The 1949 World Figure Skating Championships


Held from February 16 to 18, 1949 in Paris, the 1949 World Figure Skating Championships marked the first time an international figure skating competition was held in France since the country had hosted the 1936 World Championships where Sonja Henie had won her tenth and final World title. The event was hosted at the glass-roofed Palais des Sports, an elegant indoor rink with seating for fifteen thousand.

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

The American team stayed at the Hotel Napoleon, near the The Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile. They had a difficult time making their way to the Palais des Sports, as many taxi drivers refused to travel across the Seine at night. Social events held in conjunction with the competition included a reception at the Hôtel de Ville hosted by officials from Paris' municipal assembly and a tour of the city.

A series of miscommunications led to Julie and Bill Barrett boarding a last-minute flight to Paris to participate in a demonstration of ice dancing, only to arrive and find that none of the ice dancers from other countries had arrived, save two Austrian couples whose efforts, Cyril Beastall remarked, "could only be described as a travesty of ice dancing - they would have been entertaining in [England] as ice comedians and nothing more." For whatever reason, the French crowd loved the Austrian couples and the only way that the Barrett's were able to get more that polite applause out of them was by performing their pairs program.

Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine

Interestingly, the pairs and women's competitions were judged by a panel of seven and the men's event by a panel of five. As the 1949 Canadian Championships were scheduled at the exact same time, Canadian skaters didn't make the trip and the absence of Barbara Ann Scott (who had retired from competition) was certainly felt. 

The show went on without Canada's Sweetheart and the event turned out to an incredibly memorable one. Let's hop in the time machine and take a look back at the skaters and stories that made this competition so fascinating!

THE PAIRS COMPETITION

Andrea Kékesy and Ede Király giving an exhibition in England prior to the Championships. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

Twelve teams from eight countries contested the 1949 World pairs title, which got underway at nine o'clock at night before a packed crowd. Hungary's Andrea Kékesy and Ede Király. who trained in England with Arnold Gerschwiler, were victorious. In "Skating World" magazine, Dennis Bird remarked, "The Hungarians... had the misfortune to skate first and it is a measure of their greatness that they were nevertheless placed first by each one of the seven judges. Including in their difficult program Axels, a double Salchow, a one-handed death spiral, and many intricate steps, they were easily the best pair of the evening. It was annoying that the Press box was so situated that one could neither see the Hungarians' marks as they went up, nor hear them when they were called out over a megaphone."

Andrea Kékesy and Ede Király in Paris. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

The runners-up, American siblings Karol and Peter Kennedy, were huge hits with the Parisian crowd. Dennis Bird noted, "They opened with a startling lift and skated very steadily and neatly throughout their five minutes. They lacked the contents of the Hungarian, however, a fact which probably cost them the title."

Karol and Peter Kennedy

The top two teams were miles above the rest of the field and the battle for bronze proved to be a four-way race separated fittingly by exactly four points. Americans Anne Davies and Carleton Hoffner narrowly edged three brother/sister teams - Hungary's Marianne and László Nagy, Austria's Herta and Emil Ratzenhofer and Great Britain's Jennifer and John Nicks - for the third spot on the medal podium. In "Skating" magazine, Harold G. Storke remarked, "The real surprise of the evening... was the marvelous performance of the Anne Davies-Carleton Hoffner pair. Their sparkle, smoothness and speed left no doubt in the minds of the judges - or of the crowd - that their third place was richly deserved. A little more 'contents' and they will be serious contenders for the title."

The Kennedy's wouldn't have made it to Paris that year had it not been for the interest shown towards their skating by one General Mark Clark. On March 19, 1949, the "Spokane Daily Chronicle" reported, "General Clark, possibly in the interest of having the talented twosome skate for occupational soldiers [stationed] in Europe, arranged to have them flown to Paris via MATS (military air transport service)." Though the children of a successful dentist, the financial strain of having two kids in skating had forced the Kennedy's to approach the owner of a Washington state arena for help fundraising the cost just to get the siblings to D.C. to board the MATS flight.

THE MEN'S COMPETITION

Photo courtesy Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek

With the retirement of Hans Gerschwiler, the World title was really Dick Button's competition to lose. As the defending Olympic and World Champion, the Harvard freshman was a heavy favourite and he certainly didn't disappoint. In the school figures, Button was first on four judge's scorecards. Hungary's Ede Király was second, followed by Austria's Edi Rada, who had earned a first place vote from his country's judge, won the change-loop and performed his three-change-three so well he audience actually applauded. 

In the free skate, the judges were hard-pressed not to make Dick Button top banana. They unanimously gave him marks that once again led him to the top of the podium, including one 6.0 for manner of performance, and were impressed with his lively, athletic free program. After performing the first double Axel in competition the year previous, he'd added another trick to his arsenal - a double loop/double loop combination. In his 1966 book "Konståkningens 100-åriga historia: utveckling, OS-VM-referater, intervjuer och berättelser", Gunnar Bang praised Button's performance in Paris thusly: "What a flight, what color, what tone and rhythm. [Clearly] a guy with humor, in contrast to their competitors, who mostly seemed to be a tad [lacking] in this context." The silver medal went to pairs winner Ede Király (who gave the performance of his life) and the bronze to Edi Rada. In sixth and eighth places were a young Hayes Alan Jenkins and Carlo Fassi.


THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION


With no Barbara Ann Scott in sight, Austria's Eva Pawlik was a heavy favourite to take the gold in Paris. However, in the school figures Czechoslovakia's Ája Zanová took a commanding lead with first place ordinals from five of the seven judges. The Austrian judge placed Pawlik first and the British judge placed Jeannette Altwegg first. Eva's result in the figures was still commendable, considering she was still quite weak after a hospital stay immediately following the European Championships (which she'd won) due to a reported case of acute appendicitis. Ája Zanová's marks for the counter ranged from 5.4 to 5.8, giving a sense of the high standard of the time.

Yvonne Sherman, Helen Uhl and Virginia Baxter

Although American Yvonne Sherman held her own with Europe's best skaters, teammates Virginia Baxter, Andra McLaughlin and Helen Uhl found themselves buried in the standings. Though many of her American teammates opted to take advantage of the convenience of air travel, Virginia Baxter and her mother didn't care for flying, so they had come to Paris aboard the Queen Mary.

Left: Ája Zanová. Right: Edi Scholdan and Eva Pawlik boarding a train enroute to Paris. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Eva Pawlik's son Dr. Roman Seeliger explained, "The difference in points between Pawlik and Zanová was narrow, so Pawlik was still the favourite. Her strength had always lain in the free programme. She was only third in the school figures at St. Moritz one year before. It was the free program that earned her the Olympic silver medal."

While practicing following the figures, Pawlik's broke the heel of one of her skates. Dr. Roman Seeliger claimed, "The judges did not allow her to try the shoes of a companion to get familiar with a new feeling of skating. Sabotage was supposed but not proven. As a result of the shortages in Austria, Pawlik unfortunately had no second pair of skates, so she could not compete in the free programme. That was the greatest disappointment in Eva Pawlik's career."


Ája Zanová won the title with a very fine free skating performance that included a double Lutz jump and Yvonne Sherman moved up to take the silver ahead of Jeannette Altwegg and Jiřína Nekolová. In "Skating World" magazine, Dennis Bird remarked, "[Ája Zanová's]... first jmp will stay in my mind for a long time. It was an Axel, but such an Axel as I have not seen before. She went up about three feet and, like a slow motion film, turned so slowly and gracefully that one had the impression that she was not coming down until she wanted to. It was beautiful. After that, however, her performance was not quite what I expected. With so much at stake, there seemed to be something - was it nervousness? - that held her back. None the less she was very good, and her programme contained many difficult jumps, an Axel-sit spin, a high split, and a Schäfer-parallel." The wonderfully artistic Andra McLaughlin proved to be a huge crowd favourite and an emerging French star named Jacqueline du Bief who moved up from sixteenth to ninth gained attention for a different reason.


Jacqueline du Bief was a delightfully musical skater, whose performance to Rossini's "Semiramide" and Offenbach's "Orpheus In The Underworld" included double Lutz, double loop and double Salchow attempts. Her talent as a free skater unfortunately had the opposite effect, when the coaches of her rivals began to 'take an interest' in her. In her autobiography "Thin Ice", she recalled, "I began to feel the effects of my resistance to the instructors of the big foreign schools. These gentlemen could never see the pupils of other people do well without a certain amount of displeasure, and from that moment they began ‘to take an interest’ in me. When I say ‘in me’ I ought rather to say in my faults, in my mistakes, which they remarked on as forcibly as they could, pointing them out to anyone who might have failed to notice them for themselves. This was certainly not very nice for me but it was encouraging; it was a good sign, and more than any compliments it proved to me that I was beginning to take on some importance and was no longer considered just an uninteresting debutante. It was at the close of these competitions that I received my first invitations to give exhibitions abroad."

Ája Zanová receiving a congratulatory kiss from Dick Button

Most of the most extraordinary stories that came out of the women's event in Paris was that of sixteen year old Beryl Bailey. Though she placed an unlucky thirteenth, the fact she gave an excellent performance in the free skating made her the heroine of the British team - not because she'd skated so well, but that she'd taken the ice at all. Beryl, Joan Lister (who'd been forced to withdraw) and Jeannette Altwegg's mother had all either contracted the stomach flu or were suffering from food poisoning and had spent the last twenty-four hours in bed or 'la salle de bain'. Beryl, a student of Jacques Gerschwiler, had decided to skate at the very last minute and was so sick that she collapsed after performing. Cyril Beastall remarked, "The fact that Beryl... skated as well as before was a revelation - she was certainly not well enough to take the ice, but her actions marked her as a grand little sportswoman."

As all proper competitions do, the 1949 World Championships ended with a party at the Hotel George V. In his book "Dick Button On Skates", Dick Button recalled, "Following the tournament, Pierre de Gaulle, Lord Mayor of Paris, and brother of General Charles de Gaulle, gave a reception for Miss Zanová, Andrea Kékesy and Ede Király, pairs winners, and me."

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