Dancing In The Dark

Prior to World War II, international figure skating competitions were sometimes plagued by ninety-nine problems... but power outages really weren't one of them. At international competitions, skaters often battled snow, sleet, rain, heavy winds and freezing temperatures as they carved out figure eights on outdoor ice. During the War, many skaters learned to cope with performing double Salchow's in the dark due to mandated blackouts. In the years that followed, power outages and technical difficulties during skating events have made for some memorable moments. 

Ája Záňová

After winning her first World title in Paris in 1949, Ája Záňová was invited to give a special exhibition at the Richmond Ice Rink in England. The event was meant to be a 'welcome back' to the rink where she trained with coach Arnold Gerschwiler, but things didn't go exactly as planned. Cyril Beastall recounted Bob Cocks' explanation of what happened that spring in "Skating World" magazine thusly: "The Gala was drawing to a close... the star of the show was giving her first performance since winning the World's figure skating title... everyone was intently watching Ája, when, suddenly, without warning, the music came to a stop... every loud speaker in the building went dead - a main fuse had blown. Not a sound could be heard... except that of blade on ice. For Ája it must have been a terrible moment, but not for an instant did she pause... had a deaf person been watching, he would not have known that anything was amiss... she continued her brilliant performance in an atmosphere packed with silent expectancy... the only sounds were gasps from the crowd at her magnificent jumps, and applause. The feelings of many in the crowd would be hard to describe... perhaps a mixture of awe, wonderment and profound appreciation for such sportsmanship and courage that was needed to carry on. Nor did it end there, for such was the applause on the completion of Aja's programme that she was called on to give not one, but several encores - all without music!"

Karen Magnussen. Photo courtesy University of Manitoba Archives.

Eighteen years later, a power failure interrupted the performance of another future World Champion, Canada's Karen Magnussen, at the North American Championships in Montreal. In the forty minutes that passed from the time the lights and music stopped to when she re-skated her program, Karen sat in a darkened dressing room having a problem blade fixed. Though she skated much better after her skate's date with a screwdriver, she unfortunately missed out on a medal.

In 1973, the lights stayed on but the music was a no-go for Irina Rodnina and Aleksandr Zaitsev at the World Championships in Bratislava. Two and a half minutes into their free skate, the Soviet power couple were performing a lift when a failure with the sound system occurred. The supportive Czechoslovakian crowd willed them on with applause. They finished their program without music and won their first of six World titles together.

Linda Fratianne. Photo courtesy "womenSports" magazine.

The lights went out in Hartford in 1977 in the final moments of Linda Fratianne's free skate at the U.S. Championships. The next skater, Wendy Burge, chose to skate in the semi-darkness rather than wait twenty-five minutes for the overhead mercury lights to be restored. Wendy skated brilliantly and won the free skate, earning a standing ovation in the process, but it was Linda who won her first of four national titles that snowy night in Connecticut.

Photo courtesy "The Canadian Skater" magazine

A faulty transformer of the Civic Centre in Ottawa was to blame for a six-hour delay in the start of the free dance at the 1984 World Championships. The sump pump, located in the rink's basement, overheated and the smoke from this led to the evacuation of skaters' dressing rooms for a short time as a safety precaution. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves recalled, "A power outage... enveloped 10,000 spectators in darkness... and disrupted the TV schedule. Restaurants ran out of food and closed after feeding so many fans stuck downtown with nothing to do for five hours. Wendy Sessions left first for the rink and phoned back to tell Jayne [Torvill], Chris [Dean], Karen [Barber], and Nicky [Slater] to hold tight. At first, no one believed her because she always joked. Then Jayne wrote letters and Chris reasoned that it was good to rest after the morning's practice. CTV preempted prime-time shows to broadcast live in Canada. BBC and ITV stayed with the free dances until the end at 4:00 am British time. Millions stayed awake to watch, delighted to see the lower ranked couples who usually are not shown." The following year, the power was also out for six hours during the figure skating events at the Special Olympics in Salt Lake City, but the event continued on with the use of emergency generators.

In 1994, a power outage, heat wave and lack of air conditioning were blamed for a delay in getting the ice ready for the figure skating events at the midsummer Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg. The conditions didn't seem to phase the Russians, who won seven out of the twelve medals at the competition. Four years later during the Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, three quarters of the lights in the White Ring Arena went out during the free dance of Tatiana Navka and Nikolai Morozov. The couple finished their program without missing a beat but ended up in a disappointing sixteenth place.

Tatiana Navka wasn't the only skater who was a victim of a power outage that went on to win an  Olympic medal in the twenty-first century. At the 2003 North American Challenge Skate in Thornhill, Ontario, promising youngsters Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Patrick Chan won medals in a competition that was remembered for being the "night the lights went out in Toronto." Heather Nemier, the U.S. team leader at the event, recalled the story of the competition in her write-up for "Skating" magazine: "The NACS in Thornhill, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, started on a normal, even, mundane note with an uneventful, but upbeat team meeting attended by all 23 athletes and their coaches. For the draw the skaters picked supersized Hershey's kisses with the skating order number on them. But it was at the end of the draw that the fun in Ontario really began – the power went out. Almost immediately, the hotel generators kicked in and everyone could see their way out of the meeting room. Some of the skaters had gone to their rooms to get changed for their first practice, which was supposed to begin shortly after the draw ended. Instead the team gathered in the hotel lobby to see how long the power might be out. With wild rumors flying around, U.S. Team Director Denise Thomas and I tried to find out what happened and how soon things would be back to normal. We finally determined that the outage affected much more than just the Toronto area – it seemed likely that the the whole Northeast was affected... The arena didn't have power either, so we kept everyone at the hotel until more information was available. The afternoon and evening passed with the team hanging out in the lobby, playing games, getting to know each other, eating at the restaurant – which fortunately used natural gas – and asking a lot of questions. It became obvious that there would be no practices that evening, but Friday's schedule was left intact until further notice. The hotel management was not sure the hotel would have enough generator power to last through the night, so all hotel guests were asked to gather in the lobby. We were told to bring pillows since we might be sleeping in the lobby. Some skaters were thrilled with this slumber party idea, while others weren't so enthralled with the idea! Eventually, it was determined that the hotel had enough generator power to last until dawn, so we returned to our rooms. Guests without flashlights were escorted to their rooms... Around 5 a.m. the power came back on and with it came a new set of problems. That morning we met with the tech rep, referee and the Canadian team leaders about the Friday schedule. The rink had power again and had managed to keep the ice through the night, though it was a little soft. Morning practices were cancelled in order to get the ice back to competition form. We had major concerns about whether the power would stay on and allow us to get in all the first rounds in on Friday. So, the schedule was redone so each event would have a practice, immediately followed by the first round (short program for singles and compulsory dance for the dancers). It was a bit unorthodox, but the skaters were terrific about going with the flow."

Boyang Jin

Flash forward to 2018 at the Four Continents Championships in Taipei City, when the lights and music cut out during the exhibition gala. Members of the audience illuminated the rink with the flashlights on their cell phones while China's Boyang Jin entertained them with some dazzling jumps. 

Though power outages and technical difficulties are obviously never a fun time, they haven't stopped the world's best skaters from carrying on and giving amazing performances over the years. The show, as they say, must go on.

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 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.