Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The 1960 Winter Olympics, Part One: Setting The Stage And The Pairs Competition


"Pave paradise, put up a parking lot." Joni Mitchell beautifully chirped these lyrics in her much loved hit "Big Yellow Taxi". Ten years prior to that song's release, many of the world's best figure skaters gathered at the newly constructed Blyth Memorial Arena in Squaw Valley, California, hoping their dreams would come true. For a select few they did; for many others they did not. After a roof collapse, the Blyth Memorial Arena was demolished in 1983 and replaced by - you guessed it - a parking lot. Under that concrete and out of the past, the tales of the 1960 Winter Olympics beg to be revisited. This week, we are digging deep and excavating some sensational skating stories from the swinging sixties in Squaw Valley:

SETTING THE STAGE

I will be referring to several sources throughout the three parts of this series and I cannot think of a better place to start than with the 1960 Harald Lechenperg book, "Olympic Games 1960 Squaw Valley - Rome"! Lechenperg set the stage wonderfully with a description of the three point five million dollar Blyth Arena: "The stadium itself is a magnificent building with its northern facade decorated with the emblems of the participating nations. Passing through any of the several entrances one crosses a bright spacious vestibule which takes up the whole width of the glass-enclosed northern side. The vestibule is also decorated with emblems, with the dominating colours of golden yellow, muted green and black. The deeply-fluted surface of the steel roof is covered with grey-green plastic tiles. The interior of the arena by comparison gives a Spartan impression. The roof is supported by cables, has a 300-feet span, and rises 89 feet... All around the rink are grandstands, and those on the southern side can be swung outwards to ensure a good view. A vital section of this huge structure is the big freezing plant which has a centralized control system from where the engineers can cover more than 2 1/2 acres of ground inside and outside the stadium with man-made ice... This gives the stadium its complete independence of the weather." Although partially enclosed, the rink still was outdoors and several skaters who competed at that Games have noted that between the wind whipping in and cool temperatures, the assessment of "completely independent of the weather" was perhaps wishful thinking on the part of the builders.

The Canadian Olympic Figure Skating Team in Squaw Valley, California. L-R: Sheldon Galbraith (coach), Barbara Wagner, Bob Paul, Wendy Griner, CFSA President Granville Mayall, Maria and Otto Jelinek, Sandra Tewkesbury, Donald Jackson, Donald McPherson

Separate outdoor practice rinks were set up, as the Blyth Arena was a multi-purpose venue at those Games that simply couldn't accommodate daily training sessions for the skaters competing. Skaters unaccustomed to acclimatizing to higher altitudes had a rough go of practices and in many cases, the free skating competitions as well. Though the last Olympic Games to hold figure skating competitions in an outdoor rink, it was the first to offer (scant) television coverage. In his 2010 interview on The Manleywoman SkateCast, Bob Paul noted "A friend of my partner was in Lausanne last year and found (a film), I don’t know if the ISU had it or something, so now we have the entire performance on a DVD. Walter Cronkite introduced us, and then Bud Palmer talked us through the entire program. After we won, and we critiqued it. I also have a silent film that I bought, which I thought was going to be the whole performance but it wasn't, but it has the warm-ups and also when we stopped."

The Athlete's Oath was read by none other than Carol Heiss and the chairman of the Pageantry Committee who coordinated all of the ceremonial arrangements was none other than Walt Disney himself. Way to set up a fairytale!



THE PAIRS COMPETITION



Although there was certainly support for German pairs Marika Kilius and Hans-Jürgen Bäumler and Margret Göbl and Franz Ningel and the Soviet married couple of Nina and Stanislav Zhuk, the odds on favourites were of course the three time and defending World Champions Barbara Wagner and Bob Paul.

Billed by North American media as practical shoo-ins for the Olympic gold, the pressure on the two was immense. Bob, who had started skating at age ten to overcome non-paralytic polio, was Canada's flag bearer at both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. The Opening Ceremonies, held the night before the pairs competition, might have served as a welcome distraction but in reality placed even more stress on the pair. Coach Sheldon Galbraith began to notice signs of strain in Barbara the night before. In David McDonald's 1981 book "For The Record - Canada's Greatest Women's Athletes", Barbara recalled, "what I used to do was take a book and start reading, because there is nothing you can do by panicking, and you may as well not get upset. Sometimes I wasn't really reading. The other competitors try to put pressure on you, and I would just pick up my book as if I was above everything. No matter what they did to me, I wasn't going to show how much I cared."

The pairs competition - which consisted of a single free skate - was held on the morning of February 19, 1960. Thirteen pairs from seven nations participated. Due to the early hour the event got underway, only about two thousand of the eight thousand plus seats in Blyth Arena had bodies in them when the event first began. By the conclusion, seven thousand were filled. During the warm-up, a collision between American pairs skaters Ila Ray and Bill Hadley Jr. and one of the Soviet pairs only amplified the nervous tension that was already building among the skaters.

The first team up were Germans Margret Göbl and Franz Ningel. The couple started strongly but only seconds in, their music stopped abruptly. More than five minutes passed as the organizers worked desperately to repair a defect in the sound equipment. The couple returned to the ice and despite landing a solid set of side-by-side double Salchows, they skated like the wind had been taken out of their sails a little. The judge's marks from 4.7 to 5.5 for technical merit and 4.8 to 5.5 for manner of performance were conservative.

