The 1990 World Figure Skating Championships
Ninety percent of the time the biggest challenge when writing about figure skating history comes in having too few primary sources to really be able to unravel and accurately assemble a story. In the case of today's topic, I can assure you it was quite the opposite! My eyes just about popped out of their sockets when a reference librarian at Halifax Public Libraries went digging around out back and returned with a bulging vertical file of newspaper clippings, photos, promotional material, ticket info and schedules from an event I have long been requested to cover but have never quite had the ambition to tackle... the 1990 World Figure Skating Championships right here in beautiful Halifax, Nova Scotia. Fasten your seatbelts, climb into the time machine and prepare to head back in time and revisit the stories, skaters and scandals of one of the most fascinating World Championships in skating history!
SETTING THE STAGE
Held from March 5 to 11, 1990, the 1990 World Figure Skating Championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia were the fifth World Championships to be held in Canada and to date, they are the only Worlds to be held in Atlantic Canada. The CFSA made the decision to back a Halifax bid instead of an Ottawa one in May 1986. The following May, the ISU announced that Halifax had won the event. More than one thousand volunteers were amassed and fifty five local committees organized to ensure the event went off without a hitch. A logo was designed by Kathy Kaulbach and Atlantic Canadians were given first dibs on tickets before sales were opened to the rest of the world. All-event packages went for one hundred and twenty five dollars and were completely sold out in May of 1989. The cost of putting on the event was an estimated two million dollars, but with eighty five thousand tickets sold and in excess of seven hundred thousand dollars of corporate support, a one million dollar profit was reported before the event even started. Much of that money stayed right here in Atlantic Canada and went to support local skating clubs and programs. The main event venue was the nine thousand, five hundred seat Halifax Metro Centre on Brunswick Street, but school figures and practices were also conducted across the Halifax Harbour at the Dartmouth Sportsplex. In total, over one hundred and sixty athletes from twenty six countries participated, along with four hundred and fifty media representatives including twenty two worldwide broadcasters including the CBC, CBS, BBC, Eurovision, Intervision and NHK. Rob McCall's mother Evelyn penned wonderful columns on the event for the "Chronicle Herald". David Dore gave a lecture at the Spring Garden Library on how figure skating competitions are judged and what to look for when watching a figure skating competition. More than three thousand square metres of carpet was used at both venues and six hundred and seventy two hours of ice time was booked. Seven hundred corsages were made for special events and one hundred and seventy five thousand photocopies of media info made. The official skate sharpener of the event was an aerospace engineer from Colorado. Stanfield's underwear factory in Truro designed everything from t-shirts to long underwear with the World Championships logo on the flap. Seagull Pewter made souvenir spoons and key chains. The backroom at Irises Flowers Ltd. was bustling with activity from midnight until seven in the morning throughout the event putting together thousands of bouquets of daffodils, tulips, crocuses, hyacinths and forsythia.
Yet, that didn't stop people from complaining. There were cranky coaches who were annoyed at being housed in different hotels than their skaters. There were passive aggressive articles from reporters who arrived at their hotels only to find out telephones hadn't yet been hooked up in their rooms or complained about their seating area being too far from the ice. Mayor Ronald Wallace's reception for the international media at the Halifax Sheraton was so poorly attended due to back-to-back Canadian and American team press conferences that all of the food ended up being sent to Hope Cottage, a local soup kitchen. There were empty seats in practices because only all-event ticket holders were permitted to attend practices... and then there was a behind the scenes debacle that made front page news. The CFSA's marketing coordinator Debbie Cameron, in explaining that in the future the CFSA planned to only support bids in cities with larger rinks, made the mistake of telling a "Daily News" reporter that "The event won't be coming back to Halifax." Local reporters took that quote and ran with it. LOC Chairman Jane MacLellan responded in the March 14, 1990 issue by saying, "If they want to stage the Worlds in Edmonton or Hamilton, I wish them all the best. It takes more than just a big stadium... I don't want to assume that an opinion like hers shows the CFSA's attitude. If it does, it's unfortunate and disappointing." CFSA President Barbara Ryan responded by saying, "Debbie Cameron does not make that kind of decision - that decision is made by the executive committee... Halifax would be in the running for any competition it bid on... I'm just so sorry there has been a perception left that we are less than appreciative."
