Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The 1978 World Figure Skating Championships


Held from March 1 to 6 at the Nepean Sportsplex and Ottawa Civic Centre in Canada's capital city, the 1978 World Figure Skating Championships marked the second time in the seventies that the World Championships were held in Canada - the first being the 1972 World Championships in Calgary. The event, held in conjunction with the Minto Skating Club's seventy fifth anniversary, turned out to be an incredibly exciting one as the defending champions in three out of four disciplines were dethroned, but it was not an event without its problems.


Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's address from the 1978 World Championships program. Photo courtesy Eileen Mortimer.

After the opening ceremonies, there was a posh reception at the city's Rivermead Golf Club where guests were greeted by a live bagpiper and two cardboard cutouts of Mounties... the real Mounties' horses being stolen to little amusement. As a result, the security got beefed up a little bit for the competition itself and the Army stepped in with their jeeps to guard the gates and check points at the event. Legendary coach Carlo Fassi was reportedly upset about having to show his pass to go to the bathroom. Interestingly, the Army even stepped in to help transport and print copies of the results. The lone computer used to calculate the event's results was actually housed in a nearby building. The judge's marks were fed into terminals in the rink then plugged into this computer, printed out and brought back again by soldiers. So much for WiFi, right?


Eager young fans awaiting skater's autographs in Ottawa

The positives of the 1978 event most definitely outweighed the criticisms. There was not only some excellent skating on the ice, but the strong attendance, largely owing to the hard work of event chairman Peter Mumford, resulted in an almost five hundred thousand dollar profit for skater development in Canada. A young Liz Manley, volunteering as a flower retriever, was inspired by the greats of the seventies. Also, there was a greater deal of optimism among the skaters after the ISU had banned Soviet judges in light of some (how shall we say) questionable work at the previous year's Worlds.

THE PAIRS COMPETITION


The pairs competition in Ottawa proved to be yet another win for the Soviet pair of Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev. It was Rodnina's tenth win at the World Figure Skating Championships and in doing so, she tied Ulrich Salchow and Sonja Henie's singles records. Despite making history, the Soviet pair had quite a time with the doping afterwards, reportedly having to drink glass after glass water for well over an hour after the event to produce enough urine for testing. Rodnina admitted in a March 9, 1978 "Ottawa Citizen" article that their free skating performance wasn't their best but that the doping ordeal was in fact "the most difficult task of the competition."

The silver medal went to the East German pair of Manuela Mager and Uwe Bewersdorf and the bronze to none other than Americans Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, who were audience favourites in Ottawa. Canada's sole representatives, Brantford's Lea-Ann Jackson and Cambridge's Paul Mills, just missed the top ten in eleventh place after Canadian Champions Sherri Baier and Robin Cowan were forced to withdraw pre-competition due to a ruptured calf muscle in one of Baier's legs that was plagued by tendinitis. The girl simply couldn't have caught a break if she tried in Ottawa. She also had a bandaged wrist which had been broken four times, was recovering from the flu and had a pulled groin muscle. Whoever thinks pairs skating is easy is kidding themselves.

Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. Photo courtesy Eileen Mortimer.

1953 World Champion Mr. John Nicks, the coach of Tai and Randy, waxed poetically on the current state of pairs skating in an interview with Donna Gabeline. Referring to the 'rag doll' pairs emerging from Communist countries during the seventies, Nicks said, "'It's not a pair. It's a team of one and a half. I think I'll go to the NBA and get a seven-foot basketball player and teach him to skate. This athleticism is getting out of balance. They are forgetting about appreciation of music and unison in size and line. There are very few skaters around who have the strength of character of a Toller Cranston. We don't see much originality these days because everyone is concentrating on perfecting moves already around. I just hope Tai and Randy don't fall into the trap of being like everyone else." 

THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION


The ice dance event in Ottawa marked a changing of the (skate) guard. After the three compulsory dances (the Starlight Waltz, Tango Romantica and Kilian) and Paso Doble OSP, twenty two year old Natalia Linichuk and twenty seven year old Gennadi Karponosov had managed to pull off a pretty convincing lead over defending World and European Championships Irina Moiseeva and Andrei Minenkov... a lead they carried right through the free dance which accounted for fifty percent of the total score.

Marina Zueva and Andrei Vitman. Photo courtesy Eileen Mortimer.

Lynn Copley-Graves' wonderful book "The Evolution Of Dance On The Ice" recalled, "In the free dance to one cut from 'West Side Story', Irina ignored the plot and died on Andrei's knee at the end as he moved dramatically around the rink, starting the fad for deaths on ice. She held the pose too long and they collapsed, turning the drama to comedy and losing, forever, the title."

There was a bit of the usual see-sawing among the other top couples, with Hungarians Krisztina Regőczy and András Sallay finishing third after the compulsory dances, losing that spot to Britons Janet Thompson and Warren Maxwell in the original set pattern dance and then ultimately claiming the bronze with a strong free dance effort. Maxwell joked to one reporter, "I'm a bookie in London. Want to make a bet on a horse, luv?"

