Illustration from January 1924 issue of "Sports de Neige et de Glace"
Held from January 25 to February 5, 1924, Semaine Internationale des Sports d'Hiver (International Winter Sports Week) in Chamonix, France was organized by the French Olympic Committee and originally grouped in with the 1924 Summer Olympic Games in Paris. Only after the fact was it recognized as the first Winter Olympic Games. Hailed in the February 13, 1924 issue of "La Presse Sportive" as "the most grandiose and most comprehensive demonstration of winter sports ever organized", the Games actually only garnered minimal public interest at the time. One journalist in "Les Jeunes" complained, "Despite the reminders made in the newspapers, the Winter Games in Chamonix do not seem to attract the general public." One suspected reason was the distance from the Mont Blanc railway stops to many of the event venues. That said, the twenty nine figure skaters from eleven nations who attended were determined to show their best.
Theresa Weld Blanchard
Twenty three year old Beatrix Loughran travelled to Europe with the U.S. Speed Skating Team aboard the Dollar Line steamship President Monroe. It was a very rough passage and many of the athletes travelling were seasick the entire time and rarely able to even make it up on deck. Thirty year old Theresa Weld Blanchard, thirty eight year old Nathaniel Niles and esteemed judge Charlie Morgan Rotch followed two weeks later on another steamer. Reigning U.S. men's champion Sherwin Badger was forced to withdraw at the eleventh hour as he was unable to arrange his business affairs to permit him to travel abroad. Steamship and railroad fares were covered by American Olympic Association; all other expenses were covered by club fundraising and the skaters themselves. Despite assurances to USFSA President Henry Wainwright Howe that Rotch's application to judge would be approved, it wasn't. He was instead appointed as referee for all events... leaving North American skaters with zero representation on any judging panel.
Beatrix Loughran with members of America's Olympic speed skating team
Cecil Smith and Melville Rogers
Only nine days before the Olympic Games commenced, the 1924 European Championships were held in Davos, Switzerland. At that time, competitions in women's and pairs skating were not included, so only men's skaters were affected by the quick turnaround between the two events. Most of the top men of the era made the decision to participate in only one of the two events. Only Great Britain's Jack Ferguson Page and Switzerland's Georges Gautschi made the trek from Switzerland to France to participate in the Games. Notably, the reigning European and World Champion Fritz Kachler of Austria opted to forgo the Chamonix event... one he likely would have medalled at!
Skaters found the ice conditions to be less than adequate when they arrived in Chamonix. Forced to skate in a square rather than rectangular outdoor rink, almost every skater had to adjust their programs to fit the surface at the last minute. After a few days of trying to rework their free figures and dance steps to the space, the weather turned warm and figure and speed skaters alike were herded into a tiny indoor curling rink to practice simultaneously!
Feg Murray cartoon of Nathaniel Niles
A lack of standardization in judging was another key problem. With nothing more than vague guidelines to judge skaters who performed in a wide range of styles, the more glaring issue than blatant national bias was the fact judges would tend to highly favour skaters performing in styles to which they were accustomed. One Monsieur Japiot educated spectators about what to look for when watching school figures, free skating and pairs performances in the January 17, 1924 issue of "Sports de Neige et de Glace". He warned spectators against skipping the school figures and then fussing when the most exciting free skaters didn't win. He also made it very clear that a live orchestra would be used to accompany all free skating programs and that music was "an important part of this kind of skating." The music situation at first caused a bit of hoopla. Nathaniel Niles noted, "An attempt was made to transmit through a loud speaker music played within the pavilion which, though
obviously a failure, could not be corrected... [Later] the orchestra was placed where it could be heard direct."
Georgette Herbos and Georges Wagemans of Belgium
The skater's lodgings also left much to be desired. The British contingent was initially put up in what British skater Mildred Richardson recalled as "a horrid little Pension - one bathroom on the ground floor, only 2 or 3 loos - and in addition we were expected to share bedrooms, which was not at all a popular idea as we were spoiled in those days." The Britons made such a fuss they were moved to the more comfortable Chamonix Palace, which was miles from the rink. American speed skating official Allan Muhr bemoaned that the food at this hotel was "entirely unsuited for training." The Canadians, who stayed in another venue at the Olympic Village constructed alongside Colombes Stadium, found the pastries and bowls of coffee they were served to be much more pleasing.
Theresa Weld Blanchard, Nathaniel Niles, Herma Szabo and hockey player Herb Drury in Chamonix. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.
If the ice, lodgings, food, music and judging were cause for complaint, the logistics were downright laughable. In her memoir, Mildred Richardson recalled, "Figure skaters - men and women - had to share the same small dressing room with the hockey boys and speed skaters, who usually stripped to the buff when changing. It was, to say the least, somewhat embarrassing. However, the Canadians came to our rescue and rigged up a somewhat rickety screen for us 'dames'. In addition, in order to save ourselves a long walk along a cinder path to the rink - skate guards not being as sturdy as they are today - we had to go through the men's massage room. So loud cries heralded our approach, in order to spare everyone's blushes!"
Helene Engelmann and Alfred Berger
Held in very good weather conditions, the pairs competition was full of excitement and controversy.
Perhaps most controversial was Mildred and T.D. Richardson's shadow skating program, which wasn't well-received by the judges... including their own judge Herbert Ramon Yglesias. Before they even competed, Yglesias told the Richardson's they would be last on his card as he didn't consider what they were doing to be pair skating. Interestingly, Yglesias placed Ethel Muckelt and Jack Ferguson Page, who also included shadow skating in their program, first.
