The 1956 European Figure Skating Championships

In early January of 1956, a fire broke out in the television transmitter atop the Eiffel Tower, causing extensive damage. The French legislative election resulted in a coalition government led by former Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France. Dean Martin's "Memories Are Made Of This" topped the music charts and the cost of a loaf of bread was eighteen cents. From the 19 to 21 of that month, many of Europe's best figure skaters gathered at the Palais des Sports in Paris, France for the European Figure Skating Championships.

At the 1955 ISU Congress, the 'powers that be' in international figure skating voted to have a trial of the new 'Finnish System' of judging at the 1956 European Championships. Invented by Walter Jakobsson, the system was essentially an adapted version of the 6.0 system, with the high and low marks dropped. When it was discovered that the announcement for the Championships made no mention of the 'Finnish System', the trial was ultimately postponed. Jakob Biedermann, a Swiss attorney who served as the Chairman of the ISU's Figure Skating Committee, withdrew over the hoopla, believing that if it was decided at the ISU Congress to try the system in Paris, it should have been tried whether it was advertised or not. Let's take a look back at the excitement in Paris!


Ice dance was a very new discipline at the European Championships and Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy had won the European title the first two times it was contested. Their retirement meant that new champions would be crowned in Paris. Twenty-two year old Pamela Weight and nineteen year old Paul Thomas, the runners-up to Westwood and Demmy in Budapest in 1955, seemed their logical successors.

Pamela Weight and Paul Thomas. Photo courtesy "Ice & Roller Skate' magazine.

Weight and Thomas led the way after the compulsories, first on all but the Italian judges scorecard. The Italian judge gave their vote to the second place couple, Bournemouth's June Markham and Courtney Jones, who were making their international debut. Weight and Thomas were students of Len Liggett; Markham and Jones were taught by Miss Gladys Hogg.

The two top British teams were even closer in the free dance, with Weight and Thomas winning over Markham and Jones by eight points in a four-three split of the judging panel. British judge Pamela Davis gave the deciding vote in favour of Weight and Thomas. The third British team, Barbara Thompson and Gerard Rigby, took the bronze over France's Fanny Besson and Jean-Paul Guhel but were eleven points back of Markham and Jones. Pamela Weight had the interesting distinction of being the only woman to win a European dance title while wearing glasses.


Ingrid Wendl. Photo courtesy Bildarchiv.

As in the ice dance event, the women's title in Paris was up for grabs. Defending champion Hanna Eigel was unable to compete because she had to have an appendectomy. There was no clear favourite but Ingrid Wendl and Erica Batchelor, separated by one point at the 1955 World Championships, were considered contenders as was sixteen year old Yvonne Sugden, a medallist at the previous two European Championships.

Ingrid Wendl posing for photographers. Photo courtesy "Miroir-Sprint" magazine.

The school figures were very close. Yvonne Sugden led after the first four figures by less than two points but was overtaken in the final two by Ingrid Wendl, who had five first place ordinals to Sugden and Batchelor's two. British judge Pauline Borrajo voted in favour of Batchelor, while the Austrian judge of course was one of those who voted for Wendl.

With four first place ordinals, Yvonne Sugden won the free skate with an exceptional performance. The Hungarian judge tied her and Wendl, three judges voted for Wendl and the Swiss judge placed
athletic Czechoslovakian skater Jana Dočekalová first in the latter phase of the competition. Wendl's lead in figures gave her the title over Sugden six judges to three. Batchelor, West Germany's Rosi Pettinger and Austria's Hanna Walter rounded out the top five.

Left: Ingrid Wendl smiling for the press. Right: Alice Fischer hobbling along after her performance. Photos courtesy "Miroir-Sprint" magazine.

Five judges placed Jana Docekalová in the top three in free skating, but her disastrous finish in figures (outside of the top twenty) kept her in sixteenth overall. Ina Bauer also performed very well in free skating but ended the competition in an unlucky thirteenth. Swiss skater Alice Fischer placed twelfth, though she badly injured herself during her program and had to be helped off the ice.


