Two Tickets To Paradise: The 1980 Canadian Women's Controversy

As long as there have been international figure skating competitions, there has been controversy over the selection processes that national skating federations have used to determine which skaters were sent to compete.. and which skaters were left home. Whether the Nancy/Tonya pairing in Lillehammer in 1994 or the Ashley/Mirai Sochi debate some twenty years later, skating fans and competitors alike have often been incensed by these difficult decisions... but few international team assignments were as controversial as the ones that happened right here in Canada back in 1980.

The year prior to the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, Carleton University student Janet Morrissey had won the Canadian senior women's title. At the 1979 World Championships in Vienna, she'd placed seventeenth in the school figures and actually dropped a spot after skating a clean short program. She finished the competition in a frustrating nineteenth.

When Morrissey returned to the Canadian Championships the following year in Kitchener, she finished a creditable second to Heather Kemkaran, who'd ascended to the top of the Canadian women's podium in 1978 after Lynn Nightingale's retirement. Things got ugly very quickly when the CFSA made the announcement that they were sending Kemkaran to the Olympics (no shocker there) but bypassing both Kemkaran and Morrissey to send twelve year old bronze medallist Tracey Wainman (who had been the novice champion in 1979) to the World Championships in Dortmund, West Germany.

Skaters were informed of the decision by letter. Heather Kemkaran's, a January 25, 1980 typewritten invitation to compete at the Games from CFSA President Charles Dover read: "The CFSA made a strong presentation to the Canadian Olympic Association on your behalf to achieve an invitation for your attendance at the Olympic Games and have assured the C.O.A. that you will place in the top half of the competition. In my opinion, your objective should be to place in the top ten at this event... In addition, I would invite you to act as the alternate entry to the ladies competition at the World Championships in Dortmund, West Germany... I would appreciate your full co-operation as a member of the Canadian team to the Olympic Games. Your experience and position as our Senior Ladies Champion will be relied upon by all attending to generate a good team spirit which will be to the benefit of all Canadian competitors at the Games." No pressure at all, right?

In a January 25, 1980 article in "The Ottawa Citizen", Janet Morrissey told reporters, "I wasn't too surprised. I heard Tracey Wainman would be sent to one of the competitions last summer, when I was skating in Toronto. There were a lot of people behind her. She has a lot of drag... I'm disappointed because I beat her in figures and the combined freeskating. It doesn't seem fair. There's nothing I can do. It's disappointing. It was their decision." Her coach, Cynthia Reid, questioned the CFSA's 'long term decision' regarding Wainman, saying, "What happens to Tracey, and any little girl, when she turns 13, 14, 15? Many things can happen that you can't predict... They chose which one they wanted, but I'm not sure it's good for skating now. It's very discouraging as a coach and it has to be terribly discouraging for Janet. She wants to skate, likes to skate and is a good skater. There are a lot who would love to have her silver medal." David Dore of the CFSA responded by saying, "In the Worlds, we must go forward and look to the 1984 Olympics. We're introducing a new face on the scene and seeing if she'll be able to get into the top 10 so we can send two skaters next year. Heather and Janet have not given us bad results, but they weren't in keeping with the results we wanted. It's a long-term decision." He dismissed Morrissey's claim that the decision to send Wainman to either the Olympics or Worlds was made the summer before as "idle skater talk and speculation" and fairly noted that Wainman beat Morrissey in the free skate five judges to two but had a four to three judge advantage overall.

The results of the Canadian women at the 1980 Olympics and World Championships were interesting. In Lake Placid, Kemkaran finished fifteenth. At the World Championships in Dortmund, Wainman was fourteenth. Neither skater placed in the top ten at the respective events they competed in but with five skaters that placed higher than Kemkaran either skipping Worlds, retiring or withdrawing from the competition midway through, there was a half decent argument that Kemkaran could have made the top ten in West Germany.

It appeared the CFSA's decision had backfired but when Wainman won the gold at the 1981 Canadian Championships in Halifax and placed tenth at that year's World Championships, many critics appeared to settling in to eat a delicious meal of crow. As we know though, Cynthia Reid was ultimately right. Wainman did suffer through the same growing pains that most young skaters with the weight of the world on the shoulders still do to this day. She didn't make it to the Sarajevo Olympics. She didn't win an Olympic or World medal like Liz Manley. However, she did mount an incredible comeback to win the 1986 Canadian Championships in North Bay, compete and tour professionally well into the late nineties (her last professional competition was the 1997 American Open) and go on to a very impressive coaching career.

The narrative that has traditionally surrounded the controversy over which Canadian women were sent to the 1980 Winter Olympic Games and World Championships over the years has largely excluded the fact that Janet Morrissey most likely wasn't going to Lake Placid whether she defended her Canadian title in 1980 or not. In September 1977, the Canadian Olympic Association voted to approve a new rule called The Top Half Objective. Quietly, the COA had given specific criteria to the CFSA back in 1978 that athletes needed to meet well in advance of being put on any Olympic team.
In a November 10, 1979 article in "The Montreal Gazette", Morrissey acknowledged that her result at the 1979 World Championships didn't meet the criteria and responded with an appeal to the board, saying, "I just heard about them a few weeks ago from my coach, who heard it from somebody else. The whole thing is very disappointing. I've worked for 12 years for this and it now comes down to my appeal to the board." Having an understanding that her only real shot of international competition that year would have been the Worlds and not Olympics, it puts the whole narrative in a different perspective. Ultimately, Morrissey retired from competitive skating in November 1980. She sent Liz Manley a good luck telegram before she competed against Wainman in the short program at the 1981 Canadian Championships.

Announcing her retirement in a Toronto press conference right before the 1981 Canadian Championships, Heather Kemkaran told reporters: "Of course I know who will win. We all know that. They have made it easy for her to win this year... I was told by a Canadian official I had no security going into the championships this year and I would have to skate better than my best. It seems they have their plans as to who is going to be in there and I have no way of changing it." Like Morrissey, Kemkaran focused her attention to her university education. She also did some professional skating on the Labatt's ProSkate tour. Despite being best remembered for the snub, she said in a 2014 interview with Tammy Karatchuk, "I do hope deep in my heart, people will remember me for some of the skating."

In the end, the controversy surrounding who went to Lake Placid and Dortmund in 1980 matters little. We should remember the talent and passion for skating these three exceptional young women possessed... and not the politics of the time. In the skating world, all you really have control over is what you put out there on the ice.

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