Newly crowned Canadian Champions Lorna Wighton and John Dowding went back and forth from fifth to sixth to fifth in the compulsory dances, finished sixth in the original set pattern and despite a fifth place free dance remained in a close sixth behind the Czechoslovakian team of Liliana Řeháková and Stanislav Drastich. The Canadians, who were praised by the "Globe and Mail" as having "managed to look like they were courting in a good, staid Canadian way" finished ahead of the third Soviet team, who Copley-Graves explained "used dramatic, posed moves of the type frowned upon by the new rules while interpreting fast-paced Congo march music with drums and cymbals." An early precursor to the Duchesnay's "Savage Rites" perhaps?

THE MEN'S COMPETITION


The big news in the men's competition in Ottawa didn't even come from any of the medallists. Canada's Vern Taylor made history by completing the first triple Axel in competition. It wasn't a beauty by any stretch of the imagination but then ISU President Jacques Favart and a technical committee reviewed videos of the jump after the fact and decided to recognize Taylor's effort as a historic first. On his contribution to skating history, Taylor then remarked, "There (was) so much momentum and I was going so fast it was difficult to stop. Now that I've done it, it will just be like doing a double Axel." Of thirty or forty attempts in practice, Taylor had only landed approximately five before pulling off his 1978 feat. A fifteenth place finish in the compulsory figures and twelfth place in the short program kept him well out of the mix and despite landing the triple Axel, Taylor finished out of the top ten in twelfth place overall. He wasn't the only man attempting the jump in Ottawa. Japan's Mitsuru Matsumura was tackling the jump in practice, as was West Germany's Rudi Cerne.


Among the leaders, the men's event was actually a fascinating one in 1978, with a great deal of movement. Charlie Tickner of Denver, Colorado was one of the earlier skaters to recognize the value of sports psychology. He began undergoing hypnosis in 1973 and stated in 1978, "I use it every day to build up my confidence, convince myself that I'm going to skate well. It's just a few words I repeat to myself in the morning when I get up, before I'm fully awake." The hypnosis paid off in a four triple free skate and gold medal for Tickner but interestingly, he didn't win any single phase of the competition. The school figures (the counter, forward bracket and back loop) were won by defending World Champion Vladimir Kovalev, the short program by East Germany's Jan Hoffmann and the free skate by Great Britain's Robin Cousins. Ultimately, Hoffmann would claim the silver, Cousins the bronze and Kovalev, who struggled in both the short program and free skate, would drop off the podium entirely and wind up in fourth.


Eighteen year old Canadian Champion Brian Pockar of Calgary would finish in tenth place, one spot ahead of a young Scott Hamilton. In his book "Landing It: My Life On And Off The Ice", Hamilton reflected, "Not bad for my first time out. Considering a year earlier I was watching the competition from home after finishing ninth at Nationals, this was a quantum leap for me." Even without Soviet judges on the panel, some of the results remained controversial. When Kovalev received marks between 5.2 and 5.8 for a rather lacklustre short program, the audience in Ottawa got their 'boo' on.

THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION


In the women's competition, the results were all over the place. Starting the competition with a decisive lead, seventeen year old Anett Pötzsch of East Germany wasn't able to beat eighteen year old American Linda Fratianne in either the short program or free skate but she was able to coast to victory overall, leaving Linda to settle for silver. In a March 11, 1978 article in "The Hour", Pötzsch rejected the implication that her free skating performance was overly cautious: "I did not skate conservatively. I gave it my best because there were only a few points between me and Linda. If I had not given it my best I would not have made it."

Linda Fratianne practicing her figures in advance of the competition

Like Tickner in the men's event, Italy's Susanna Driano (who was actually born in Seattle but skated for Italy under dual citizenship) won her medal - a bronze - by way of flip-flopping results. She didn't finish in the top three in any phase of the competition, but dramatic switches from phase to phase of the competition from the skaters below her - Dagmar Lurz, Denise Biellmann, Elena Vodorezova, Lisa-Marie Allen and Emi Watanabi - assured her that medal win.


Susanna Driano. Photo courtesy Eileen Mortimer.

Elena Vodorezova had actually won the free skate the year previous in Tokyo. Despite finishing in unlucky thirteenth place both years in the school figures, she wasn't able to put out the same level of performances in the free skating events in Ottawa as she had previously. That didn't stop her from having some fun. In March 1978, "The Montreal Gazette" reported, "She and a couple 13 year-old teammates created a traffic jam in the lobby of the Holiday Inn by getting on the elevators and playing with all the buttons. Now her coach goes along and slaps her wrist if it goes near the control panel."


To no surprise, the skater who actually finished second in the free skate was Switzerland's Denise Biellmann, who was already being hailed as being ahead of her time. Eighteen year old Canadian Champion Heather Kemkaran was twelfth and another eighteen year old Canadian, Cathie MacFarlane of Calgary, wound up in seventeenth place in her first and only trip to the World Championships.

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