The Demise Of The North American Championships

Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

Do you know what's funny? Whenever I blog about judging controversies, my inbox goes berserk. Scandals don't just whet the appetites of skating fans... People have a penchant for these stories and I promise that the scandal du jour on today's Skate Guard menu will be every bit as delicious.

Advertisement for the 1969 North American Championships. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

The event was the 1969 North American Figure Skating Championships held from February 6 to 8, 1969 at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and hosted by the St. Moritz Ice Skating Club. Thirty six entries from Canada and the United States skated their hearts out in hopes of bringing home medals.

Program from the 1969 North American Championships

Tim Wood won the men's event and Toller Cranston finished last. Americans Cynthia and Ron Kauffman prevailed in the pairs event, while Canadians Mary Petrie and Bob McAvoy took the bronze. Mary recalled, "It was so exciting for us to compete Internationally.  We flew down with the Montreal Canadiens... the likes of Gump Worsley, John Ferguson, [Jacques] Laperrière, etc. I got many autographs! At North Americans, I fell on our best element in the short program... the death spiral. I lost my edge and we came last... In the long, we skated right after the Kauffman's who had a very long standing ovation! We took the ice with a 'well, we've got nothing to lose' attitude and had the skate of our lives! In those days the long program was a gruelling five minutes long. We got off to a good start with the double flips and then the split double twist and after that it was clear sailing. It's funny when you are relaxed and things click. It was the absolute easiest five minutes I ever skated. We moved up to third place behind the Kauffman's and Starbuck and Shelley. It was an honour to stand on the podium with them."

The pairs podium at the 1969 North American Championships. Photo courtesy Mary Petrie McGillvray.

Another talented Canadian skater, Sandra Bezic, recalled her first trip to the North American Championships thusly: "North Americans were always a party - as much as a party it can be for a twelve or fourteen year old! We always had a blast with the Americans. especially since Val and I trained in Lake Placid in the summer, so we knew a lot of them. It was always judged by protocol so you knew the results before they happened. Except in '69 we came fourth in the short program! We got a standing ovation for our 'Caravan' . Then, of course, we finished in our rightful place – sixth. These competitions were probably a pain in the neck for contenders, but great experience for the young ones, like us."

Mary and Sandra's positive experiences aside, by the time of the women's competition, there was more than the usual amount of squawking among the eleven thousand spectators about the integrity of the judges.

After teenage sensation Janet Lynn won the women's event, Denny Boyd of the "Vancouver Sun" wrote, "Miss [Karen] Magnussen was patently jobbed in the North American Championships at Oakland, when four American judges contrived to give the title to little Janet Lynn of the U.S. The decision was so gamey that many people in the attendance expressed deep concern that there was a cargo of rotting fish unattended at the Oakland fish docks. One Canadian muttered, 'I know what those judges are doing. They're getting even with us for sending them Paul Anka.'"

Peggy Fleming with Janet Lynn at the 1969 North American Championships

Well, as much as that would be a very logical motive for revenge, the chatter about Lynn's victory over Magnussen was a perhaps a little more founded in logic than figure skating's favourite dismissal: the ever convenient 'sour grapes' argument. With four American judges to Canada's three in all four disciplines contested, if there was funny business going on one country was certainly at a disadvantage. The fact that Magnussen had skated particularly well in both the school figures and free skating and all four U.S. judges had given the nod to Lynn fuelled the fire of those crying foul. The women's event, however, was only a small precursor of drama to come.

The ice dance podium in Oakland. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

The final event to be contested was ice dance. World Bronze Medallists Judy Schwomeyer and Jim Sladky were heavily favoured to take home America's fourth gold medal. They trounced the competition in the compulsories. In the OSP, their closest competitors, Canada's Donna Taylor and Bruce Lennie, had finished second in a four/three split down country lines. The four American judges who had placed the American team first gave the top Canadian team a second place ordinal, two third's and a tied fourth. What happened in the free dance was another story entirely. In his 1984 book "The Golden Age Of Canadian Figure Skating", David Young wrote that "the U.S. judges seemed to be tumbling all over themselves to cover up their tracks, and awarded the ice dancing title to Canadian champions Donna Taylor and Bruce Lennie, ranked twelfth in the world, over their own pair Judy Schomeyer and Jim Sladky, ranked third." Lynn Copley-Graves, in her authoritative book "Figure Skating: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice" explained, "After computation of the very close marks, Taylor/Lennie ended in first by the majority of the judges. Schomeyer/Sladky ended second despite first place in the compulsories and free dance, the highest total points, and the lowest total ordinals. Jim Proudfoot of the "Toronto Star" criticized 'the laughably inconsistent judging' and warned the demise of the North American Championships. The bright side is that the couple who was 'supposed' to win did not and the nationalism of an international event did not prevail."

