In 1960, four figure skaters from South Africa arrived in Squaw Valley, California, making history as the first athletes from their country to ever participate in the Winter Olympic Games. Sixteen year old Marion 'Penny' Sage and twelve year old Patricia Eastwood placed twenty third and twenty fifth in the women's event, each besting skaters from Australia. However, it was Marcelle 'Cookie' Matthews who captured the attention of the American press. At only eleven years of age, she was celebrated by reporters as the "youngest, smallest and cutest" athlete at the Games. Marcelle and twenty year old partner Gwyn Jones unfortunately placed dead last in the pairs competition, skating to strains of Verdi's "La Traviata". The South African team's results at the 1960 Winter Olympic Games
may not have been extraordinary, but what the media didn't realize at the time was that the back story behind the South African team's participation in Squaw Valley was like something out of a soap opera.
Coach Penny Sage with her students in 1978. Photo courtesy Irvine Green, ISSA Skating News.
Before we get into all of that, a little context! The South African Ice Skating Association (SAISA) joined the ISU in 1938 and remained a member in good standing until 1953, rejoining after a brief lapse in 1955. Though South Africa was expelled by the International Olympic Committee in 1970 because of its policies and laws pertaining to apartheid and the inability of people of colour to obtain equal opportunities in sport, SAISA was never suspended from the ISU, though the topic was brought up at virtually every ISU Congress during the decades it was suspended by the IOC with the same result every time - the majority of members standing by an amendment to the ISU Constitution in 1965 with regard to "non-interference in sport on political grounds". But this was 1960 - long before that hullabaloo - and the scandals taking place internally in South African figure skating at the time were another matter entirely.
Marcelle Matthews and Gwyn Jones
NSA historian Dennis Bird, under his pen name John Noel, wrote an article that appeared in "Skating World" magazine regarding the trials and tribulations of young Marcelle Matthews in her quest to represent South Africa at the 1960 Winter Olympic Games. It painted a negative view of SAISA, and in response the organization's President - one Mr. Gargett - wrote to "Skating World" defending SAISA's behaviour. He stated, "The Association can, without fear of retribution, say its behaviour throughout has been perfectly correct." Had it though? In a large tea chest of Dennis Bird's papers, BIS Historian Elaine Hooper discovered a typewritten letter penned on October 24, 1960. It was written by Armand Perren, who was coaching at the Olympia rink in Johannesburg at the time.
ARMAND PERREN'S LETTER
"At the last National Championship, held in Sept. , competitors had to state whether they wanted to be considered for selection for a team to be sent to the Olympic Games.
The reigning Men's Figure and Pairs Champion for the previous two years, Lennie Mills, duly filled in such a form.
On the day of the Championship, after again retaining both titles, the boy split the partnership with Miss Marcelle Matthews, both being pupils of mine. The parents of Marcelle and the President of the Association were notified of the decision the following day, by myself in front of witnesses, of the dissolution of the pair.
Mr. Gargett, President of the Assoc., was very disturbed about the dissolution, and he informed me that the entire idea of an Olympic team had to be sold to the Olympics Council on these two little skaters, who might make an impression at the Games. He then asked me what could be done, and whether I had any suggestions to make.
Brian and Glenda O'Shea, winners of the junior pairs and Waltz events at the 1958 Natal Championships at the Durban Icedrome
At this request, I proposed to Mr. Gargett that an attempt be made to pair (if we could get the parents to consent) the little girl from the second pair, who were a brother and sister pair from Durban, Glenda O'Shea, who in my opinion was a far superior skater to Marcelle Matthews, with Lennie Mills.
After some difficulty I persuaded the parents to pair the two children, and Mr. Gargett then asked me when the new pair could be seen. Three senior judges were duly sent down a week later to view the pair. I was informed by the Chairman of the Judges Panel (one of the three judges present - Mr. C. West) to carry on with the training, and that I would be informed of the Council's decision.
To our surprise, five weeks later, we read in the daily paper that a team had been selected, nominating Lennie Mills with his old partner Marcelle Matthews for the Olympics. How this could occur some six weeks after the pair ceased to exist surprised all of us here in S.A.
Lennie's parents, on the day of the publication of the team, phoned Mr. Gargett for an explanation as to how the Assoc. could do such a thing, and was informed by Mr. Gargett that it was a Council decision, and that if the boy did not skate wth Marcelle, he would be dropped from the team. The boy was also nominated originally as the Men's representative.
Mrs. Mills reported this to myself and the owner of the rink Mr. D. Sacks, who asked for an interview with Mr. Gargett. At this interview, Mr. Gargett, in front of three witnesses informed Mr. Sacks and myself that pressure had been brought on the Association by Mr. I.G. Emmery, Secretary of the S.A.. Olympics Council for the selection of the team.