Maria and Otto Jelinek in Squaw Valley

Americans Maribel Y. Owen and Dudley Richards struggled with the altitude and nerves, whereas
teenage Canadian siblings Maria and Otto Jelinek skated one of their best performances thus far. They were as shocked as the spectators when they received conservative marks. Australian Champions Jackie Mason and Mervyn Bower. In his Manleywoman SkateCast interview, Bob Paul recalled, "The Australian team skated right before us, and I don’t know how many days they had arrived before, but they were so wiped out that when they finished they were sitting on the ice by the entrance way, and we almost had to walk over them to get on the ice."


When Wagner and Paul finally did take to the ice to thunderous applause as the seventh pair to compete, the unthinkable happened: they too had their music fail! Varying accounts describe the music issue in Squaw Valley as a technical issue with the sound system itself or "someone bumping the record player" but whatever the case may have been, not exactly what anyone dreams of at the Olympics of all places! In McDonald's book, Wagner recalled that "It may have been the best thing to happen to us. We had gone around the rink once, and had a chance to loosen up." In his Manleywoman SkateCast interview, Bob added, "During our performance, the music jumped a bar or two - enough that I said 'stop', because it would totally throw off our unison... So we stopped and went over to the referee, William Powell, and thank goodness that he was American so there was no language problem. And they had no communication (with the music players) so he had to walk across the ice to the music department, which was a record player in the hockey penalty box. Very sophisticated. And he said, yes, the music did jump, so we got to start again. And we found out many months later that our coach was standing in that music box, and got a little nervous and made a little thing with his elbow. So we think he was the one that did it. Some people now say he did it on purpose, but come on now. It was 10 o'clock in the morning! What freestylists compete at 10 o'clock in the morning? I said to Barbara, that’s our warm-up. We had a five-minute warm-up and that day they hadn't arranged any for the pairs. We just went out and competed."

Despite the pressure on them, the Canadians were (as Bob noted) unruffled by the disruption, skating to the side of the rink and waiting to be announced again. Lechenperg's book describes their performance thusly: "But where the wait seemed to unsettle the German pair, the Canadians managed to turn it to advantage and start for the second time with increased brilliance, maintaining a sparkling tempo and classical poise right to the end of their performance. Classical lifts and perfectly-executed axels alternate with unusual and rhythmically-precise combinations of steps. Their entire program is planned with such harmony and executed with such smooth elegance of movement combined with vigour that even before they had finished they seem certain of the gold medal." Executing not only side-by-side Axels but double toe-loop's also, Wagner and Paul earned first place marks from all seven judges and a score of 80.4, well above the 75.9 score of their teammates the Jelinek's, who were the leaders over the Germans at that stage of the competition.

Germans Marika Kilius and Hans-Jürgen Bäumler

Next of the contenders to skate were defending World Silver Medallists and European Champions Marika Kilius and Hans-Jürgen Bäumler of Germany, arguably Wagner and Paul's greatest competition in Squaw Valley. Although Lechenperg's book does describe the duo's performance in Squaw Valley as "charming, vivacious and competent", it is also noted that the rink's size seemed to hinder the couple. At one point, they grazed the boards with their hips but managed to regain their balance and continue without any major disruption. Good but not great, the Germans had to settle for 76.8 points and second place behind the popular Canadians.

Americans Nancy and Ron Ludington

American married pair Nancy and Ron Ludington delivered an exceptional performance in Squaw Valley. Despite having the reputation power of being the bronze medallists at the 1959 World Championships and delivering a performance that many felt was superior to the Germans, they finished in third place... just 0.6 shy of the second spot. Making their success even more extraordinary was the fact that Nancy had a bad flu at the time. She reportedly needed oxygen after coming off the ice!

The final contenders were the elegant Soviet pair of Nina and Stanislav Zhuk, the latter acting later in his career as the controversial coach of two time Olympic Gold Medallists Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov. Although their performance was praised for its artistry, a fall by Nina on a side-by-side Axel attempt destroyed any hopes of the three time European Silver Medallists making the Olympic podium.

Canadians Barbara Wagner and Bob Paul

Ultimately, Wagner and Paul would become the first North American pair to claim the Olympic gold medal. To this day, they are only one of two pairs team to hold that distinction - the other being Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, who of course gave the performance of the night at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and  eventually earned their rightful place in the history books next to their 1960 predecessors. Bob recalled, "It was a long, hard haul, but that's what any competitive sport is. The timing was very good for us, but we've always been appreciative of that." The silver in Squaw Valley was earned by Kilius and Bäumler; the bronze by the Ludington's, followed by the Jelinek's, Göbl and Ningel and the Zhuk's. Future two time Olympic Gold Medallists Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov (then twenty four and twenty seven) were an unceremonious ninth. A report of the event in "Skating" magazine felt the Soviets "showed [a] lack of skating ability and experience." I bet that writer ate their words four years later!

Stay tuned for the next part in the series... where everything will be coming up Carol Heiss as we revisit the women's competition from the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics!

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2 comments:

  1. An excellent account of the pairs competition at the 1960 Olympic Winter Games. The main problem with Blyth Arena was the open south side that allowed sunlight to land on portions of the ice. This created differing surface conditions between shaded and unshaded parts of the ice sheet. The organizers attempted to mitigate this by hanging vertical ropes to block the sun but it was only partially successful. The brown rope curtain can be seen in the top photo.

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    1. Thanks for reading David and for adding this really important point to the story! Cannot have been ideal conditions whatsoever but then again, a Winter Olympics in 1960 - in California - is quite unusual in itself.

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