The 1948 European Figure Skating Championships

From January 13 to 15, 1948, Prague played host to many of the world's top figure skaters at the 1948 European Figure Skating Championships. The event was of historical interest for several reasons. It was held in an Olympic year, marked the final time that non-European skaters were permitted to compete at the European Championships and was by all accounts held in absolutely dreadful weather conditions.

Skaters were up and on the ice as early as four in the morning and tracing figures in the pouring rain. In the days preceding the competition, the stadium where the event was held was rented to the public during the day and so figure skating practices took second fiddle. As for the weather, an eleven degree thaw left the ice under more than an inch of water. An emergency meeting of judges and officials was held to determine whether to carry on with the competition and it was agreed to go forward. On January 14, 1948, "The Ottawa Citizen" reported, "A small section at one end of the rink was roped off for the figure judging and motor driven scrapers went over the rest of the rink, trying to level it off."  Many felt the ridged ice created by the motor scrapers only made ice conditions worse but the competition started on time and to make matters worse, high winds whipped across the ice, making the execution of school figures particularly treacherous. It was all a bit of a soupy, hot mess. Nevertheless, the skaters suffered through and took to the ice.


In the pairs competition, Hungarians Andrea Kékesy and Ede Király were the unanimous choice of the judges, who included future ISU President Ernest Labin, World and European Medallist Elemér Terták and Canadian and North American Champion Melville Rogers. The victory of the Hungarians was particularly impressive in that it was their very first trip to the European Championships... or any international competition for that matter. Finishing second in front of a home audience were Czechs Blažena Knittlová and Karel Vosátka. In third were Austrian siblings Herta and Emil Ratzenhofer. Two British teams - Joan Thompson and Robert Ogilvie and Jennifer and John Nicks - finished in fourth and fifth, each earning one second place ordinal apiece.


Englewood, New Jersey's Dick Button had his reservations about entering his first and only European Championships in the weeks leading up to the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz. His success or failure, he believed, had the power to affect both his own confidence and the judge's opinion of his skating. Ultimately, he decided to give the judges a sneak peak of his Olympic program and sailed to Europe aboard the Queen Mary in December 1947 with his mother, training in Switzerland before heading to Prague to compete. In his book "Dick Button On Skates", Uncle Dick provides a detailed account of his experience competing in Prague in 1948: "Conditions were miserable as we began the school figure competition. The wind was capricious. Often it would slow down a skater in one direction on his figure, and then shift so that he had no help back to the center of the eight. At times the abrupt gusts stopped a skater, and left him stranded, embarrassingly, on an incomplete figure. With the unpredictable 'pushing' and “bucking” of the breeze, it was very difficult to put down one's best figure. A warm, slow drizzle and the wind played even more tricks on the skaters assembled in the Czech skating rink. The stadium was built on a small island at the fork of a river flowing through the city. The winds swept down upon the fork and across the ice of the rink. Together the wind and rain warmed the surface so much that the freezing pipes were ineffective for the top inch of ice and a rippling pool of water soon covered the rink. With such conditions it was impossible to see the tracing of a school figure and often impossible even to complete an edge. The competition became a test of skaters and the elements; it was clear the contender who made fewest mistakes would win. Luck played against me at first. In a [counter], I was left stranded on my closing edge, as I lost a gamble to outwit the breeze. I had hoped that even if the wind did slow me down at the wrong moment, my finishing edge would be with my back to the wind and I would speed home. The only difficulty was that the wind failed to continue blowing and I could only force the last edge hoping for a high mark on style if nothing else. Then Dame Fortune smiled. Just before the fifth figure, I seized a squeegee from rinkside and pushed as much water as I could downwind, leaving myself a small patch of ice on which the tracings could be seen. The figure to be skated was a loop-change- loop backward, which, with the soft knee action I was using, was exactly suited to soft ice. That cleaning may have saved my competitive career, because I won the figure, a very important one due to its difficulty. With the help of the squeegee, I led [Hans Gerschwiler] in points. My total was 749 points to 747.8 for the Swiss, but he led in placings by 14 to 15 for me. The conditions of the day had been so unsatisfactory that a true estimation of any skater's ability was impossible. But it did indicate that I could lead in points despite the difficulty of judging, and the weather which was so trying to 'hot-house' indoor skaters." Button and Gerschwiler weren't without their challengers. Labin had Austria's Edi Rada first on the first figure whereas Hungarian judge favoured pairs champion Ede Király on the fifth.

