Klizanja: A Collection Of Yugoslavian Figure Skating History

Group of friends skating at the Belgrade Cycling Club Ice Rink, January 1909. Photo courtesy Dejan Milutinovic.

Today on Skate Guard, we're going to dive into the figure skating history of Yugoslavia, a country which no longer exists. The politics of the war-torn region today may be extremely complicated to say the least. However, the history of the skating in the region is simply fascinating!

Before we hop in the time machine, I want to give full credit to my main sources for today's piece. Firstly, Croatian skating judge Dora Strabić's 2013 thesis "Povijest umjetničkog klizanja u Hrvatskoj" ("History Of Figure Skating In Croatia"). Ms. Strabić's research was impeccable and rich in primary sources from the archives of journalist and sports commentator Milka Babovic. Secondly, Dejan Milutinovic's history of ice skating in Belgrade from 1891 to 1991 was indispensable. Grab your Skate Guards and a steaming cup of Kavu. We'll be heading right from the time machine to the frigid winters of nineteenth century Zagreb!

Two men skating hand in hand at the Belgrade Cycling Club Ice Rink, 1902. Photo courtesy Dejan Milutinovic.

Prior to World War I, much of the region that later became known as Yugoslavia were territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the exception of the independent Kingdom of Serbia. Thusly, it is widely believed that the early popularity of figure skating in Vienna and Budapest - owing largely to to the influence of Jackson Haines - had a trickle effect to other parts of the region. Written accounts from the nineteenth century assert skating was popular on the frozen Maksimir Lake in Zagreb and on the Sava River which flows through modern day Slovenia and Croatia along the northern border of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Danube in Belgrade, Serbia.

Between 1870 and 1872, a wholesaler named Ladislav Beluša opened two ice rinks in Zagreb but these catered only to an exclusive circle of citizens. On November 15, 1874, Zagreb's first skating club was founded by an engineer named Milan Lenuci and Beluša, who served as the club's first President. It officially opened on Christmas Eve, 1874 in what is now Mažuranić Square. At the time, the city had only thirty thousand residents and plumbing and electrical lighting were pretty much non-existent. The rink was maintained by pouring water onto the designed surface and its continued existence was reliant completely on cold temperatures. That Christmas Eve, the rink was packed with skaters who skated by the light of hundreds of oil lamps to the strains of a military band. Three years later, an organized society was forced to promote skating in the region. A second rink was opened with "sensational electric lighting" and soon masked balls in the same vein of those held in Montreal, Halifax, Vienna and Paris became all the rage. Speaking of Halifax, it wasn't until Starr Skates arrived in the region that figure skating really took off. Prior to their arrival in the region in the late nineteenth century, many skaters only had access to speed skates.

Skaters at the Belgrade Cycling Club Ice Rink, 1907. Photo courtesy Dejan Milutinovic.

In 1890, the Belgrade Skating Society was founded. Serbian skating historian Dejan Milutinovic recalled, "In January 1891, two competitions were held on the so-called Venice pond by the Sava river i.e. in the figure and speed skating. It is very interesting that the female race was held for the first time. Daily newspapers wrote about these events in details. They said that 'it looks like that whole city of Belgrade is attending this competition. [The] ground is decorated with the flags and the orchestra is playing very nice pieces'. Unfortunately, we don’t have any photos of these events but do have names of all participants. Belgrade Skating Society was very active for five years. Later ice skating was popularized through several ice-skating clubs, some of them were under the patronage of Serbian King Alexander I Obrenovitch. It was very popular to have organized balls, speed skating races and other events during long winters days on several outdoor ice rinks throughout the city." Zagreb held its first figure skating competition in January 1895, which was won by a woman named Paula Privora. Her prizes were a pair of new skates and a copy of a German skating manual.

Skaters at the Belgrade Cycling Club Ice Rink, early twentieth century. Photo courtesy Dejan Milutinovic.

The first competition that was later recognized as a Yugoslav National Championships was held in 1921 and won by one P. Jarosz. In the first few years, only men competed but by 1927, women were permitted to enter. Gisela Reichmann, who represented Austria internationally and finished second at the 1923 World Championships, was the only competitor.

Sibling pair Mileta and Branka Nedic skating in the roaring twenties at the rink at Sumadija Tennis Court. Photo courtesy Dejan Milutinovic.