THE PAIRS COMPETITION
The Canadian media toted eighteen year old Cindy Landry of Pincourt, Quebec and twenty eight year old Lyndon Johnston of Canada as medal contenders but a miss from Lyndon on a side-by-side double Lutz late in the pairs original program placed the defending World Silver Medallists completely out of contention in tenth place. Soviet pairs Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, Natalia Mishkutenok and Artur Dimitriev and Larisa Selezneva and Oleg Makarov occupied the top three spots after the original program. Although Gordeeva and Grinkov skated a clean and confident program, the Halifax audience deferred its two standing ovations of the pairs original program to the second and third place Soviet teams.
Though the Soviet teams were the darlings of the first phase of the pairs event, Isabelle Brasseur of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec and Lloyd Eisler of Seaforth, Ontario stole the show in the free skate. The 1989 Canadian Champions brought down the house with their athletic performance and earned a standing ovation that started before their music even ended. They moved up to take the silver behind Gordeeva and Grinkov, and many felt that on that day the Canadians should have actually won the free skate. Mishkutenok and Dimitriev dropped to third, ahead of Selezneva and Makarov and American Champions Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudy Galindo. Canadians Christine Hough and Doug Ladret placed sixth; Cindy Landry and Lyndon Johnston ninth.
In her book "My Sergei: A Love Story", Ekaterina Gordeeva recalled, "We didn't skate our best at the 1990 World Championships... We won, but I two-footed my triple toe-loop and fell on the double Axel. Afterward Sergei said to Marina [Zoueva], 'What if I missed a jump? Can you believe how bad I would look? Katia's little, she's tiny, she's a girl. But if I missed, what do you think would happen?' He dreaded this thought. He was all the time worried about me, and I never, ever worried about him."
THE MEN'S COMPETITION
Two relative unknowns in the men's event, each with their own compelling stories, captured the attention of the Halifax media and audiences. The first was Japan's Tatsuya Fujii, a twenty four year old from Tokyo who had trained for fourteen years to have his shot on the world stage only to graduate from university and accept a job at as a trainee at a Japanese television network the same year he finally made the World team. Fujii trained at the Citizen skating rink under Shigeo Moriyama, a former competitive swimmer, and received zero funding from the Japanese government for his training costs. His parents couldn't make it to watch his big moment - his father had to work and his mother was in the hospital - and sadly, the Japanese Champion didn't make it out of the original program in what proved to be his first and last shot at stardom.
Cornel Gheorghe and Gabriela Munteanu
The second was Romania's Cornel Gheorghe. The eighteen year old trained in Bucharest in one of only four covered rinks in his country. The December prior to coming to Halifax, Cornel and coach Gabriela Munteanu were forced to live in survival conditions at the very rink they trained during the Romanian Revolution which toppled dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Munteanu told a "Daily News" reporter, "We were scared, very scared. The securitate were killing everyone without thinking. They would have killed us inside the rink as well if they could have told from the lights that we were in there." Gheorghe arrived in Halifax with skates that were literally falling apart. He'd applied to the Romanian government the previous three years for new skates and laces and had been turned down each time. The government did spring for flight, food and hotel but Cornel and his coach only had sixty dollars apiece in pocket money to see them through their entire two-week trip abroad. Not understanding what pay TV was, Gheorghe blew nine dollars of his money on the first night watching "Batman" in his hotel room. Shocked by his story, both the skating community and the people of Halifax opened their hearts and wallets to help. Paul Wylie's mother took Cornel's foot measurements and promised to ship him a badly needed pair of skates. Fran Driscoll, the owner of a local skate shop, supplied him with costumes and material. Montreal skating costume designer Rhona Cantor presented him with skate guards, kit bags and skating outfits. Coaches from twenty seven countries, led by the Canadian contingent, took up their own collection to assist the talented young skater. The "Daily News" and LOC were flooded with phone calls from local residents wondering where they could make donations. Munteanu told reporter Neil Hodge, "We never expected anything like this to happen when we came to Canada. The people in Canada, they helped us so much that I don't know quite what to say. Paul Wylie's mother has done us a great service. It is meaningful to us. My skater has needed new skates for a long time. The way the Canadian people helped us... I can't thank them enough. We we will always have beautiful memories of our experience in Halifax. We will never forget all the gifts we received here. Right now, Romania is a poor country, but maybe some day we can have the Worlds and help someone out." Like Fujii, Gheorghe failed to make it out of the original program, but his story resonated with the skating world long after the competition in Halifax ended.
