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The ISU In 1920: A Charleston In The Time Machine

Lace up your skates and strap yourself in. In today's Skate Guard blog, we're going back - WAY back - to 1920 to examine the International Skating Union's rulebook and taking a look at just what things were really like for skaters competing in international figure skating competitions in the roaring twenties.

The President of the ISU was Lieutenant Colonel V.G. Balck of Sweden and its secretary was another Swede, Herr Alex Lindmann of Stockholm. The ISU council consisted of two other primary members, Dr. G. Herbert Fowler of Great Britain and Dr. E. Von Szent of Hungary as well as two reserve members, Captain N.J. Backer of Holland and Herr H. Valar of Switzerland. There was zero female representation whatsoever. In 1920, the ISU had a membership of fourteen countries: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Hungary, Norway, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland. For all of you in the U.S. and Asia who are reading this, your federations were not yet members so if you aren't a fan of some of the rules, you'll have to be patient because your federation wouldn't yet have had a vote. So now that you have a little background about just who was responsible for taking the reigns and governing international skating at the time, I want to break down some of the most interesting parts of the rulebook piece by piece just so you can see how much things have changed!


It's interesting to point out that skaters would have lost eligibility as "amateur" skaters for participation in OTHER sports or physical pursuits where they may have been financially compensated. So for instance, let's say you won an equestrian competition or something. That alone could be enough for the ISU to strip you of your eligible status, never mind skating in a show. It's interesting how gymnastics and fencing instruction were excluded from the list. I don't know why those two sporting activities in particular would be singled out as exceptions? The selling or pledging of prizes for sporting events is another unusual reason that a skater could lose their eligibility. So, for instance, if Lionel Lutzington III donated a plaque or cup to be won in a tennis match, he'd be out too. Competing against another skater who was professional knowingly was another no no, so skaters really had to be on their toes and ask the right questions if they were taking part in smaller events. So for instance, if you were competing in a pretty low key event with skaters from Norway and Sweden only, you needed to be damn sure that none of them were stripped of their status for say, teaching other skaters, or you could be too. The fact that skaters were given a process by which to appeal to be reinstated to "amateur" status was an interesting inclusion as well. I love the fact they used the word rehabilitation and included a probation period. It just screams "alright, we're letting you come back, but you can't compete for a year. You better think good and hard about donating a plaque to a tennis match again!"


The distinction between junior and senior? It had nothing to do with age whatsoever and everything to do with results. If you hadn't won a national or international competition, you technically were considered a junior - or ELIGIBLE to skate as a junior internationally - in the eyes of the ISU. There would be an awful lot more juniors in the skating world today, wouldn't there be?


Some really neat points here regarding judges. There was clearly no standardized training for judges and it was really up to the federations to submit names and the council to decide who they wanted and who they didn't. The statement "if the number of judges sent does not amount to five, the Club or Association holding the competition has to complete the number up to five" suggests how heavily stacked panels with multiple judges from one country could have been allowed to happen. I also find number twenty one quite interesting - how ludicrous that anyone protesting a result would have to put up more money than they paid to enter to compete in the first place just to cry foul because the three Norwegian judges out of five at a competition in Norway voted for the Norwegian. Quite bizarre and hardly worth the effort or money.


All figure skating events were required to comprise of compulsory figures and free skating. Figures were required to be contested before the free skating... and AT LEAST six had to be demonstrated by the skaters. The fact that the choice of compulsory figures that would be skated at any international event (including Worlds) would be ultimately left up to the host country would have absolutely given skaters home ice advantage. Without regulations governing this, Denmark's Kjobenhavns Skoitelober Forening (for example) could have easily been like "Okay, Europeans are in Copenhagen so you better be practicing your counters! Hint, hint there sweetie!"


I know we have some math buffs out there. I won't hold it against you, promise! Long before the IJS judging system replaced the 6.0 system, this rudimentary system was in place as a guideline for judges that were deciding the results in international events. Think ordinal flip flops were confusing? Try wrapping your head around this bad boy. You might need a mimosa by the end of it. I know I did. At least in 1920 they had wrapped their heads around the importance of the fact it was "desirable, if not actually to publish them to detail, to permit public study of the complete tables for some time." That would have included which judges awarded which results. Poor Ottavio would have just hated it. Good thing Italy wasn't an ISU member yet.


I kind of love that pseudonyms were permitted and this explains why Nikolai Kolomenkin was allowed to compete under the name Nikolai Panin when he and Ulrich Salchow got into it at the 1908 Summer Olympics. I'm thoroughly disappointed there wasn't a SINGLE men's world champion who used the pseudonym 'Miss Thing' while he had the opportunity. That would have looked fabulous in the history books.


And now for the pièce de résistance - which I kind of thought was the best thing ever so I had to save it for last! In 1920, the International Skating Union recognized pairs teams that consisted of "a lady and a gentleman, two ladies, or two gentlemen". Whatever you may think of many of the International Skating Union's 1920 rulebook (and believe me, there were absolutely flaws) they didn't have a problem with same sex couples skating together back then. Chazz Michael Michaels and Jimmy MacElroy could have very well been champions had the ISU not changed its tune in the years to come. It only goes to show you how attitudes have shifted over time about social and gender norms and how in many ways such as this, skating has totally regressed. 

In 1920, figure skating was rebuilding from World War I and getting ready to embark on a new era. I like to think that the sport will continue to evolve and the ISU will eventually wrap its heads around the fact that the rulebook is always open to drastic change for the betterment of the sport. The real question has always been and will always be what is truly best for the sport, and to that question there are no easy answers. 

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":