By the early thirties, the number of outdoor rinks in Yugoslavia had tripled. Under the direction of Hubert Souvan, the country's skating federation, the Savez Klizackih i Koturaljkaskih Jugoslavije, became a member of the International Skating Union. In February 1937, Paul Schwab and Emanuel Thuma became the first two skaters from Yugoslavia to compete at a major international competition when they entered the 1937 European Championships in Prague. They finished in the final two spots on every judge's scorecard. Two years later, Schwab returned to international competition at the 1939 European Championships in Zakopane, Poland to compete in the pairs event with partner Sylvia Palme. They placed seventh of the nine teams competing. Two weeks later at the World Championships in Budapest, they placed dead last. Palme survived the War and appeared at the 1951 World Championships in Milan, where she placed ninth in the pairs event with a new partner, Marco Lajovic. It wouldn't be until 1966 that two more Yugoslav skaters, Anci Dolenc and Mitja Sketa,  would reemerge to represent their country on the international stage.

Competitors at a figure skating competition in Belgrade held in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia. Photo courtesy "Kolo" magazine, Dejan Milutinovic.

There were several factors that slowed the progress of skating in Yugoslavia in the years following World War II. The Slovenian Press asserted that weather was right up there on the list, as it wasn't until the mid-fifties that the country built its first artificial rinks in Belgrade and Jesenice. A lack of high-level instructors in the country also played a huge factor. It's pretty hard to entice anyone to come to a country for a job where you only get paid (a pittance) for thirty seven days of the year, right? Another factor was the Yugoslavian federation's relationship with the ISU. Historian Benjamin T. Wright noted, "In 1949 [a] new association from Yugoslavia returned to membership, the former pre-War Member having been dropped in 1947. The new Member, reflecting the socialist form of government in the country, was actually a committee for skating of the Union of Physical Culture, an entity of the state, which would be the legal form of organization of the majority of the Members from Eastern Europe for the foreseeable future."

Slowly but surely, the skaters of Yugoslavia soldiered on. After Ljubljana played host to the 1967 European Championships, the country organized its first homegrown international competition under the very unoriginal name of International Championship Zagreb Figure Skating. This event, founded by Vladimir Amšel, Bozidar Čubriković, Klara Dušanović, Zlatko Gros, Radovan Lipovšćak and Ante Škrtić, later became known as the Golden Spin Of Zagreb. In its infancy, what went on to become a popular international event had some pretty serious hiccups. Lipovšćak recalled, "In 1968 during the pairs competition, [it became] suddenly foggy. The judges could not see, and the partners were lost in the fog, shouting. The competition was interrupted and continued the next day." The next year, the snow was so heavy during the school figures that coaches, judges, team leaders and skaters all had to pitch in to clear the ice during the competition. By 1972, the organizers finally decided to construct a roof over the rink and keep Mother Nature from interfering once and for all.

Keychain from the 1974 European Championships in Zagreb

In the seventies and eighties, the popularity of figure skating in Yugoslavia took off with the construction of more and more artificial rinks, including Belgrade's Ice Hall Pionr in 1978. Zagreb played host to the 1974 and 1979 European Championships.

Sarajevo hosted the 1982 World Junior Championships and of course, the 1984 Winter Olympic Games. In 1981, Sanda Dubravčić became the very first skater from the country to win a medal in international figure skating competition when she placed second at the European Championships in Innsbruck behind Switzerland's Denise Biellmann.

In 1986 and 1989, Sarajevo's Zetra Rink again played host to the World Junior Championships. The venue was later damaged in the Siege Of Sarajevo. Anastasios Pantelopulos remarked, "It was damaged in the war and then rehabbed in the late nineties. The Sarajevo Open event in the spring happens there. Actually, there is a wonderful museum dedicated to the Sarajevo Olympics in the building - I visited it in November of 2010... If you ever get the opportunity to go Sarajevo is actually a pretty phenomenally unique city and Bosnia is ridiculously beautiful, it is very easy to see why they hosted the Winter Olympics."

In 1990, Željka Čižmešija made skating history as the final person in history to skate a compulsory figure at the World Championships. The rink was the Dartmouth Sportsplex... only a stone's throw away from the location of the Nova Scotian factory where John Forbes pumped out the very Starr Skates... the skates that gave birth to the rise in popularity in figure skating in Yugoslavia.

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 the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.