Sissy Schwarz and Kurt Oppelt. Photo courtesy Bildarchiv.

Budapest's Marianna and László Nagy recaptured the European title they had first won in 1950 the previous year. However, Sissy Schwarz and Kurt Oppelt, the World Silver Medallists hadn't entered. In Paris, Schwarz and Oppelt unanimously won their only European title with a performance that - though not perfect - was considered to have been better than the won that earned them a controversial gold medal at the Olympics that followed in Cortina d'Ampezzo.

Sissy Schwarz and Kurt Oppelt. Photos courtesy "Miroir-Sprint" magazine.

The Nagy's and West Germans Marika Kilius and Franz Ningel tied in ordinal placings but the Nagy's had five seconds to Kilius and Ningel's four. The Hungarian siblings earned the silver by the slimmest of margins and Dr. Nagy celebrated his recent engagement to soon-to-be wife Elisabeth Sebestyén.

British judge Mollie Phillips placed the fourth place English pair, sixteen year old Joyce Coates and seventeen year old Anthony Holles of Liverpool, eighth and the second British pair Carolyn Krau and Rodney Ward fifth. Krau and Ward, the youngest members of the British team in Paris, placed ninth.

Lidia Garasimova and Yuri Kiselev and Maya Belenkaya and Igor Moskvin made history as the first two Soviet pairs to represent their country at the European Championships. They placed eighth and eleventh but brought with them some interesting history. Moskvin had once been coached by Nina Vasilievna Leplinskaya, a former student of 1908 Olympic Gold Medallist Nikolay Panin-Kolomenkin. Michael Booker recalled, "In the lobby of our hotel on Boulevard des Italiens, one would see [the Russian pairs] who had been cabaret dancers practicing their moves with their trainer, a plump woman who later was dubbed 'Fat Anna.' It was a bizarre spectacle with guests coming and going and these three jumping all over the place. Needless to say, it caused great amusement to the rest of us. Arnold Gerschwiler told me that he had been told that they practiced a method of training where they 'imagined' their routines and moves and by doing so enough times it actually helped the final performances.  He of course thought it [to be a load of rubbish]!"


Sixteen year old defending European Champion Alain Giletti won the school figures with first place ordinals from six of the nine judges. Karol Divín had two first place ordinals to Michael Booker's one but Booker finished second, some twenty-three points behind Giletti. Nineteen year old Brian Tuck of London, runner-up to Booker in the British Championships, was sixth after figures.

Alain Giletti backstage in Paris. Photo courtesy "Miroir-Sprint" magazine.

Eighteen year old Michael Booker, on special leave from the RAF to compete in Paris, won the free skate but lost the gold medal in a five-four split, with British judge Mollie Phillips voting for the winner Alain Giletti. Booker recalled, "When challenged by Arnold Gerschwiler, my coach - and the Gersches didn't hesitate to challenge judges as they had taught most of them - her response was that she didn't want to look as though she was playing favourites! Perhaps in fact it was revenge, for, in 1953 returning from the European Championships in Dortmund, Germany by train to Davos for the Worlds, as we exited the train I threw my skates over my shoulder hitting her on the head. She spent the next four days in hospital. I was a gay (in the strictly old fashioned sense of the word) and spirited fellow and thought it all a great big joke!"

Alain Giletti performing his Russian split jump. Photo courtesy "Miroir-Sprint" magazine.

Karol Divín took the bronze with a first place ordinal in the free skate from the first Soviet judge to appear at the European Championships. Alain Calmat finished fourth; Tilo Gutzeit fifth. Norbert Felsinger's strong figures managed to keep him in sixth. He had ordinals ranging from eleventh to sixteenth in free skating. Interestingly, no less than ten of the sixteen competitors had at least one top five ordinal in free skating. Brian Tuck dropped to ninth and Igor Persiantsev, Lev Mikhailov and  Valentin Zakharov, the first three men to represent the Soviet Union in an ISU Championship placed twelfth, fifteenth and dead last. It would be nineteen years later Vladimir Kovalev made history as the first Soviet skater to win the European men's title in Copenhagen.

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