In honor of ABC-TV director's Doug Wilson's Book, The World Was Our Stage, I offered excerpts from an interview he graciously granted me for my own 1999 book, Inside Figure Skating, about how Television Changed Figure Skating:
Read Part #1, here.
Part #2, here.
Part #3, here.
Part #4, here.
Part #5, here.
And now there's even more exciting news for skating fans!
The man who created figure skating commentary as we know it, Dick Button, himself, has a new book out, too! (Link to buy at the bottom of this post.)
Not only was Dick the first man to do a triple jump in competition, not only did he invent the flying camel, but he is also the founding father of professional skating competitions! While Doug was featured in Inside Figure Skating's chapter entitled Lights, Camera, Axel, I focused most of Chapter #3: Competition, on Dick's work. Please enjoy an excerpt below, and keep checking back to this blog for more!
In 1952, when Dick Button won his second Olympic gold medal and turned professional, he wanted to keep competing. But, there was no place for him to go to fulfill that ambition. The only pro opportunity was the World Professional Competition in Jaca, Spain. Established in 1931, it originated in England, then moved to Spain in the 1960s. However, that event was mostly for ice-show skaters, an "open" contest that accepted all comers, regardless of ability. The majority performed the same numbers they skated every night in shows like Ice Capades, only without show-lighting, and were judged by their peers. Prize money was a paltry $2,500 for singles, and $3,000 to be split between both partners in a Pairs or Dance team.
After convincing ABC and CBS to televise amateur events, Dick Button, in the late 1960s, approached the ISU with a plan to start a similar, professional circuit. But, interest was minimal. The ISU thought a pro world championship was too radical an idea.
Working independently, in 1973, Button presented the initial World Professional Figure Skating Championship, in Tokyo. His plan was to provide a place where skaters could develop their craft and their artistry, a sort of graduate school for the elite. He wanted to give every skater the opportunity to keep growing as a performer and a technician, and, to this day, he grows disappointed when some fail to take advantage of their chance, or when he sees pro skaters who don't change or progress from who they were as amateurs. 1992 Olympic Bronze Medalist Petr Barna used to drive Button crazy. He wanted to know why no one would take him in hand and do something with him, teach him to stand up, to stretch, to have a concept for a routine? It broke his heart, because he saw potential wasted.
Button also wanted to establish a pro competition as a setting for skaters to earn sufficient money. In 1973, first prize at this World Professional Championship was $15,000 in each category.
The first competitors at the event included newly turned pro Janet Lynn beating Hungary's Zsuzsa Almassy. As an indicator of the upsets that were soon to characterize professional competition, the last time Lynn and Almassy had gone head to head, at the 1969 Worlds, Janet finished 5th, while Almassy won the Bronze. Over in the men's division, American spinning sensation and the 1955 & 1956 World Silver Medalist Ron Robertson defeated Canada's Don Jackson, the 1962 World Champion and first man to perform a Triple Lutz in competition. In last place was John Misha Petkevitch, who won his only U.S. title in 1971, fifteen years after Robertson retired.
The Pairs division was won by Soviet, Olympic champions, the Protopopovs. Determined that his World Professional Championship live up to the internationalism of its name, Button invited them through the USSR Federation. The skaters were dying to come, but, until the moment they stepped off the plane in Japan, no one knew whether their government would let them. (Because the USSR Federation refused to cooperate, the next Soviets to compete at World Pros were 1988 World Champions Vallova & Vassiliev, in 1989. When Candid tried to request Soviet skaters through official channels, they were always turned down. It was only when they went straight to the skaters themselves that Russians became World Pro regulars).
As unwilling to give up control then as they would be in the 1990s, the ISU fought Button's "unauthorized" championship, making it necessary to wait seven years before another one could be held. (In the meantime, Button put on events called The World Skate Challenge, to bypass ISU objections over the words World Championship.)
Following the 1980 Olympics, Button attempted to put together an event pitting established stars like Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill against "kids" fresh from the Olympics. However, the older skaters were afraid that losing a professional event would tarnish the luster of their Olympic titles. The only way Button could convince them to take part, was to make the 1980 World Pros a team competition, with no individual scores.
That first contest proved so successful - despite the "Stars of the 1980 Olympics" team, including Games' Silver medalist Linda Fratianne, Gold Medalist Robin Cousins, Bronze Medalist Charlie Tickner, and Babilona & Gardner, soundly defeating the "World and Olympic Professional Stars" team of Fleming, Hamill, and Starbuk & Shelley -- that their team format stayed in place through 1981 and 1982. In 1983, for the first time, individual results for all four divisions were tallied in addition to the team event, though prize money still went to the top team. That year, Janet Lynn prevailed over Dorothy Hamill, who, in their last head-to-head finished 4th to Janet's 2nd at the 1973 Worlds, as well as Linda Fratianne who, in 1973, at age twelve, was only the U.S. Junior Silver Medalist.
In the men, however, youth prevailed, as 1980 Olympic Bronze Medalist Charlie Ticknor beat 1976 Olympic Bronze Medalist Toller Cranston, and 1960 Olympic Bronze Medalist Don Jackson.
According to ABC's Doug Wilson, "Dick Button was a pioneer in many respects, and he was a pioneer in giving skaters a venue where they could compete for money and earn a living outside of skating in shows. He's now created, in a sense, his own league."
Candid Productions' Vice-President Jirina Ribbens credits the success of those first World Pros, as well as the subsequent ones to "a combination of sponsor, television, and public. You can't have (professional competitions) just for the public. It doesn't pay for itself. The prize money is way out there." (It also does not include the appearance fees given to select skaters, regardless of their final placement).
Television also demanded that the event not be broadcast to the viewers at home in the same order that it was viewed by fans attending the event. Explains Ribbens, "It's very ironic that, for the public at large, skating is all about women. For skating fans, skating is all about men. When you do an event live, you always have to end with the men if you want the best evening. When you do an event for television, you always want to end with the women, if you want people to stay tuned. If we play the competition the way it runs live (with men as the final event), we lose viewers. But, if you keep teasing the women, TV viewers stay tuned."
More behind the scenes from the professional skating world coming up soon. In the meantime, click the link below to check out Dick's book, in his own words!
Alina Adams worked with Dick Button and Doug Wilson as a figure skating researcher for ABC Sports. She is also the author of the Figure Skating Mystery series, including Murder on Ice, On Thin Ice, Axel of Evil, Death Drop and Skate Crime.