French illustration of Helene Engelmann's mother in Chamonix. Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France
Ethel Muckelt and Jack Ferguson Page
|Theresa Weld Blanchard and|
In last place after figures was an eleven year old Norwegian skater who wasn't even supposed to be in Chamonix to start with. Originally, the Norwegians had not planned to send any figure skaters to the Games, but when wealthy furrier Wilhelm Henie offered to pay his daughter's way and act as her coach, they acquiesced. At first, little Sonja wasn't well-received. Performing a spiral, back scratch spin and sit spin on the tiny curling rink which was used for practices, one skating purist turned to T.D. Richardson and asked "What is this? A puppet show? A circus?" He replied, "No... THAT is the future of skating."
The eight women vying for gold in Chamonix had to perform their four minute free skating performances in very cold temperatures. The winds were high and the ice very hard and brittle. Nathaniel Niles admitted that Loughran "did not nearly do herself justice and doubtless was affected to a great extent by conditions." Weld Blanchard included clean Salchow and loop jumps in her performance but too was effected by the wind. Szabo appeared unphased by the weather conditions as she was used to training outdoors in Vienna. Niles likened her free skating to that of Ulrich Salchow: "A strong deliberate skater [with] little delicate touches." The Official Report of The Games reported that her free skating performance "was clearly the best of the lot, featuring the spread eagle and spins standing and sitting."
Unsurprisingly, little Sonja Henie proved to be a big hit with the audience. The fact that she more than once went over to her father during her free skating performance to ask him what to do next only endeared them to her more. That said, skating historian Gunnar Bang hinted that the marketing of a "ready-made product" had already begun in Chamonix and that Papa Henie was already at that point very much trying to drum up support for his daughter. In her book "Wings On My Feet", Henie proclaimed, "I don't like to think what might have happened if I had become Olympic champion at the age of ten. It might have gone to my head, and surely would have robbed me of the fun and fine training of four years' work toward that goal."
Ultimately, Szabo claimed the gold unanimously by quite a landslide. Loughran, some twenty points behind on almost every judge's scorecard, was unanimously second. The battle for bronze was extremely close, with Muckelt claiming three thirds, Weld Blanchard two and Andrée Joly one. Muckelt ultimately defeated Weld Blanchard by only one ordinal placement to take the final spot on the podium. To this day, Muckelt (who was thirty eight in Chamonix) remains the oldest female figure skater to have ever won an Olympic medal. Despite Szabo's impressive performance, it has been claimed that she actually believed she had lost to Loughran and her father had to go retrieve her from her hotel when the Austrian anthem was being played. Her win in the women's event and her cousin Helene Engelmann's win in pairs with Alfred Berger marked the first and only time in Olympic history that members of the same family won gold medals in different figure skating disciplines at the same Olympic Games. Quoted in the documentary "ISU: 100 Years Of Skating 1892-1992" Szabo reminisced, "We weren't dressed as nicely. Now they all wear the same outfits. We wore what we had, but we were four people, my father who accompanied me carried the flag, and the trainer, who was with us, carried the Austrian sign. We were four people and we brought home four medals. I was so fascinated by the Americans and the Canadians. We had never seen them before. We were so shy that we almost forgot to train."
Gillis Grafström of Sweden, the devilishly handsome defending Olympic Champion, was suffering from a nasty case of the flu and a high fever. Between each of the twelve figures, he took a big swig of brandy to keep going. Mildred Richardson reminisced, "No one else but Grafström would have been able to stand up, let alone skate, after such medication but as always, he skated immaculately." Immaculately perhaps, but not without challenges. Mildred's wife T.D. recalled his loop figure "where he travelled around the last three loops in a crack about an inch deep. No other skater could have accomplished it."
Nathaniel Niles, Josef Slíva, Gillis Grafström and Freddy Mésot during the men's school figures. Charlie Morgan Rotch photograph, courtesy "Skating" magazine.
After the scores were tallied, Gillis Grafström had amassed a healthy lead over Willy Böckl of Austria and Georges Gautschi of Switzerland. Far back in seventh, Canada's Melville Rogers had all but removed himself from the medal equation.
Though not in his best form, Grafström managed to include an Axel, Salchow and two loops in his free skating performance. Skating historian Gunnar Bang noted that he skated "with a verve and security that [elicited] general enthusiasm [but] once, he nearly fell." Nathaniel Niles asserted "His form, if anything, seemed to me better than ever than ever and with his returning strength, two or three days more would have seen him at his best. To my mind, he is ideal; he skates in as correct form as I have ever seen, in absolutely his own way, as [Bror] Meyer or [Willie] Frick do the same in their way. All his movements seem most natural, yet no part of his style is incorrect."
The February 13, 1924 issue of "La Presse Sportive" went so far as to call Grafström "a modern god of skating." Yet, it was the athletic Böckl who narrowly edged the talented Swede in the free skate. Known for his high-flying Axels, the Austrian earned two first place marks overall... from the two Austrian judges on the panel. The Czechoslovakian judge voted for his country's sole entry, Josef Slíva, and the Swiss, British and two French judges placed Grafström first overall, ensuring him his second Olympic gold medal win. American Nathaniel Niles, who placed one spot ahead of Melville Rogers overall but finished ninth in the free skate, deducted his finish was perhaps owing to the fact that his program didn't include spins or a spread eagle. Reporting back on the event to his fellow Americans, he concluded, "Most in this country, I think, will agree that unless done extremely well they add nothing to the beauty of a performance." A lot has certainly changed in the last century.
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