Beyond Fujii and Gheorghe, as one would imagine the skater everyone was talking about heading into the men's event was twenty three year old Kurt Browning of Caroline, Alberta. The defending World Champion had just won his second Canadian title in Sudbury, but hadn't skated up to his usual high standard. During a practice in Halifax, he fell and cut his thumb on a triple flip attempt. Predictably, the media went to town with a "Browning Falls" storyline. While Browning aimed to avoid the media whirlwind and focus on training, twenty two year old Christopher Bowman, who had taken five days off after the U.S. Championships to reportedly undergo physiotherapy, was talking to any reporter who would listen. "I'm very ready for the competition but I don't know if I'm ready for Kurt Browning," he told a "Chronicle Herald" reporter. "People talk about me being wild and crazy. But I've kind of fallen into the shadow of the Marlboro man." Another top contender dealing with an injury, the Soviet Union's Alexandr Fadeev, withdrew prior to the event.
At the Dartmouth Sportsplex, the men etched out school figures for the final time at the World Championships. Representing the Chinese Taipei, David Liu held the distinction of being the final man to perform a figure at the World Championships, but he placed twenty seventh.
David Liu and the last figure ever skated by a man at the World Championships
In the original program, Browning opened with a nice triple Axel/double toe then turned a planned triple Axel into a shaky double. Late in his program, he turned a planned triple toe-loop into a second triple Axel, which was allowed under the rules at the time. His gutsy move paid off and he earned technical marks ranging from 5.7 to 5.9 and a 6.0 from the Hungarian judge for artistic impression.
"I knew the biggest battle would be concentrating. During the second axel, I couldn't hear my music and I lost my concentration. But at the end, the crowd kept me going. I think it was a fair trade-off," Browning told a reporter from the "Chronicle Herald". However, Petrenko's program included a triple Axel/triple toe, triple Axel and double Axel and earned 6.0's for artistic impression from both the Australian and Austrian judges.
Browning beat Petrenko in figures; Petrenko beat Browning in the original program... It all came down to the free skate. Petrenko skated first and popped two triples into doubles and two-footed a triple loop attempt. Todd Eldredge, who had moved up to third after the original program with an outstanding program that featured a clean triple Axel/triple toe combination and a second triple Axel, fell twice. When Kurt Browning took the ice for his turn, he was on fire. Seven triples, a standing ovation and a slew of 5.8's and 5.9's later, he'd managed to defend his World title in his home country, no less!
Petrenko settled for silver, ahead of Bowman, who went for broke and won over the crowd but left his coach Frank Carroll less than enthused when he improvised part of his program. Many were impressed with seventeen year old Elvis Stojko, whose athletic free skate brought down the house and helped him leap from a sixteenth place finish in figures to ninth overall.
THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION
Midori Ito, Jill Trenary and Holly Cook on the women's podium in Halifax
There were two women the media had their eye on in Halifax and both were two of the most exciting jumpers the world had ever seen at that point in time. While half of the media were enthralled with the triple Axels from the reigning World Champion Midori Ito, the other half were eyeing a sixteen year old newcomer on the World stage, Surya Bonaly of France. Bonaly reportedly landed several quads in practice that week and alas quad aficionados, we don't have the footage to review to discern how clean her attempts were.
Didier Gailhaguet, Surya Bonaly and Suzanne Bonaly say "Fromage" for the cameras
One of the highlights of the entire competition came in the school figures, when Željka Čižmešija of Yugoslavia skated the final figure ever performed at the World Championships. The ice of the Dartmouth Sportsplex was littered with flowers after her effort and more than one tear welled up in the eyes of skaters and fans alike when the realization that this was the end of an era dawned upon them.