Mr. D. Sacks in turn met Mr. Emmery at a Race Meeting and on enquiring how the selection had been made, was informed by Mr. I. Emmery that four names had been forwarded by the Association to the Olympics Council, who were not very well informed about skating affairs, and subsequently the names were accepted.
Note: - At this stage it appeared to us that the Olympics Council had not been informed of the dissolution of the pair, for fear that the Olympics Council may drop the idea of the team which Mr. Colin Ford, an NSA Gold Medallist, and myself, considered unfit at the time, to go to an Olympic event.
Mr. D. Sacks again requested Mr. Gargett to interview him, which Mr. Gargett duly did and arrived with Mr. C. West (Vice-President) and when taxed with his previous statements concerning Mr. Emmery, flatly denied having made any such statements at any time, or to anyone. As these statements had been made before witnesses, and a grave injustice had been done to the boy, Mr. Sacks with his Directors decided to bar the Executive Of The Association, namely, Mr. S. Gargett (President), Mr. C. West (Vice-President), Mrs. B. Ryan (Secretary), until they rectify this injustice.
Neither Mr. Sacks, his Directors, or myself, at any time made any attempt to put pressure on Mr. Gargett to nominate any candidate to the Olympic Team, but he went so far as to offer to pay all expenses for a second pair, or for the boy (which could have been done, as nominations for the Olympics had at the time not yet been closed), to overcome the difficulty of the selection of Marcelle, which Mr. Gargett claimed was a moral obligation, since she had skated with Lennie in two consecutive Championships.
This proposal was ignored and the boy was eliminated.
Mr. Gargett then brought pressure to bear on Mrs. Mills with certain threats concerning the boy's amateur status, and that he may never be able to compete in any event internationally. To this Mrs. Mills replied that if that was the price of the Olympics, she would prefer the happiness of the child rather than be dictated to as to whom he must skate with or not.
My prediction of the fitness of the team was shown in the results of the Olympics, the standard of which I most certainly am aware.
Lennie and Glenda kept on with serious training, and improved so tremendously that I decided to enter them for the British Junior Championships.
We approached the Secretary of the Assoc., Mrs. B. Ryan, for an amateur clearance for the two children to enable them to enter, which was all that was required by the NSA. We were informed by the Sect. that she could not comply with this request as the President was on holiday and the Vice-President was on his way to the Olympics.
As time for nomination for the British Junior was running short we made application to the Durban Branch of the SAISA, of which Glenda O'Shea was a member, being a Durban child, for an amateur clearance stating all details of expenses and stating that Mr. Sacks had offered to pay the air-fare of the children to London. This clearance was sent to the rink here, together with a letter of thanks to Mr. Sacks, by the Durban Branch of the Assoc.
On the strength of this the NSA accepted the children as members of the NSA and entered them for the Junior Championship, but requested us to obtain a further clearance from the Johannesburg branch, who were in closer contact with the children where they were training under me.
The parents experienced great difficulty in obtaining this clearance from Mr. Gargett, and finally appealed to their Solicitor, one Mr. Sanderson (who incidentally is the President of the S.A. Rugby-Football Union) to obtain this clearance. Mr. Gargett then received two letters, one by hand, requesting the clearance, and giving full details of all expenses, and stating that the fares were being paid by Mr. Sacks. Thereupon, Mr. Gargett, after refusing to give a copy of a clearance, either to the Solicitor or to the parents, sent such a clearance to the NSA. The NSA by this time [had] also been informed in writing, the full details of expenses and the manner in which the fares were being paid, by myself.
In due course the children and I left for London, where a week before the Championship (9th April) a letter arrived at the offices of the NSA requesting information, in the form of an enquiry:
Q. Who authorized the children to appear, or to have films taken for a newsreel?
The questions were answered to the NS, who were fully of same already, so were satisfied.
The question of the newsreel was answered that, no-one may request or authorize the taking of a newsreel film, and that there is no rule in either the NSA or the SAISA Constitution, forbidding or requiring a permit for such films.
On the evening of the Championships I was informed by the NSA that a cable had been received from the SAISA, requesting the withdrawal of the children from the Championships, as their amateur status had been withdrawn by the SAISA due to a breach of SAISA rules.
At such short notice the NSA, not knowing the rules of the SAISA, were not in a position, nor did they have the time, to query this request, and so had no alternative but to withdraw the children.
On the return to S.A. by the children, Mr. Sanderson, their Solicitor, who has power of attorney for the children, wrote to the Assoc. requesting the grounds of the suspension, and which rules had been broken. He also requested immediate reinstatement. To these requests he received no reply whatosever.
