Wednesday, February 16, 2011

SKATING ON AIR Preview #2: Dear U.S. Figure Skating World Team of '61...

The following is another preview, in the form of a letter, to one of the early chapters of my forthcoming book SKATING ON AIR: THE BROADCAST HISTORY OF AN OLYMPIC MARQUEE SPORT. Although my publisher has requested that I refrain from including any text excerpts until the book is actually released (sorry about that), I think you’ll get a good sense of what at least a fraction of the book is about. I’ll be posting more “previews” in weeks to come.


It’s such a big week for the lot of you, and yet of course, conventional wisdom says it shouldn’t be. The Sabena flight that was taking you to Worlds 50 years ago this week shouldn’t have crashed. The championship shouldn’t have had to be canceled. U.S. Figure Skating shouldn’t have had to rebuild their entire elite program, especially in the shadows of a previous decade’s dominance. You should be in your 60s and 70s, perhaps with ongoing coaching careers, standing at the boards alongside contemporaries like Frank Carroll and Carol Heiss Jenkins, marveling at the good and bad ways figure skating has changed through the decades. You should have been here longer—much, much longer.

But you’re not, and instead we remember you with books, with documentaries, with Tara and Sarah and Evan ringing the closing bell yesterday at the New York Stock Exchange. Destiny took a cruel turn on you, and it ultimately paved the way for countless skaters to survive financially in the sport, via assistance from the USFS Memorial Fund. You excelled at a time when figure skating success was still relatively new to the U.S.; when media attention was marginal, especially in an off (read: non-Olympic) year. For a long time I’d see that picture up there of the lot of you, posing on the steps of “that doomed plane,” and wonder if that was the only visual evidence that remained of the World Team. It seemed neither fair nor possible.

And then, through the wonder of YouTube, I discovered a little more.

For as it happened, CBS opted to take the excitement generated by its figure skating coverage the previous year (the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics), and try to extend it into ’61 by way of U.S. Nationals coverage. It was the first time such coverage had ever found its way to a national TV network—a show called ABC’s Wide World of Sports, which dominated the U.S. Championships for over 40 years, was still a few months from making its debut—so there was very little precedent to follow. There were rules, to be sure—no cameras roaming backstage, no cables to be pulled in the Kiss-n-Cry (no Kiss-n-Cry, for that matter), nothing too close-up. Just a scant few, probably very large cameras positioned in the stands, with CBS’ Bud Palmer and a 31 year-old Dick Button commentating at a table nearby.

It was probably one part exciting and three parts nervewracking to know you, the soon-to-be World Team, were going to be featured on CBS’ Sports Spectacular a week or two after the event took place (it wouldn’t have aired live back then). Nowadays, seeing at least 12 cameras covering Nationals is commonplace. I wonder how mind-blowing it would be for you to know that clips from that event can now be seen by millions of people all over the world with the couple of mouse-clicks at a computer screen?

Having seen those clips numerous times as I worked on Skating on Air, I can attest to what a gift they are. Every discipline differed greatly from the way they’re skated now. Basic jumps were less complicated (I only spotted one triple), but the variety and frequency with which they were executed was remarkable. Pairs didn’t do the dramatic lifts we see today, but conversely, I’ve never seen a modern pair do axels that took them right into a pairs camel spin, either. (It’s really cool.) Ice dancers didn’t do curve lifts, dance spins, or twizzles. Men didn’t skate with the fluidity and flair that many do today, but their power and skill was extremely evident.

I could never say it’s easy to watch CBS’ black-and-white, somewhat grainy images, knowing how your story came to an abrupt conclusion just a few weeks after these performances were filmed. But with it being the first time the sport was brought to the masses in a non-Olympic year (and far from the last), I can’t help but give you a bittersweet smile just the same. TV truly preserved history that day… in many more ways than was ever expected. May the 18 of you stay frozen in time forever that way.

(I’ve got the brother-sister pairs team of Ila Ray Hadley and Ray Hadley, Jr. featured as the Clip of the Day. That axel-to-pairs camel spin I mentioned above can be found at the 2:40 mark. They were 11th at the Squaw Valley Olympics, and 2nd at the ’61 Nationals. She was 18 and he was 17 when they perished in the crash.)


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This was your one-size-fits-all promotion, what touring figure skaters have been doing for years.