The 1979 European Figure Skating Championships

The United Nations had just kicked off The International Year Of The Child with a massive benefit concert for UNICEF. Sadly, less than two weeks later, eight students were wounded at a school shooting in San Diego. British Prime Minister James Callaghan's term was nearing its end and Margaret Thatcher was eyeing his position. Kids of all ages were in love with the brand new Garfield comic strip and nightclub-goers were crazy like a fool for Boney M's "Daddy Cool".

The year was 1979 and from January 30 to February 4, one hundred and three skaters from twenty European nations gathered in Zagreb, Yugoslavia to compete in the European Figure Skating Championships. The event played a huge role in boosting interest in figure skating in the communist-run country, for the city's third artificial ice rink was built specifically for the occasion. 

The eight thousand seat arena was the second rink to be housed inside the Dom Sportova complex on Trešnjevka. Zagreb had played host to the European Championships only five years earlier. In 1974, skaters and officials were put up in a hotel that was frequented by 'ladies of the night'. Miss Gladys Hogg, on a rare trip to the Continent with students Karena Richardson and Robin Cousins, was mortified. Jan Hoffmann had won his first European title and Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov their first European medals that year. In 1979, they were all once again medal favourites.

The one-year ban ISU ban on Soviet judges had ended. Iron Curtain officials returned to the fray and their old tricks. Writing in "Le Monde", French journalist Pierre Georges remarked, "Everyone will tell you that the Soviet judges have just made their reappearance in Zagreb, after a year of collective suspension for, how to say... 'excess of national zeal'. Everyone will also tell you that this body of judges is, like the world, cut in two: East and West. Five judges on one side, four on the other. It does not take more to provoke a cold, even glacial war. Hence the many differences of judging, sometimes glaring in Zagreb." Speaking of judging, let's take a look back at how the events played out!


Pairs medallists in Zagreb. Photo courtesy Joseph Butchko Collection, an acquisition of the Skate Guard Archive.

The pairs event in Zagreb was, in contrast to the other disciplines, rather uneventful. Irina Rodnina and Aleksandr Zaitsev had won the last ten European titles (a record) but the pair was absent as Irina was due to give birth to their son in a matter of weeks. Also absent were the East German pair Manuela Mager and Uwe Bewersdorf. 

Fourteen year old Marina Cherkasova and twenty-one year old Sergei Shakrai, who had defeated Mager and Bewersdorf at the 1978 Europeans in Strasbourg, skated two strong programs to defeat their Soviet teammates Irina Vorobieva and Igor Livosky and East Germans Sabine Baeß and Tassilo Thierbach.

Kerstin Stolfig and Veit Kempe in Zagreb. Photo courtesy Joseph Butchko Collection, an acquisition of the Skate Guard Archive.

The third Soviet pair, Marina Pestova and Stanislav Leonovich, placed fourth, just ahead of East Germans Kerstin Stolfig and Veit Kempe. It was the third time in the seventies that Soviet and East German pairs had claimed the top five places at the European Championships, speaking greatly to the strength of the pairs programs of the two countries.


In contrast to the pairs event, which had only ten entries, there were a record-twenty nine skaters in the women's event in Zagreb. Defending European and World Champion Anett Pötzsch led the way after the figures, followed by Dagmar Lurz, Kristiina Wegelius, Susanna Driano, Susan Broman, Karena Richardson, Debbie Cottrill and Denise Biellmann

Anett Pötzsch's win in the short program, coupled with Biellmann's poor showing in figures, pretty much sealed the deal before the free skate even began. Pötzsch played indoor football backstage just half an hour before her turn to take the ice. Though she lost the free skate to Biellmann, she skated very well, landing her first planned triple Salchow but downgrading a second to a double. As expected, she took the gold. Lurz, only fifth in the free, placed second over Biellmann. Wegelius finished fourth, just ahead of East Germany's Carola Weißenberg. Yugoslavia's entry, Sanda Dubravčić, placed a very impressive seventh - nearly ten spots higher than she had finished the year prior in Strasbourg. Most surprising was Broman of Finland, who dropped all way down to an unlucky thirteenth after poor performances in the short and free. Kira Ivanova of the Soviet Union placed a creditable tenth in her European debut.

Katarina Witt at the 1979 European Championships. Video courtesy Frazer Ormondroyd.

Another skater making their European debut was Katarina Witt. At thirteen, she was the youngest competitor. She performed her free skate in a dress borrowed from Pötzsch. She was eighteenth after figures, but placed an impressive seventh in the free, attempting four triple jumps, and moving up to fourteenth overall. Many of the other women were trying only one; several didn't attempt any. The Yugoslavian audience really took a liking to Biellmann and after she lost, there were the usual cries of 'pre-judging'. Many in the audience didn't understand how the figures played into the final results.


Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov

The dance event in Zagreb was a tremendously exciting match-up between two very accomplished Soviet couples. Irina Moiseeva and Andrei Minenkov were the defending European titleholders; Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov the World Champions. At the Soviet Championships in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, Linichuk and Karponosov had been victorious and when they led after the first two compulsories, many thought they had it in the bag. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves recalled how things played out thusly: "Barber/Slater almost didn't make it to Zagreb for their first Europeans. They drove nine hours in a snowstorm to Heathrow only to miss the plane and drive back in the same conditions. With NSA funding, they would have flown to London to catch the plane to Yugoslavia. But the NSA did not pay travel expenses to competitions. Finally on ice, they collided with Regőczy/Sallay in the first practice. Karen's blade came off in another practice. Torvill/Dean luckily drew second-last to start, but they skated into a rut in the Viennese Waltz. They quickly learned to move their pattern down ice to avoid ruts. Moiseeva/Minenkov skated the Yankee Polka with 'his chin out and her doe-eyed, beseeching look - which was totally at odds with the spontaneous peasant gaiety called for in this dance' (Alexandra Stevenson). Linichuk/Karponosov led after the Blues and maintained first in the waltz OSP, attracting attention with Natalia's double threes around Gennadi. Regőczy/Sallay skated the OSP to 'Die Fledermaus." The media focused on Robin Cousins as Natalia and Gennadi dethroned the graceful Mo and Min, who skated a very fine, if old-fashioned, waltz to one piece of music in their free dance and received their lowest marks for a free since 1974. Then the press brutalized Mo and Min and asked them if they would change their style. A reporter complimented Betty Callaway on her English for being a 'Hungarian.' Krisztina and András got their highest marks to date: two 5.9's from the East German judge, Dr. Wolfgang Kunz, and one 5.9 from the Swiss judge, Roland Wehinger."

Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean had just started training with Betty Callaway in Budapest alongside Krisztina Regőczy and András Sallay prior to this event. In Nottingham, most of their practice time had been late at night. Daytime practices and access to novel new technology like video equipment helped them greatly. In their second Europeans, they moved up three places to sixth.


Robin Cousins. Photo courtesy Joseph Butchko Collection, an acquisition of the Skate Guard Archive.

Three years after John Curry made history as Great Britain's first Olympic Gold Medallist in men's figure skating, the British press had jumped on the story of Robin Cousins, the twenty-one year old from Bristol poised to follow in Curry's footsteps. The English papers offered daily updates of Cousins' progress in Zagreb, all but ignoring the efforts of the other British skaters in many of their reports. In the school figures, twenty-five year old Vladimir Kovalev (who had finished second to Curry at the 1976 Games) led the defending European Champion Jan Hoffmann and his Soviet teammate Igor Bobrin. Cousins was a disappointing sixth, receiving his lowest mark - a 2.9 - from British judge Sally Anne Stapleford. 

Robin Cousins won the short program with a spectacular display, earning a 6.0 from the West German judge, but Hoffmann and Kovalev were so close in points that they were in a virtual tie heading into the free skate.

Vladimir Kovalev. Photo courtesy Joseph Butchko Collection, an acquisition of the Skate Guard Archive.

Robin Cousins skated brilliantly in the final phase of the competition, earning two more perfect 6.0's. After his performance, he told John Curry (who was covering the event for BBC) that he "felt great until the last thirty seconds" when he slightly touched down his foot on the exit of a final double Axel. When Jean-Christophe Simond of France (the last skater) took the ice, Kovalev had a narrow lead over Hoffmann. A Dutch television broadcast went off the air telling viewers that Kovalev had won. However, Simond's marks flipped the ordinals in Hoffmann's favour and he serendipitously won his fourth European title in the same city where he won his first. In her "BBC Book Of Skating", Sandra Stevenson recalled, "Simond had a brilliant night. His high marks for the free skating changed the overall positions of the French and British judges. The French official put Simond second overall, which took one of Kovalev's votes of second or better away. This was the key factor. (The English official put Simond third overall which gave Kovalev fourth overall, but this was not to affect the final outcome.) Both the Russian and East German now had six votes of second or better. To decide between the two, following the recognized procedure, the sum of these six votes was calculated. Hoffmann's four firsts and two seconds was obviously better than Kovalev's two firsts and four seconds, so the East German was given the title. Pandemonium reigned in the press room when journalists sought to explain this amazing situation briefly."

Robin Cousins at the 1979 European Championships. Video courtesy Frazer Ormondroyd.

In the book "Robin Cousins: Skating For Gold", Cousins recalled, "Right from the very beginning, it appeared the Yugoslavians had become British citizens. To me they did not seem like Yugoslavs at all, having apparently adopted me as their own. It was all very flattering and I was thrilled; not only did I have people back home in Britain rooting for me, but also these locals right here."

Debbie Cottrill and Robin Cousins in Zagreb. Photo courtesy "Robin Cousins: Skating For Gold", Howard Bass.

As was the case with Denise Biellmann in the women's event, there was a lot of raucous in the stands about the fact that Cousins hadn't won gold. Even Olympic Silver Medallist and World Champion Alain Calmat chimed in, telling reporters, "Cousins is the one and only champion of today. I am outraged with the judges." After the results were announced, Cousins told a British reporter, "I have to be satisfied with what I got, but if they want a showdown they will have it in Vienna."

Ordinals and points from the men's event. Courtesy "Robin Cousins: Skating For Gold", Howard Bass. 

Making his debut at the European Championships was a teenager from Bratislava with a bright future. Jozef Sabovčík received a 2.2 for one of his figures. The best skaters were averaging two full points higher. He drew first to skate in the short program and pulled a groin muscle attempting the required combination jump. Consequently, his free skate was full of mistakes and he placed a disappointing seventeenth in a field of twenty. In his book "Jumpin' Joe", he recalled, "When I was invited to the post-banquet party, any disappointment I may have felt from the results of the competition disappeared. This was what was known as the 'illegal' party, which took place after all the formalities and where a skater could let their hair down. To be only fifteen years old and invited to such a gathering was a great honour and I hung on to everybody's words all night long. Unfortunately, this party is where I picked up a bad habit... I went home from Europeans thinking smoking was cool, began doing it regularly and never gave it up."

The parties weren't the only post-competition excitement in Zagreb. In the gala, Anett Pötzsch dazzled with a back Charlotte into the splits in her "Radetzky March". Linichuk and Karponosov's trademark exhibition to Joe Dassin's "Et Si Tu N'existais Pas" was a crowd favourite and a delightfully seventies performance by Jan Hoffmann to Henry Mancini's "Mystery Movie Theme" was quite entertaining.

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