It’s Women’s History Month, so we’re devoting this episode to the women of Chamonix 1924–all 13 of them.

At the first Winter Olympics, women competed in ladies and pairs figure skating. We take a look at this competition, as well as the men’s event, to learn just how different this Olympic sport was back in the day when Austria was a powerhouse (let’s just say it doesn’t include ice set on a specific Pantone color base).

The competition features Olympic and figure skating legend Sonja Henie in her first Olympics. Entries also include many people who were influential to the history of the sport.

Some film of the figure skating competition still exists. Check out a very young Sonja Henie, Gillis Grafstrom and Herma Planck-Szabo:

The IOC also has a clip of gold medalist Herma Szabo.

Sources for this episode:




Skateguard blog:

Science Friday:

Thanks so much for listening, and until next time, keep the flame alive!

Photo credit: IOC


Note: This is an uncorrected machine-generated transcript and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the audio. Do not quote from the transcript; use the audio as the record of note.

Chamonix 1924: The Figure Skating Competition

Jill: Hello, Olympics and Paralympics fans, and welcome to Keep the Flame Alive’s Games History Moment, where we look at the past editions of the games. All year long, we will be looking at Chamonix 1924, which is billed as the first Winter Olympics.

games and is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2024. I am your host, Jill Jaracz, joined as always by my lovely co host, Alison Brown. Alison, hello. How are you?

Alison: Hello. It’s a little chilly in our story today, but I think we’ll be okay.

Jill: Oh, ice and snow. Here we go. What do you got?

Alison: So March is Women’s History Month.

So we’re going to talk about the women that were in Chamonix. Okay.

Jill: How many? There were

Alison: 13 out of 300 athletes because women were allowed to compete in exactly one sport and two events, ladies and pairs figure skating.

Jill: Not a surprise given this point in history.

Alison: Yes. And several of the women competed in both events.

So you’ve got some overlap of, uh, how many women there were.

Jill: I would love to know what, uh, either a pairs or a singles figure skater today would say to being, having to compete in both events.

Alison: Well, if you remember Kristi Yamaguchi, Skated in pairs at the, she was a pairs national champion, right?

But not at the same time at the same time she was competing in women’s and pairs at the same time. She’s probably the last kind of big star that did that. So it’s a long tradition to do both. But we really don’t see it much anymore. Interesting. We are going to talk about the men as well. Okay. Because their story is pretty interesting.

So let’s start with talking about what the skates of the 1920s look like. They look very much like the skates of today. The boots came up a little higher on the calf and they were soft and very flexible. So they didn’t have that stiffness in the leather. Okay. So that, made them less stable. in 1914 was the first time the blades were made from a single piece of steel and this allowed the blade to be tapered to a pointed edge.

Otherwise known as a toe pick. So the toe pick in the 1920s didn’t have the saw teeth that we see today. It was a single point. So we’re going to post some links to, to videos from 1924 and you’ll see a lot of the skaters pirouette on that tip, like a top. So the style was very different. And because of those soft, flexible boots, you’ll see a lot of bent arms and legs because balancing on that boot was a lot more difficult.

Interesting, won’t see a lot of, uh, Sasha Cohen style extension in these routines from 1924. So at the time, the individual figure skating events included two parts, compulsory figures and a free skating program. The compulsory figures counted for 60 percent of the final score and results were based on the placement system.

Remember Ordinals? Oh, wow. So it didn’t matter what your raw score was. It mattered what your score was in relation to the other skaters. It was out of 10 points, not the 6. 0. We don’t see 6. 0s yet. So if you got a 10 and someone else got a nine, it didn’t matter. It was that you were ahead of the, you got more points than the other person.

And if someone got a 10 and the next ranking person got a six, they would still be one and two. So the competition in Chamonix was held outdoors in the Olympic stadium because of the fluctuating temperature. The ice surface was very uneven. There were puddles. It was wet. There were points in the competition.

All the competitions took place over three days, the 29th, 30th, and 31st of January. Red flags had to be placed on the ice so the skaters didn’t lose track of where they were.

Jill: Oh, that’s really interesting because today you have different points around the venue I would imagine that they look for and spot to.

Alison: This was just a giant sheet of ice. This is the same ice that they’re using for long track, for hockey. It’s just sort of divided off or being competed at different times. And there’s no Zamboni. So we are definitely not seeing a smooth, perfect, Ice surface.

Jill: Which makes me wonder when all of that comes into play further down in history, where we’re and, and where you have your development of figure skating ice versus hockey ice versus speed skating ice.

Alison: So let’s start with the men and Swede Gillis Grafstrom won the Olympic title in Antwerp, where figure skating was part of the sport. Summer Olympics. And he was the best skater of his era. Originally, he trained with Ulrich Salkow, the inventor of the Salkow. And Graftstrom excelled at compulsory figures, but he was also kind of the inventor of artistry.

