Road To The Olympic Games

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Figure Skating History

A portrait of Jackson Haines, figure skating's founding father, hangs in the Vienna Skating Club. There is a street in Prague named after him.
Norways Sonja Henie won three consecutive figure skating gold medals at the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympics. ((Associated Press))

A portrait of Jackson Haines, figure skating's founding father, hangs in the Vienna Skating Club. There is a street in Prague named after him. And in a graveyard in Finland the epitaph on Haines' tombstone reads "The American Skating King."

Haines brought a sense of theatre and style to the sport. He was unappreciated in his home country, where figure skating adhered to stiff, perfunctory routines, with an emphasis on mechanical figures. In 1865, Haines traveled to Vienna, where the locals adored his ballet-influenced skating style. Haines hired musicians to sit on the ice and perform as he skated waltzes. He integrated costumes, spins, and pirouettes into his routines, developing the international style of figure skating that became the basis for modern figure skating.

As a means of travel, a source of play, a symbol of winter festivity and an expression of creativity and athleticism, skating's history is long and colourful. In 1892, the Internationale Eislauf Vereinigung (now the International Skating Union) was formed to govern the skating clubs and associations across Europe. In 1878, Montreal-born Louis Rubenstein founded the Amateur Skating Association of Canada, the oldest of its kind North America. Canada joined the International Skating Union in 1894.

Rubenstein had studied under Haines in Europe. In 1883, he became the first figure skating champion of the Dominion of Canada and held that title until 1889. He was also the two-time U.S. champion in 1888 and 1889. In 1890, he became the world champion.

Sonja Henie

Skating competitions continued to widen in appeal. From 1896 through 1905, the world championships only included men. A women's division began in 1906. Two years later, men and women competed at the Olympic Summer Games in London.

Since then, the figure skating competition has become a fan favourite at the Olympics, producing many of the sport's stars and legends. Sonja Henie of Norway won three consecutive gold medals at the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympics. Her artistry and flair were unprecedented. In total, she won 10 consecutive world championships, collecting more than 1,000 figure-skating awards.

Scandal and tabloid fodder

Canadians Jamie Sal and David Pelletier were intially awarded silver medals in 2002, but amid a juding scandal, were later given gold. ((Hans Deryk/Associated Press))
There have always been friendly rivalries between skaters, such as the 1988 "Battle of the Brians" between Orser and Boitano. Still, figure skating had remained a largely pleasant sport with the odd tussle over judging and appropriate costumes, especially as two-time gold medallist Katarina Witt of East Germany introduced a sultry presence to the women's competition. But figure skating reached a new level of antagonism, and tawdriness, in 1994 with the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding saga.   In an attempt to prevent her teammate from competing at the U.S. national championship, Harding conspired with her husband Jeff Gillooly to attack and injure Kerrigan. Following practice one day, Gillooly whacked Kerrigan on the knee with a metal baton. Harding won the nationals and qualified for the Olympics, but Kerrigan was given the second spot on the American team, despite her injury. Ultimately, Kerrigan won silver in Lillehammer behind the Ukraine's Oksana Bajul.

After a well-publicized investigation that kept supermarket tabloids busy for months, Harding pleaded guilty to conspiracy and was banned for life by the United States Figure Skating Association. But the elements of intrigue and scandal and the confrontation between the beauty queen Kerrigan and the hard-edged Harding created a new audience for women's figure skating and interest in the sport soared.

Scandal also played a prevalent role in the 2002 Olympics. Canadians Salé and Pelletier were awarded the silver medal in pairs figure skating but many protested that they had been marked unfairly. Figure skaters had long complained that judges vote in blocs and agree on outcomes before the events happen.

When pressed, French judge Marie Reine Le Gougne admitted that she had been coerced into awarding first-place marks to the Russian pair, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. The ISU suspended Le Gougne, awarded Salé and Pelletier gold medals in tandem with Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, and promised to institute judging reforms. At the 2006 Games, judges will use a rigorous judging system designed to prevent fraudulent results.

 

Innovators

Montgomery Wilson was the first Canadian to win a figure skating medal - a bronze - at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics. A host of Canadians followed, including "Canada's Sweetheart" Barbara Ann Scott, who captured gold in the first post-war Olympics in 1948. Canadians Suzanne Morrow and Walter Diestelmeyer competed in the pairs competition and won bronze in 1948. Morrow and Diestelmeyer are best remembered for being the first skaters to perform the death spiral in international competition.

American Dick Button also competed at the 1948 Olympics and was the first to land what was then a spectacular double Axel, a feat that helped him win the first of his two Olympic gold medals. By 1949, he became the first man to hold the European, Olympic, World, North American and United States titles.

Canadian figure skaters have demonstrated great tenacity and personality since Scott's exploits. The list of Canucks who have made their presence felt on the world and Olympic stages is long and notable: Barbara Wagner and Robert Paul, Otto and Maria Jelinek, Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden, Don Jackson, Petra Burka, Debbi Wilkes and Guy Revell, Karen Magnussen, Toller Cranston, Brian Orser, Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini, Elizabeth Manley, Kurt Browning, Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler, Elvis Stojko, and Jamie Salé and David Pelletier.

Americans have also been a dominant force in individual figure skating. A succession of American stars, such as Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Brian Boitano, and Tara Lipinski, have won gold medals. Eastern European figure skaters and ice dancers have also been champions.

Ice dancing debuted at the 1976 Winter Games, with the gold medal awarded to Lyudmila Pakhomova and Aleksandr Gorshkov of the Soviet Union. Two Olympics later, the ice-dancing program was revolutionized by British skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. The pair from Nottingham received perfect marks from all nine judges to become the first non-Soviets to win the event. Over the course of their amateur careers, Torvill and Dean received perfect scores 126 times.

At the 2006 Games, judges used a new rigorous judging system designed to prevent a similar controversy.

Japan's Shizuka Arakawa had never finished higher then eighth at a world championship before scoring an upset victory at the 2004 event. Using that win as motivation, Arakawa decided to compete in Turin, Italy, instead of retiring.

The moves paid off brilliantly as she was the only one of the medal favourites not to fall during the long program, which landed her the gold medal.

Canada's Jeffrey Buttle won his first Olympic medal when he placed third in the men's singles competition, becoming the first Canadian man since Elvis Stojko (1998) to reach the Olympic podium. Buttle concluded his successful career by capturing the 2008 world championships.