In the free skating that followed, Uncle Dick made history as the first and only non-European skater to claim the European title, narrowly defeating Gerschwiler with first place votes from all but the Czechoslovakian judge. Captain T.D. Richardson felt that a factor in Gerschwiler's loss may have been attributed to stress and malnutrition from British rationing: He wrote that Gerschwiler was a "first-rate free skater, but when it came to competitions, so early after the war, when all young British athletes as well as those who had elected to stay here, were still suffering from nervous strain - especially those who had remained in London as Hans had done - as well as from the malnutrition inevitable amongst those who did not come into the category of 'workers,' he was not able to reproduce his true form under the tense excitement of a European or World Championship." In contrast, Uncle Dick recalled his victory thusly: "I felt satisfied with my performance except on one point. In my program, I had included a double Axel, a jump which up to that time had not been performed in European or world competition. I had been unable to perform it perfectly by revolving two and one-half complete turns to make a full 'clean' landing... On the whole I was able to skate well under the pressure and knew as soon as the judges raised their cards that I was European Champion. Hans [Gerschwiler] came over to me immediately, and in his pleasant way offered congratulations. The placings were 11 for me and 18 for Hans. Rada was third and Király fourth...The Lord Mayor of Prague was host at a ceremonial banquet and ball following the finals, and the skaters broke all the weeks of training at the enthusiastic supper dance." Unfortunately, before the competitors enjoyed their fancy banquet, they had to contend with overzealous photographers. On January 17, 1948, "The Montreal Gazette" reported, "Standing at the rinkside watching the performance of Button, Miss [Barbara Ann] Scott said 'that was nice' as the New Jersey youngster came off the ice and he returned the compliment with a kiss on the Canadian's forehead. Photographers immediately demanded a 'redo' and the pair obliged... [Button] then put his arm around Barbara Ann's waist, kissed her on the lips, and the crowd went frantic. 'More! More!' they cried and the principals obliged again."


Barbara Ann Scott and Eva Pawlik

Barbara Ann Scott left for Europe in December 1947, part of her expenses of travelling to Czechslovakia and Switzerland for the European Championships, Winter Olympics and World Championships defrayed by Ottawa mayor Stanley Lewis' 'Mayor Of Ottawa Fund'. After days of rainy early morning practices, she took to the ice to skate her school figures in a pale yellow doeskin dress with white angora mitts, a single strand of pearls, an armlet with her starting position and her signature bonnet. On her shoulder, she wore a navy Canadian flash embroidered with gold. She described the blustery conditions as "troublesome" and the ice ended up being so bad that after the first two figures, the women were given a half-hour break while sweepers tried to make the ice somewhat usable. In her book "Skate With Me", Scott recalled, "The water had melted the ice down and it was all bumpy, but not covered with water now - now it was slush. That same wind was blowing, harsh and mean and strong. I felt quite happy, for I had the Number 11 armband - I think eleven is as lucky as seven... The newspapers had been speaking a good deal of Jeanette Altwegg, of England, and Eva Pawlik, of Austria. I never have spent much time listening to dressing-room gossip, to people saying, 'Oh, she's skating divinely,' or 'She never got over that fall and is simply frightful,' or things like that. I think it is better to stay away from all that. People may think you are a little aloof not to join in, but it is my experience that you are better off in the long run if you don't. I knew that these two girls were very good but they had the same conditions to face that I had, so I just went to work and made the best of it." After taking off her skates and warming up with a cup of tea and a chocolate bar, Scott returned to skate her final four figures. She took a decisive four point lead ahead of her Czechoslovakian training mate Jiřína Nekolová. Alena Vrzáňová, Eva Pawlik, Jeannette Altwegg, Bridget Shirley Adams and Dagmar Lerchová followed in places third through seventh.

The January 16, 1948 Czechoslovakian newspaper "Svobodne slovo", which Dr. Roman Seeliger graciously translated for me offered general recaps of the performances of the top women's performances:

"Scott: light green. A well organized free program for sure, but the audience was not so much fascinated by her as by Button. Highest marks: 5.9-5.9
Pawlik: black. Full of courage. She persuades the audience. Her Viennese tunes help her a lot. She feels the rhythm. Highest marks: 5.7-5.7
Vrzanova: violet. Performed her program well, but not more. Slowly, without temperament. Highest marks: 5.6-5.6
Nekolova: light blue. Great transitions, a good copy of Gerschwiler's Rhapsody in blue. But it was the vivacity/liveliness/brio she lacked. Highest marks: 5.6-5.6
Altwegg: light blue. Heavy and slow music, reminding of a funeral procession. Unclean jumps. She was rated too high. Highest marks: 5.5-5.5"

