The 2018 PyeongChang Olympics mark the 110th anniversary of figure skating’s inclusion in the Olympic program. Regardless of the lack of a formal Winter Olympics in those days, the organizing committee included figure skating at the 1908 London Games. So, how did it happen?
A number of puzzle pieces had to fall into place in order for figure skating to be included in the program for the 1908 Olympics: the right city, the proper venue, and an open-minded organizing committee.
At the conclusion of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) met to discuss the planning for the 1908 Games. Then-IOC President Pierre de Coubertin decreed that, despite having done so at each of the previous Games, the Olympics would no longer be held in connection with the World’s Fair.
Baron de Coubertin – the driving force behind bringing the Games to the modern era – and the IOC decided that Rome, Italy would host the 1908 Olympics. But it was not to be.
Rome decided to give up the right to host the 1908 Olympics after the 1906 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, near Naples. The two-week long eruption in early April was estimated to claim 2,000 lives and destroy 5,000 homes. Italians felt money could be better used to rebuild the area rather than host the Games. Other reports suggest that Italy was planning on relinquishing the Olympics even before the eruption. Once Italy had informed the IOC of their decision, London stepped in as host – with little under two years until the kick-off.
The London organizing committee based their program on the Games of St. Louis (1904), Paris (1900), and Athens (1896), but they kept one main principle in mind: “No competition should be sanctioned which was not practiced by several different nations,” said the official report of the 1908 Olympics. It was for this reason, the report suggested, that sports such as baseball and cricket were not included.
The first artificial ice rink opened in the Chelsea district of London in 1876; even with its small stature, just 24 by 40 feet, the idea took off. In 1896, the first figure skating world championships (men’s only) were held.
The 1902 World Championships in London were the first to be held on artificial ice. Most notably, Florence “Madge” Syers of Great Britain entered the men’s competition since there was no ladies event, and came away with the silver medal. Sweden’s Ulrich Salchow, who invented the “Salchow” jump, won; he would own 10 world titles by the time he retired.
Women were quickly banned from international skating competition. The 1903 British Championships were open to both men and women, though, and Syers took the title ahead of her husband and coach, Edgar, who won the silver. In 1906, a ladies event was introduced at the world championships – Syers won back-to-back world titles in 1906 and 1907.
Only amateur competitors were allowed in the four skating disciplines contested at the 1908 Olympics: gentlemen’s, ladies, pair skating, and gentlemen’s special figures. The rink at Prince’s Skating Club measured 200 by 52 feet of artificial ice. For comparison’s sake, rinks today measure between about 183 to 195 feet in length and approximately 85 to 100 feet in width.
At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, October 28, the ladies compulsory figures competition got underway. From the official report: “It was soon apparent that Mrs. Syers, after a year’s retirement from competitions, is still in a class by herself. The wonderful accuracy of her figures, combined with perfect carriage and movement, was the chief feature of the morning’s skating.” Each of the five judges awarded Syers first place with the free skate still to come.
Later that afternoon, the event continued with the gentlemen’s compulsory figures, which took nearly three and a half hours to complete, despite there only being eight athletes.
The following morning, the gentlemen’s special figure skating competition began; the event never again appeared on the Olympic program. Athletes submitted a list of figures to the judging panel that they would complete, and then were evaluated on their efforts. Russia’s Nicholas Panin won the event, followed by Great Britain’s Arthur Cumming and G. N. E. Hall-Say for silver and bronze, respectively. Salchow and the U.S.’ Irving Brokaw scratched the event.
Thursday afternoon’s events began with the ladies free skate. Syers reigned supreme, winning after a convincing display. The official report documented that Syers “excelled in rhythm and time-keeping, and her dance steps, pirouettes, etc., were skated without fault.” Again, the five judges awarded her first place and the gold medal.
Germany’s Elsa Rendschmidt won the silver. Dorothy Greenhough-Smith of Great Britain claimed the bronze. Also in the field were Elna Montgomery of Sweden and Gwendolyn Lycett of Great Britain.
“The whole of the skating was watched with keen interest, and on the afternoon of October 29, the rink was filled to overflowing with an enthusiastic crowd of onlookers, who witnessed perhaps the most strenuous, delightful and varied display of figure skating that has ever taken place,” the official report recounted.
In the men’s free skate, Salchow struck gold after competing first in the starting order. Though he seemed troubled by the small rink size, he completed cleanly, including edge changes, a single-revolution jump, some marching steps, pirouettes and a notable sitting pirouette, according to the report. Salchow actually didn’t win the free skate (countryman Richard Johansson did), but he had an insurmountable lead to win the gold.
Johansson took the silver and Per Thorén earned the bronze, completing a podium sweep for Sweden. Three other skaters from Great Britain were in the field, plus Brokaw, who finished sixth. Horatio Torromé, who finished seventh, was also selected to skate for Great Britain; however, he was born in Argentina, and represented that country instead. Special figures gold medalist Panin scratched the free skate (many reasons are cited: from disagreeing with the judges to illness).
Pairs skating wrapped up the figure skating competition at the 1908 Olympics, consisting only of a free skate. Reigning world champions Anna Hubler and Heinrich Burger of Germany won the gold medal ahead of two teams from Great Britain. Phyllis and James Johnson, a married couple, took home the silver. Syers and her husband-and-coach Edgar Syers captured the bronze medal, despite reported limited practice time. A fourth pair, from Austria, were chosen to compete also, but scratched the event.
The figure skating events of the 1908 Olympics demonstrated the value that female competitions could bring to the Games and sport overall. As the official 1908 report concludes:
“More events, in fact, might be open to women, whether they are permitted to compete with men or not. They have already competed – successfully, in the case of Mrs. Syers – in international skating meetings. They have competed in skating, archery and lawn tennis in the Olympic Games. Perhaps it may be worth considering whether in future Olympiads they may not also enter for swimming, diving, and gymnastics, three branches of physical exercise in which they give most attractive displays during the Games in London. In rifle-shooting, and possibly in other sports, they may also have a fair chance of success in open competitions. But it is not probably that in any physical exercise they will ever both demonstrate their superiority and also preserve their characteristic charm so convincingly as in such skating as was seen at Prince’s during the Games of 1908.”
The 1912 Olympics were awarded to Stockholm, Sweden by the IOC. Their organizing committee decided to trim down the number of Olympic events and types events they would include in their program – figure skating did not make the cut, probably also partly due to the lack of artificial ice. The “Northern Games,” which ran in 1901, 1905, 1909, and were scheduled for 1913, were also a contributing factor to why skating was not included at the 1912 Olympics. The Games were canceled in 1916 due to World War I, but figure skating returned to the Olympics in 1920 and remains a permanent fixture in the program.