A few weeks later Mr. Gargett communicated with the parents and asked them to attend an enquiry. To which the parents replied that they would be willing to attended such an enquiry, if they were permitted legal representation, which request was flatly refused by Mr. Gargett, who claimed that they had no right to such representation whatsoever. (There is no rule in the Constititution of this Assoc., concerning such representation at all.)
The children's Attorney then advised them not to attend any enquiry, but to refer the Assoc. direct to him should the Assoc. try to communicate with them.
In the meantime Glenda O'Shea, while still under suspension, was permitted to compete in a Championship held in Durban, under the control of the SAISA, with official judges from Johannesburg.
Shortly after this a newsletter was published by the Assoc. to all members, stating that the suspension of Lennie Mills and Glenda O'Shea from 19/7/1960 was due to their not attending an enquiry, and that they would remain so until such time as they attend such an enquiry. (Since they had been suspended on 9/4/60, what happened to the time between that date and the new date (19/7/60)?
To date, neither the Durban Branch, the Children's Attorney, their parents, or myself, have, after seven months, been informed of which rules the children are accused of breaking, or what the suspension was in aid of.
The only two skaters from the Olympics who were barred from the rink was the pair (Marcelle Matthews and Gwyn Jones). The reason for this was during December the rink organized a carnival in aid of the Rand Daily Mail Children's Xmas Fund (a charitable organization of this newspaper) and amateurs were asked to give exhibitions, the Olympic team included, of which two members agreed and were given the necessary permission by the Assoc., while the Pair (Matthews and Jones) refused saying that they had been forbidden by the Assoc., and the Olympics Council to skate for the rink. To which Mr. Sacks and his Directors replied that if they could not skate for a needy Charity, when their own trip to America was being paid out of public funds, they should do their training elsewhere.
For the last 13 months the Johannesburg skaters have been unable to take tests, although there have been many ready, from prelim to Gold (inclusive). They have missed two Transvaal Championships and one National Championship, which was to be held in Durban this year. The reason being that the Johannesburg branch cannot operate in any of the two rinks in S.A. as facilities to conduct any events had not been made available in Durban either. The Vice-Chairman, Mr. C. West, had also been barred from the Durban rink. The Assoc. is therefore unable to function in any form of ice skating events."
This was all as a result of the Annual General Meeting held in June this year, on a Wednesday, after repeated requests by the Durban members to hold this meeting on a Sunday to enable them to attend and vote had been refused by Mr. Gargett. He and Mr. West without the knowledge of any of the other members had collected some 40 or 50 roller skaters from another town 36 odd miles away, to ensure their re-election. Some members of long standing experienced great difficulty in entering the hall where the meeting was being held, and members of the Speed section who had taken part in the last National Championships of the Assoc., were refused admission altogether. (Durban is over 400 miles from Johannesburg, hence the request to hold the meeting on a Sunday.)
On my return from America at the beginning of this month, where I had been invited to appear on the television programme "This is your life", which was in honour of an old pupil of mine Hans Mauch (known to you as Frack, of Frick and Frack), and where I was reacquainted with Dr. J. Koch, President of the ISU, who I had not seen for many years, I found that the active skaters, parents and all competitive skaters had resigned from this Assoc., leaving them virtually with only a few roller skaters to govern.
The only members to my knowledge who have not resigned are the remaining seven Council members, four members of the Judges Panel, and two skaters (Matthews and Jones) and the roller skaters from Pretoria. Three Council members resigned on hearing the proposal of suspending the children, some time before the British Junior Championships.
On the night of the 23/10/60, a meeting of all active ice skaters took place at the Olympia Ice Rink, and a new Association, with a foundation membership of 150 was formed, at the time of writing this letter the membership was steadily growing. I am informed that no time during the past ten years, did the membership of the Assoc. exceed 100. The name of the new Assoc. is the National Ice Skating Association of South Africa.
Although the Committee who are still hanging on are still affiliated to the ISU, the new Assoc., with the Durban branch, have made application to the ISU, who are conducting an enquiry into the affairs of the SAISA, at the moment, for affiliation.
Now that you have a complete picture of the conditions over here, and can form an opinion, I would be very much obliged to you if you would publish this letter. You may reword it in any way you please, and can sign my name to to it, as I can furnish witnesses proof to substantiate my statements at any time.
Hoping that you are well,
P.S. - The children's Solicitor has in his possession, sworn statements by members of the Assoc. that the Secretary of the Assoc. had declared, as early as December 1959, that the Assoc. would always find a means to stop Lennie from competing in any event internationally. A copy of this letter has been sent to Dr. J. Koch of the ISU."
In 1961, as a result of the ISU's investigation, SAISA was 'dropped' as South Africa's governing body for figure skating and replaced briefly by the breakaway SASA - the South African Skating Association. SAISA was reinstated in 1967, with C.G. West as President.
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