The 1931 European Figure Skating Championships

Sonja Henie and Karl SchäferPhoto courtesy National Archives of Poland.

In the first weeks of 1931, Ulrich Salchow was celebrating his sixth year as President of the International Skating Union, Albert Einstein began his work at the California Institute Of Technology at the same time Thomas Edison submitted his lastest patent application. 

Everyone was tapping their toes to George and Ira Gershwin's new tune "I Got Rhythm"... and over the course of seven days, a handful of Europe's best figure skaters convened on two of the continent's most influential 'skating cities' for the 1931 European Figure Skating Championships. 

It was only the second year that women's and pairs competitions were included in the annual international competition, though they were not held at the same time as the men's event. The men competed on January 24 and 25, 1931 at the Kunsteisbahn Engelmann in Vienna, Austria, while the pairs and women had their turn on January 29 and 30 at the Kulm Rink in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Top: Karl Schäfer in Vienna. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine. Bottom: Photo courtesy Národní muzeum.

To generate interest in the men's competition, Vienna's Selenophone Society hosted a screening of film recordings of Sonja Henie and Karl Schäfer that included sound. The novelty worked like a charm, with tickets for the men's free skate selling out days prior. In a class by himself, Schäfer won his third consecutive European title in a most convincing fashion, earning first place ordinals across the board in both the figures and free skate. If Germany's Ernst Baier only narrowly edged Dr. Hugo Distler of Austria in the school figures, he convincingly defeated his Austrian rival and won the silver medal with a far superior free skating effort. Hungary's Marcel Vadas finished fourth, ahead of another pair of Austrians, Otto Hartmann and Rudolf Zettelmann. Following the event, Schäfer, Distler, Baier, Vadas and others boarded a train for St. Moritz to train for the upcoming World Figure Skating Championships in Berlin.

Olga Orgonista and Sándor Szalay. Photo courtesy National Archives of Poland.

With Andrée and Pierre Brunet opting not to participate for the second year in a row, only three teams were left in the running for the 1931 European pairs title. In a repeat of the results from the 1930 European Championships in Vienna, Olga Orgonista and Sándor Szalay again decisively came out on top of their Hungarian compatriots Emília Rotter and László Szollás. Austrians Lilly (Scholz) Gaillard and Willy Petter took the bronze.

Silver medal from the pairs event 

Yvonne de Ligne, Hilde Holovsky, Sonja Henie, Ilse Hornung, Lilly Weiler, Else Flebbe, Reneé Volpato, Fritzi Burger and Vivi-Anne Hultén

After skipping the previous year's European Championships in Vienna and allowing Fritzi Burger to make history as the first European women's champion, Sonja Henie emerged in St. Moritz to defeat her Austrian rival in what was perhaps one of the most clear cut victories of her career on paper.

Fritzi Burger. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Sonja Henie and Fritzi Burger were first and second on every single judge's scorecard in Switzerland that year, but Maribel Vinson, who was in attendance, stated, "Sonja won, of course, but Fritzi Burger was terribly close to her; better on several of the figures and did beautiful free skating." The Austrian and Hungarian judges actually placed Burger's young teammate, Hilde Holovsky, second in the free skate... adding insult to injury for the elder Austrian star. 

Hilde Holovsky. Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France.

An uncharacteristically shaky free skate kept Sweden's Vivi-Anne Hultén off the podium in fourth, ahead of Yvonne de Ligne and four other skaters. The February 10, 1931 issue of the "Wiener Sporttagblatt" noted that Hultén appeared "overtrained, overstrained and maybe not quite well at the start." Rumours swirled that there were financial issues between her mother and her trainer, and when they made the papers, that certainly would have added further duress to an already stressful situation.

Roger Turner, Maribel Vinson and Geddy Hill in St. Moritz. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Reporting on the event for "Skating" magazine, Maribel Vinson shared, "The free skating was extremely colourful. Sonja wore baby blue panne velvet and was extremely well groomed as usual. Holovsky was in a deeper turquoise blue; Vivi-Anne in red; Fritzi in bright fuchsia, very striking; and Madame de Ligne wore an orange dress that was perfect with her blonde colouring and beige boots... [de Ligne] is tall and has a statuesque style all her own, she completely won the crowd by her attractive personality. She is very charming; blonde, brown eyes, a ready smile, and is a perfect sport. Everyone is very fond of her here."

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

Held in conjunction with the women's event in St. Moritz was a senior men's competition as well as junior championships for both men and women. In the women's event, Austria's Liselotte Landbeck defeated two young British skaters who would go on to become World Champions... Megan Taylor and Cecilia Colledge.

A young Megan Taylor

In the senior men's event, Hugo Distler took the gold, with Ernst Baier finishing only third. Mr. Grafström is here and has been most nice to me. He has been skating at the Palace rink a lot, and yesterday Fritzi [Burger] and I had great fun, during lunch at the rink, trying to get around on his special figures he patterned out for us. It really was awfully funny to see us, with a bun in one hand and a chicken bone in the other, struggling to get around a double loop change double loop backwards, or a change bracket, change outer back three, change outer bracket figure, continuous! He gave an exhibition Saturday of dance steps to music. He is wonderful, but I don't know whether I can say I think he is more wonderful than Schäfer. They are so utterly different and Schäfer skates with such joy and freedom. Fritzi is very nice, she was down skating with us all afternoon and I do like her so much!"

Vivi-Anne Hultén, Fritzi Burger and Piri Levitzky. Photo courtesy Bildarchiv Austria.

Following the women's and pairs events in St. Moritz, the medallists from both the Viennese and Swiss events were celebrated at a lavish banquet at the Kulm Hotel attended by Francis Curzon, 5th Earl Howe. The February 10, 1931 issue of the "Wiener Sporttagblatt" reported that at this reception, "Mrs. Hultén made a protest and [Ulrich Salchow] the Swedish President of the IEV ripped it up and threw the shreds under the table."

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