globe, a member of the London Skating Club remarked that "it would be ungracious to criticize in any adverse tone the style of foreign skaters... But probably no one will feel aggrieved if we so as far as to regret the concession made by Mr. Grenander (of Sweden) to what was once considered the degenerate practice of bending the knees." An article from the February 16, 1898 issue of The Manchester Guardian (sourced from Mary Louise Adams' wonderful book "Artistic Impressions") was much more forgiving: "Indeed it must have been a revelation to the English skaters that with so much swinging of the arms and legs there could yet be an appearance of grace and beauty. [Huegel's] skating was quite free from the jerkiness or stiffness which is so common in Englishmen, who try to conceal every movement as much as possible. If movement is to be allowed... as one thinks it must be, let it be free and open. Properly developed it certainly gives a rhythm and vitality which are very charming to watch."

The actual ISU rules surrounding judging for the 1898 World Championships

Holt ultimately finished the competition in fourth and last place over a thousand points behind Grenander and this had to have shown the proponents of the English Style that they needed to get on board if they didn't want to get trounced again in front of The King four years later, for it was in 1902 that Edgar Syers' own wife Madge took the world to task and won the silver medal behind Ulrich Salchow, competing against the men. After all, it was Edgar Syers and Herbert Ramon Yglesias who were behind lobbying the ISU to hold the 1898 World Championships in London in the first place. I wonder if they ever dreamed where that ball they set in motion in the nineteenth century would take skating in the twenty first century. It almost seems incomprehensible now, but it all started somewhere with someone challenging the status quo.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":