Twenty one year old American Jill Trenary won the school figures, followed by Natalia Lebedeva of the Soviet Union and West Germany's Patricia Neske. Midori Ito placed a dismal tenth, all but ruining her chances of defending the World title she'd won a year prior in Paris. Showing great fight, Ito stole the show and won both the original program and free skate with spectacular performances, but it just wasn't enough. Although she placed fifth in the original program and second in the free, the lead Jill Trenary amassed in the school figures was enough to edge Ito for the gold. Under the scoring system in place at the time, Ito would have needed to place ninth and not tenth in figures and Trenary third or lower in both the short and free in order for her to win the gold.
Though her teammate Kristi Yamaguchi defeated her in both of the free skating events, Holly Cook similarly capitalized on a strong fourth place finish in figures to end up with the bronze medal. To her credit, the clean original program she performed to Santa Esmeralda's "Another Cha Cha" was a huge crowd pleaser. Natalia Lebedeva's lead after the figures and short program dissolved with a disappointing free skate that dropped her to fifth behind Yamaguchi. Canada's Lisa Sargeant placed a strong sixth; Surya Bonaly ninth. Future World Champion Yuka Sato ended up fourteenth in her debut at the senior Worlds.
Following the conclusion of the event, Jill Trenary told "Chronicle Herald" reporters, "It's tough to find the right words to describe how I feel right now... I've wondered for a long time what it would feel like to stand on the medal podium and listen to the anthem. I wasn't sobbing, but a couple of tears started rolling down my cheeks at the end of the anthem." Ito explained, "I tried to make [the comeback] but I just couldn't do it. When I started out in 10th place I never expected to win a silver medal so in that sense I'm happy with finishing in second place. A silver isn't too bad considering the way I began."
THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION
Mark Mitchell and Michelle McDonald
Soviets Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko received rave reviews for their Paso, while the U.S. and Czechoslovakian judges gave Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay marks as low as 5.3. However, in the Tango Romantica the American judge (like the cheese) stood alone in giving the much improved Canadians representing France less than stellar marks. After the marks were tabulated following both dances, Klimova and Ponomarenko were first, their teammates Maya Usova and Alexander Zhulin second and the Duchesnay's third.
The Soviets skate the samba: Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko and Maya Usova and Alexander Zhulin performing their OSP's
The fourth team to skate in the OSP narrowly averted being disqualified. Fifteen seconds into Monica MacDonald and Duncan Smart of Australia's program, one of Monica's skate blades loosened. The referee allowed them two minutes to repair the skate, but when the clock ran down they still weren't on the ice. The ISU rulebook was consulted and they were allotted additional time to fix the problem. About a minute later they appeared on the ice and went on to skate "a more authentic samba than many skated later" according to Lynn Copley-Graves in her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice".
Understandably, Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay earned the only standing ovation of the second phase of the ice dance competition for their samba set to Paul Simon's "Late In The Evening", choreographed by Christopher Dean. The Duchesnay's received two 6.0's and the judges from Finland, Poland and France placed them ahead of Klimova and Ponomarenko, who skated to "La Cucaracha" and received a 6.0 of their own. The audience booed Canadian judge Jane Garden, who gave the Duchesnay's their lowest mark, a 5.6. The fact that the 5.6 came from a Canadian judge only fuelled the media narrative that the Duchesnay's were justified in their decision to leave Canada to represent France, yet Garden had a reputation long before the 1990 World Championships of being a conservative marker. The Hungarian team of Klára Engi and Attila Tóth who had challenged the Duchesnay's for a spot on the medal podium the year previous in France withdrew after Klara twisted her ankle during the OSP. In a March 9, 1990 interview in "The Chronicle Herald", the Duchesnay's spoke to the standing ovation they received and the 'controversial' 5.6. Paul said, "It's a special feeling, especially because we started our career in this building when we participated in the Canadian Championships back in 1981. We never thought we'd come back here. It's a really good feeling." Isabelle added, "The Canadian public was never bitter against us. Without them we would never be able to skate like we want to." Paul agreed, "They understood we had to go away to skate. Otherwise, we would have been watching the others skating on television."