Scott's coach Sheldon Galbraith recalled, "the free skating portion of the program took place during the evening, and the place was packed to capacity. She started her routine and was about one minute and fifteen seconds into it when the record-playing needle slid off the record. The phonograph records of the period were 78rpm and the needle vibrated sideways in its track to create the sound. The groove had been worn too much to hold onto its track. These records were made with a thin layer of material poured onto a round aluminum platter. They were guaranteed for six plays and then only if you used a cactus needle! Barbara Ann's solo record was turned onto its reverse side where a backup copy was located. Barbara Ann returned to her starting place in due course and resumed her performance. It was a solid skate and she had successfully defended her title as European Champion! Amazingly due to the record problems, she had skated a total of five minutes and fifteen seconds!" Scott recalled that after landing three back-to-back Axels, "I got as far as the spin when all of a sudden there was a great squeak and the record stopped. I thought for a second: 'Now what shall I do? Shall I stop? Will that count against me? Shall I go on without the music?' But of course every step of my program is set to a certain part of the music, so if I kept going and the record was put on again the chances were that I wouldn't be able to synchronize with it. I had four minutes and no more... So I skated to the starting place and waited. Fortunately the referee agreed with me that that was the right thing to do. When the record went on again I started from the beginning. his is a kind of situation for which it is well to be mentally adjusted ahead of time. It is necessary to remain calm always and not let the errors of anyone else or any mechanical failure throw you off. I was not penalized. All seven judges placed me first, with Eva Pawlik coming in second. It was said that my score was the highest ever awarded in Prague, seven placings and 181.6 points." In a January 29, 1948 letter, Barbara's travelling mate Margaret McGuiness wrote, "I nearly swallowed my mitten when I heard the music fade out. Barbara Ann stopped pirouetting, looked at Sheldon, then skated back into her take-off position. She really skated with confidence and style. No wonder, with lucky #11 on the arm-band of her green costume. Green is one of her lucky colours."

The January 25, 1948 issue of the "Wochenzeitung der Österreichischen Jugend" offered a wonderful account of the event from Pawlik's perspective: "She felt some anger as she had seen the programs and the marks of her rivals. When she skated to the middle of the ice she said to herself: 'I shall show to all of them that I am able to skate well even if they don´t want to see it. I don´t skate to reach the fourth place. I am skating for my recognition in the world. I cannot lose, I can only win. I have to reach the second place.' Eva swayed to her Viennese music, showed her fast spins and high jumps. The audience was immediately thrilled by her performance. The applause was rising immensely, when Eva stopped her last spin exactly in the moment of the last note of her music. The audience´s enthusiasm was only interrupted by a hail of catcalls when the judges raised their marks that were lower than those for Scott. Facing the marks the audience was acclaiming Eva even more frenetically, because in the spectators´opinion Eva was the real Queen of Europe. In that very moment things changed: All of a sudden, the photographers were surrounding Eva and everyone was interested in her. Even though she could not win the Championships, the unmistakable sustained applause had shown her that her free program had called the world's attention... The joy was great. She had reached the goal to be Europe's best lady skater. For it was a bit strange that a Canadian had become European Champion. They say that next year the Europeans shall be restricted to European skaters. By the way, that should have always gone without saying." Dr. Roman Seeliger recalled, "My mother often told me the following story: With a smile on her face, Barbara Ann Scott applauded Eva Pawlik at the skating exhibition in Prague. Feeling that the audience was not in favour of her, the Canadian star behaved in a very diplomatic way."

Like Button in the men's event, Barbara Ann's victory would mark the final time a woman representing a non-European nation would claim gold at the European Championships. Although Canadians were justifiably overjoyed by her win, many of the European skaters participating felt perhaps justifiably frustrated. Uncle Dick noted that both Pawlik and Vrzáňová had skated with particular ease and given Barbara Ann a run for her money. Roman Seeliger, the son of Eva Pawlik, recalled that "It was hard for [Eva] to accept that the European crown was not awarded to her, but to a non-European skater. It goes without saying that Barbara Ann Scott from Canada was a wonderful and glamorous skater. But that did not change the fact that Eva Pawlik was the best-ranked European lady figure skater at the 1948 European Championship but was awarded only the silver medal."

At an exhibition following the competition, it was Pawlik's turn to encounter the same 'technical difficulties' that befell Scott in the competition. The January 17, 1948 issue of the "Svobodne slovo" reported, "It was Pawlik´s turn to show her dance on the ice. First there was no music at all. A disappointment for Europe's best lady skater. A bit later some music could be heard, but it was not Pawlik's music. Again they tried to play the right tune, but again it was not her music. The Austrian skater was terribly cold. She seemed to [pantomime a plea] for the right music. That did not help. They did not find the right music within 10 minutes. So Gerschwiler and Button showed their programs before Pawlik. But not even in the very end of the skating exhibition they could find Pawlik's gramophone record. So the silver medallist skated to some other music to conciliate to the furious audience that emphatically wanted to see her skating. A very big applause was in a certain sense also the audience´s excuse for the shame in the studio."

Benjamin T. Wright recalled, "Just as the Championships were ending the Communist takeover of the Czech government took place. Dick and Barbara Ann just made it out of Prague before the airport was closed." In a case of all's well that end's well, the three men who medalled in Prague all placed in the exact same order at the Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Barbara Ann Scott became the first Olympic Gold Medallist in figure skating from Canada... and Eva Pawlik won the European title the following year in Milan, Italy. 

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