In a February 5, 2002 article in "The Globe And Mail", writer Beverley Smith recalled the controversy in an interview with the referee of the ice dance event at the 1969 North American Championships, Canadian Pierrette Devine: "The top contenders for the gold medal were talented Americans Judy Schwomeyer and James Sladky. The Yankee polka that they performed in the original set-pattern dance at the event was so revered that it eventually became an official compulsory dance. Schwomeyer and Sladky were leading after the original set pattern dance, but Devine was approached before the free dance by a reporter who told her that he knew a Canadian team would win the dance event and that the Americans would finish second. It was a way for the Americans to say thank you for Lynn's victory, he said. 'That's impossible,' Devine scoffed. But then she watched in amazement as Schwomeyer and Sladky won all three portions of the event but still finished second in the final account. 'I sat in the accounting room for an hour, trying to figure that out,' Devine said. 'They had messed with the marks... It seems like they had got a great accountant to figure it out and one or two American judges to do some funny stuff.' Devine complained to both the CFSA and the Canadian dance technical delegate, but she said she was told: 'Shut up. We won.' Devine headed to the hotel bar with her husband, Frank, in tears. There sat the reporter who had heard about the results before the competition ended, as well as Canadian coach Sheldon Galbraith. She told them she was going to quit. Finally, Galbraith took her hand and said: 'Pierrette, just remember one thing before you decide anything: These skaters are better off when you are on that panel. I love it when you are a referee because I know every kid is treated equally.'" Devine pressed on only to retire in 1976 after becoming disillusioned with the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing in the judging world. At the 1969 World Championships in Colorado Springs, a more balanced panel placed Schwomeyer and Sladky in third and Taylor and Lennie eleventh. The scores weren't even close.

Following the competition, the CFSA's Technical Advisory Committee reviewed the judging and concluded that there were "many [examples of] national bias on both sides." It was suggested Joe Geisler, a CFSA director, that a possible solution would be to bring in a European judge or two. Both the USFSA and CFSA balked at the suggestion.

Suna Murray, Karen Magnussen and Janet Lynn on the podium at the 1971 North American Championships. Photo courtesy Mary Petrie McGillvray.

While John McKay, the North American Committee chairman felt the solution was as simple as ensuring the best referee possible was in place, CFSA Executive Director Hugh Glynn tried everything in his power to cancel the 1971 North American Championships in Peterborough, which had already been committed to, because the USFSA initially refused to send Janet Lynn, one of its top skaters. The waters calmed between the two skating federations when Lynn was ultimately named to the North American team.

Left: Toller Cranston at the 1971 North American Championships. Right: Advertisement for the 1971 North American Championships. Photos courtesy "Skating" magazine.

The competition in Peterborough marked the first and last time at the North American Championships that a computer was used to calculate the results. Interestingly, the placements were far less controversial that year than in 1969. In pairs and dance, Americans JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley and Judy Schwomeyer and Jim Sladky were the unanimous choices of every judge. In the women's event, Janet Lynn substituted a double flip for a triple toe-loop and slipped on a double Lutz, handing the victory to a clean Karen Magnussen in six-one vote. John 'Misha' Petkevich also won the men's event in a six-one vote over Toller Cranston. Both men missed triple Salchows in their free skates, and there were minor rumblings from the American side about a 6.0 by Cranston received for artistic impression. However, all in all, the judging controversies that had arisen in 1969 were very much absent from the Peterborough event. That said, Jim Proudfoot noted, "There was a smattering of bitterness at the end when the American team pulled up stakes without skating in the traditional final day exhibition program." Following the event, USFSA officials set to work planning a rematch in Rochester, New York from February 8 to 11, 1973. The Canadians weren't having any of it.

Clipping from Donald Gilchrist's 1973 article "North Americans die" citing further reasons for the cancellation of the North American Championships. Courtesy Marie Petrie McGillvray.

On April 15, 1972 at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, Americans F. Ritter Shumway, Benjamin T. Wright and Chuck Foster and Canadians Donald Gilchrist, Hugh Glynn, John McKay and George Blundun met to 'discuss the future' of the North American Championships. The Americans thought they were there to discuss the planning of the 1973 event. They were blindsided by the CFSA's announcement they were withdrawing from the event as they felt "that time had passed by the Championships". The CFSA made a recommendation that the North American Championships be cancelled indefinitely, as it was "in the best interest of both organizations". After discussion, those present voted unanimously in favour of the discussion and voted to recommend to the CFSA and USFSA that the North American Championships be cancelled.

Excerpt from the minutes of the April 15, 1972 meeting. Courtesy Marie Petrie McGillvray.

While some have have suggested that the introduction of Skate Canada International that autumn was far from a coincidence, Donald Gilchrist remarked in a 1989 interview, "We cancelled it because it wasn't panning out and it wasn't fulfilling the objectives I think both countries wanted. On the basis of the judging split, the unhappiness about some of the results and the fact that you can't guarantee some of the best skaters, we said let's call it splits... They [the Americans] agreed to it. We finished the meeting, the Americans left, then we rolled up our shirt sleeves and said, OK, what are we going to do? We talked about Skate Canada and said, OK, we'll do it... Never did we cancel it because of Skate Canada." By that autumn, George Blundon's brainchild - initially named the Canada-Skate International Competition - was all planned out and the CFSA was in talks with Johnny Esaw to cover the event on CTV. As they say, sometimes when one door closes another door opens.

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