Many of the earlier teams to skate the free dances in Halifax left strong impressions with the audience. Italians Stefania Calegari and Pasquale Camerlengo injected comedy into the mix, while Canadians Michelle McDonald and Mark Mitchell brought sizzle with their sultry interpretation of "Fever". Oksana Grishuk and Evgeni Platov's "Zorba The Greek" was a crowd pleaser, but Jo-Anne Borlase and Martin Smith's "Samson And Delilah" in contrast was a smoother and more expressive performance. As had so often been the case throughout the Duchesnay's career, the judges didn't quite know what to do with their training mates, the innovative Finnish team of Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko. Lynn Copley-Graves recalled, "They laid it on in the free dance. Skating to a French barroom tango from the 1950's - the Apache - to Astor Piazzolla's sometimes discordant piano and accordion music, Petri, his hair combed in punk rock style, mimed extinguishing a cigarette before setting out on his encounter with his foil, Susanna. From brutish to tender he played out an approach-avoidance conflict, at times mopping the floor with Susanna. Like many male ice dancers entering the 1990's, Petri had the better edges, but Susanna, once fourth in the Finnish Nationals in singles, held her own. The judges awarded them 5.2 to 5.5 for technical and 5.1 to 5.7 for artistic - ranging from eleventh to sixth place."
Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay
First to skate in the final group were Usova and Zhulin. Also skating a Piazzolla tango, they received a spate of 5.7 and 5.8's for an exceptional performance that perhaps on another day would have been good enough for more than bronze. However, it was the next performance - the Duchesnay's "Missing" that mesmerized the Halifax audience, bringing them to their feet with tears in their eyes, their hands sore from clapping and throat raw from cheering. The ovation lasted longer than Kurt Browning's in the men's event and the judges responded with 5.8's and 5.9's for technical merit and 6.0's for artistic impression from the Polish, French, U.S., Czechoslovakian and Bulgarian judges.
I could rave ad nauseum about just how special that performance was, but instead I'll just quote Andrei Minenkov's description of this iconic program when he saw it performed a month earlier at the European Championships in Leningrad: "It was like a painting that moves you to ecstacy without even distinguishing the colours. Just stunning." Klimova and Ponomarenko followed, skating to "My Fair Lady" and gave an outstanding performance... but it wasn't the performance of the night. They received rows of 5.9's and one 6.0, enough to edge the Duchesnay's and Usova and Zhulin overall for the gold but not to win the free dance.
Americans Susie Wynne and Joseph Druar skated last, pumping the crowd back up with their delightful ballroom routine replete with a tap dancing section to finish fourth. Borlase and Smith moved up to seventh; McDonald and Mitchell to ninth. To this day, people in Halifax who don't even really follow skating still get this twinkle in their eye when the 1990 World Championships come up and the first words out of their mouth are always... "the Duchesnay's".
THE PARADE OF CHAMPIONS
For only an extra eighteen dollars, all-event ticket holders could grab themselves a ticket to the Parade Of Champions, the post-competition gala where the top finishers in each discipline got to let their hair down and focus a little more on entertaining and a little less on the technical side of their performances. In addition to the big names, the three and a half hour spectacle featured a performance by one hundred and seventy five local skaters ranging in age from thirteen to seventy, choreographed by Andre Bourgeois. Local musician Bob Quinn helped with music for the event.
A victorious Kurt Browning first skated to "Bring Him Home" from "Les Miserables" and was called back for two encores. Both Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko and the Duchesnay's reprised their medal winning free dances. Christopher Bowman had the women (and some of the men) in the audience going with his Rolling Stones program and Jill Trenary sizzled in performances to "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Body Heat". Selezneva and Makarov wowed with a lift where he balanced her on his head and spun her around. Midori Ito wore a traditional kimono for one number and then donned a turquoise top hat and tails, did a cartwheel and skated to "Mission: Impossible" for her encore. It was by all accounts the best eighteen dollars that anyone ever spent to watch an ice show in Halifax.
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