The 1981 European Figure Skating Championships

Snow gently fell, blanketing the historic Tyrolean city of Innsbruck, Austria. The dates were February 3 to 8, 1981, and the event everyone was in town to see was the 1981 European Figure Skating Championships. The fact that the competition was running concurrently with that year's U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Diego meant nothing to skating fans. Back then, the sport had enough of an audience that there was plenty of love to go around. The stands were packed and the venue was brimming with a who's who of figure skating. Officials included Lawrence Demmy, Sonia Bianchetti, Alain Calmat and Pamela Davis. Olympic Gold Medallist Aleksandr Zaitsev was there to watch the proceedings; Olympic Gold Medallist Lyudmila Pakhomova stood at the boards as a coach. Let's take a trip back in our time machine and relive some of the excitement!


Irina Vorobieva and Igor Livosky

The pairs competition in Innsbruck in 1981 had only six entries... the lowest in three decades. Extra ice dance practices were actually scheduled just to give pairs ticket holders their money's worth of entertainment! As the defending Olympic Silver Medallists and World Champions, Marina Cherkasova and Sergei Shakrai entered the competition as the obvious favourites. However, the Leningrad husband and wife team of Irina Vorobieva and Igor Livosky took an early lead in the short program over their more experienced teammates.

In the free skate, Cherkasova and Shakrai got bumped down another peg to third after a very impressive performance from West Germans Christina Riegel and Andreas Nischwitz. East Germans Birgit Lorenz and Knut Schubert and Soviets Veronika Pershina and Marat Akbarov followed, with Britons Susan Garland and Robert Dow finishing sixth throughout the event, despite a move to train in Wilmington, Delaware with Pauline Williams. The previous year's silver medallists, Manuela Mager and Uwe Bewersdorf of East Germany, were injured and did not compete.


Igor Bobrin, Jean-Christophe Simond and Norbert Schramm on the podium

The men's school figures were won by East Germany's Hermann Schulz with France's Jean-Christophe Simond a strong second. However, both the East German and the Frenchman faltered in the short program, which was won to the surprise of many at the time won by West Germany's Norbert Schramm.

Left: Norbert Schramm. Right: Igor Bobrin.

 Although he was fourth in the figures and second in the short program, it was the inventive Igor Bobrin of Leningrad's time to shine in the free skate. With an arsenal of triple jumps, he claimed the gold over Simond, Schramm, Schulz, Jozef Sabovčík and Vladimir Kotin. Briton Christopher Howarth, who would later become a well known British Eurosport commentator, finished eleventh of the twenty two entries.


Left: Denise Biellmann. Right: The women's podium.

Olympic Gold Medallist Anett Pötzsch was named to East Germany's list of entries in Innsbruck, only to be pulled at the last minute. She announced her retirement just prior to the start of the World Championships.

Despite an uncharacteristically conservative free skate with 'only' two triple jumps, Switzerland's Denise Biellmann finally won the European title that had eluded her since her first trip to the event in 1977. She became the first skater from her country since Silvia and Michel Grandjean in 1954 to claim the European title... and the first European women's champion ever from Switzerland.

Sanda Dubravčić of Yugoslavia also made history in the event, moving up from fifth after figures to claim the silver medal. In doing so, she became her country's first - and only - medallist in the history of the European Championships. After placing first in the school figures, Austria's Claudia Kristofics-Binder crumbled in both the short program and free skate, barely hanging on to the bronze. Great Britain's Debbie Cotrill had placed second in the free skate and third in the figures and seemed destined to take the bronze, but a similarly disappointing free skating performance dropped her down to sixth, behind Finland's Kristiina Wegelius and East Germany's Katarina Witt.


Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov. Photo courtesy Eileen Mortimer.

Nineteen teams from fourteen countries sought medals in Innsbruck in 1981. Britons Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean took an ever so slight lead in the compulsories and maintained it in the Cha Cha OSP, despite drawing second in the starting order. Skating to "Fame", "Caravan", "Red Sails In The Sunset" and "Swing, Swing, Swing", they earned six 5.9's and first place ordinals from seven of the nine judges. Their victory marked the first time a British ice dance team had won the European Championships since Diane Towler-Green and Bernard Ford claimed their fourth title in 1969.

In their 1995 book "Facing The Music", Torvill and Dean recalled, "It hardly seemed possible, in a way not right. We could not get away from the feeling that we weren't really better than these giants, that we were still too junior to take the mantle from them. Our victory left us numbed, almost apprehensive that the judges would announce there had been a terrible mistake, and the rightful order would be restored with the Russians once more in their proper place untouchably beyond us." A string of Soviet casualties followed in Torvill and Dean's wake: Min and Mo were second, Olympic Gold Medallists Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov third and the upcoming Soviet team of Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin fourth. Karen Barber and Nicky Slater of Great Britain finished a strong fifth and Marianne von Bommel and Wayne Deweyert, expatriot Canadians skating for The Netherlands, finished seventeenth. From first through last place, the standings remained the same from the compulsories through the free dance, as was fashionable in judging circles at the time.

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":

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