He had a lot of elegance. He had a lot of musicality. in his performance. He invented the flying sit spin and was the first competitor to master the axle jump. His greatest rival was Willy Bockel of Austria, and he skated with a lot more power and he was the first to land a double loop. At the time it was called, I believe, a Rittenberger.

And to no one’s surprise, Olympic judging controversies started early in this sport. The two Austrian judges put Bachel first throughout the competition, also won the free skating portion of the program. Because not everybody liked Grofstrom’s style, because he wasn’t as traditional as Bachel. But Grofstrom’s scores from the compulsory round were so strong that he ended up winning his second of three Olympic gold medals.

Jill: Wow. And so, that’s Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics, same sport.

And then the next Winter Olympics?

Alison: Correct. He won in 1928 as well. Bakul won silver, and Georg Goksi of Switzerland earned the bronze. So the women’s competition is most often remembered for the debut of a little 11 year old Norwegian girl named Sonja Henie. She finished last among the eight competitors.

Don’t feel too bad for her. Bye. Henie, who was then coached by Gillis Grafstrom, went on to win the next three Olympic competitions and probably was the most famous and influential skater of the pre World War II era. So Sonia Henie is certainly known for her musicality and bringing those dance elements And a lot of that came from her collaboration with Grafstrom.

So they really revolutionized the sport of figure skating. Uh, the favorite in the ladies competition was the figure skating queen of the 1920s, Herna Blank Sabo from Austria. Sabo was the first skater to perform in a short skirt, as opposed to the ankle length dresses that were popular at the time. She was ranked first by all the judges and easily won the gold medal.

American Beatrice Lofgren won silver. She went on to win a bronze in 1928 and another silver in 1932. All of these skaters had incredibly long careers, well into their thirties.

Jill: But they also weren’t pounding as much with as many complicated jumps as you see today.

Alison: Yes. And, Beatrix Lofgren’s silver in 1932 was in pairs.

With partner Sherwin Badger. Brit Ethel Mulcolt. Excelled at figures, but finished sixth in the free skate, but she managed to hang on for bronze. We’re gonna hear her name again. So many skaters, as I mentioned earlier, competed in both singles and pairs like Ethel Mulcolt and Jack Page.

Who did both and Canadian Cecil Smith and Melville Rogers, who both did both. Four of the pairs were married and another pair ended up getting married later.

Gold in the pairs went to Helen Engelman and Alfred Berger of Austria. So funny. Austrians were such a powerhouse in figure skating in the early days. And when was the last time we heard from an Austrian figure skater? I know.

Jill: It’s amazing.

Alison: Silver went to Ludovica and Walter Jakobsen, uh, from Finland, and the French pair André Jolie and Pierre Brunet That’s our couple who got married later, ended up with the bronze.

Scoring controversy alert. The Jacobson’s ordinals ranged from first to fourth, Jolie and Brunei’s from second to sixth, even fourth place finishers, Muggles and page had a first place ordinal. Wow. And guess who gave them that? The British judge? The British judge. it, there were scoring changes made after these games where you could not have more than one judge from a single country.

Jill: Oh, because then they could stack the deck if they wanted to do that judging wise.

Alison: Guess who had a lot of judges? Austria!

So Jolie and Brunet went on to win gold in 28 and 32.

They later emigrated to the United States and became coaches of a couple of names you may have heard of, Carol Heiss and Scott Hamilton.

Jill: Very nice. The legacy lives on.

Alison: Yeah. A lot of these skaters, you see the names continue on through the history. So these early skaters really. shape the sport in a way that we can’t even understand at this point.

Cause as I’m reading all these biographies, this one invented or, or, uh, founded skating magazine, this one moved to this country and brought skating to this country and coaching and judging. So these early skaters really, created the sport that is probably the most beloved in the winter Olympics today.

Jill: Fascinating. let’s give a shout out to our sources.

Alison: Ah, yes, of course. So I’ve got OlyMadMen, Olympedia, olympics. com, the CBC, SkateGuard blog, Science Friday, and the olympics. com has some videos that we will share, both a little of Sabo and a little bit of Henny and Grofstrom.

Jill: Fantastic. it’s always interesting to see like the first entry of somebody who goes on to be a major superstar, but 11 years old,

Alison: which means she was only 15 the first time she won the gold medal.

And she’s absolutely beautiful. And in the, in the video, you see her beautiful bright smiling face. So you can tell this girl’s going to be a star without knowing the whole story. But wow, what magnetism, even in this very grainy, very poor quality old footage of her and Graftstrom as well. You get a little view of him and what a beautiful skater.

Jill: Interesting. I do wonder, like, if we were around in 1924, would we be discussing

age limits for the sport?

I mean, because there were several Olympics with very young competitors. And here we have another example with Sonja Henne being 11 years old and an Olympian.

Alison: Differences, you know, there’s no social media in 1924 or paparazzi.

Well, there was, but certainly not. I don’t think anybody was hiding out in Sonja Henne’s bathroom. Trying to catch her doing stuff.

Jill: Ah, well, thank you so much. Fascinating as always. And we will have you back next month for another look at Shamany 1924.