Keep the Flame Alive logo and text stating Chamonix 1924. It includes a picture of a female figure skater jumping in the air.

Chamonix 1924: Figure Skating

Release Date: March 26, 2024

Every year, Keep the Flame Alive takes an in-depth look at a past Games. This year we’re exploring the Winter Olympics of Chamonix 1924, as it is the 100th anniversary of the very first Winter Olympic Games.

Figure skating has been the most popular Olympic sport on ice even before there was a Winter Olympics. Skaters first competed on Olympic ice during the Summer Olympics of London 1908. London was one of the few European cities with an indoor skating rink so the competition could be held in conjunction with the summer events. So of course when the Olympics showcased winter sports for the first time at Chamonix, France, in 1924, figure skating was a showstopper.

 

The figure skates of the 1920s look similar to today’s skates. The boots then came higher up on the calf and were much softer and more flexible. In 1914, blades made from a single piece of steel were invented. This allowed the blade to be tapered into a pointed edge. The toe pick of its day, it lacked the saw like teeth we see in modern skates. Video footage of the skating from 1924, you will see skaters spin on the tips of their blades using the point to spin on, like a top. Skaters also keep their arms and legs mostly bent because balance was much more difficult in these skates.

 

There were three figure skating events at Chamonix 1924: men’s, women’s, and pairs. Women’s and pairs were the only events that included women at these Olympics. Thirteen women participated in figure skating–just 5% of the 250 athletes at Chamonix.

 

Individual events included two parts, compulsory figures and a free skating program. Compulsory figures counted for 60% of the final score, and results were based on the placement system. In other words, the score only mattered in how it placed you in comparison to other skaters. Figure skating was changing rapidly at the time, with the introduction of new jumps and moves, and new ideas about music and choreography.  Some wanted to focus on compulsory figures, others wanted to expand the idea of what the free skate should include. Bands accompanied the routines, playing mostly marches that just kept time. The controversy between technical prowess vs. artistic elegance started early.

 

Swede Gillis Grafstrom won the Olympic title in Antwerp and was the best skater of the era. Originally training with Ulrich Salchow, Grafstrom excelled at compulsory figures but also brought elegance and musicality to the free skate. Grafstrom invented the flying sit spin and became master of the axel. His greatest rival was Willy Bockl of Austria. Bockl skated with greater power and was the first to land a double loop. Olympic judging controversies started early in figure skating.The two Austrian judges put Bockl first throughout the competition, allowing the more traditional skater to win the free skating portion. Grafstrom’s scores from the compulsory round were so strong, however, that he ended up with the second of his three Olympic gold medals. Bockl won silver and Georges Gautschi of Switzerland earned bronze.

 

The women’s competition is most often remembered for the debut of 11-year-old Norwegian Sonja Henie. She finished last among the eight competitors, but Henie had much more of her Olympic story to come. Coached by Gillis Grafstrom, Henie went on to win the gold at the next three Olympics, becoming the most famous and influential skater of the Pre-WWII era.

 

At Chamonix, the favorite in the ladies’ competition was the figure skating queen of the 1920s, Herma Planck-Szabo from Austria. Szabo was the first skater to perform in a short, rather than ankle-length, skirt. All of the judges ranked Szabo first, so she easily won the gold medal. American Beatrix Loughran won silver, and would go on to win a bronze in 1928, and another silver in 1932, though this time in the pairs event with Sherwin Badger. Brit Ethel Muckelt excelled at figures but finished 6th in the free skate; however, that was good enough for the bronze.

 

The pairs’ competition had many of the same skaters from the two singles’ events. This included the British pair Ethel Muckelt and Jack Paige, and the Canadians Cecil Smith and Melville Rogers. Four of the pairs were married couples and another married later. Gold went to Helene Engelman and Alfred Berger of Austria, silver to Ludowika and Walter Jakobsson, and the French pair Andree Joly and Pierre Brunet took bronze (Joly and Brunet were the couple who married later).

 

While the ordinal scores for gold were clear, the rest of the rankings were all over the place. The Jakobssons’ ordinals range from 1st to 4th, and Joly and Brunet from 2nd to 6th. Even 4th place finishers Muckelt and Page received a first place ordinal from–not surprisingly–the British judge.

 

Joly and Brunet went on to win gold in 1928 and 1932. They later emigrated to the United States and became coaches. Their students include legends from the next two generations of American skaters, Carol Heiss and Scott Hamilton.