Images Courtesy of the Author's Personal Collection.
Maxie Herber and Ernst Baier skating at the 1936 Winter Olympic Games in front of huge crowds and dramatic scenery, typical of Olympic skating.
Madge Syers Olympic and World Champion London 1908
After the main London 1908 Olympic Games in July, the ‘Winter Games’ began in October, including Association Football, Lacrosse, Hockey, Boxing and Figure Skating. At the Prince’s Skating Club Knightsbridge, the women's individual skating gold medal went to Florence Madeline, 'Madge' Syers, who had previously retired from a world-class career due to ill-health but returned specifically to try for an Olympic medal. Else Rendschmidt won the silver medal for Germany. Dorothy Greenhough-Smith, who was the reigning British champion in Madge Syers absence in 1908, took third place for Britain. Gwendolyn Lycett of Britain and Elna Montgomery of Sweden were the remainder of the field.
Madge also won an Olympic bronze in the mixed pairs with her husband, Edgar in 1908. The gold medal went to the German pairing Anna Hübler and Heinrich Burger, ahead of married British couple Phyllis and James Johnson in second place. Phyllis Johnson was also a world champion with James, until his ill health forced her to change partners and she became the first person to win an Olympic medal with different partners, when with Basil Williams, she earned a bronze medal in the mixed pairs. Coming fourth, she narrowly also missed our on an individual medal in the women’s singles in Antwerp.
Madge’s mixed pairs medal was a fitting testament to Edgar’s support, as he had coached her to more advanced levels. Having entered the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902, as there were no rules to prevent women from competing, Madge came second to Ulrich Salchow. She won the ‘men's’ world championships in 1903 and 1904, defeating Edgar. She therefore forced the International Skating Union (ISU) to accept women’s competitions as part of their responsibility and her husband had fully supported this. A heart condition forced Madge Syers to cease competition soon after the 1908 Olympic Games. She died, aged just thirty-five, in 1917.
Ethel Muckelt Britain’s only medalist Chamonix 1924
The inauguration of a separate International Week of Winter Sport in Chamonix in January 1924 (later designated as the Winter Olympics), overseen by the French Olympic Committee, initially added little variety to the events available to female competitors. Overall, six sports and sixteen disciplines were included, with individual and mixed pairs figure skating events providing opportunities for just eleven female athletes in total.
Having previously finished fifth in the skating pairs at the 1920 Summer Antwerp Olympic Games with partner Sydney Wallwork, Britain’s Ethel Muckelt took bronze in the Chamonix 1924 Winter Games in the women’s singles figure skating. She finished behind Herma Planck-Szabi of Hungary and Beatrix Loughran of the United States of America. Muckelt therefore became the first British athlete to win a Winter Games Olympic medal and narrowly missed out on another victory in the mixed pairs with partner Jack Page. Muckelt’s bronze would be Britain’s only medal in Chamonix and result in a tenth place finish overall for the British team.
Born in 1885, Ethel Muckelt’s family made their fortune manufacturing textile dyes. She had learned to skate at the Manchester Ice Rink; the only permanent facility in Britain outside of London at the time. So regional differences could be as important as other factors, like class and gender, in developing Olympic hopefuls. Phyllis Johnson, who had taken part in the 1908 London Olympics and skated again in 1920, could not sustain her place in the squad for Chamonix. Nor could her Antwerp team-mate Madelon St John. Muckelt’s Mancunian colleague, Gertrude Kathleen Shaw, came seventh in the individual competition in 1924, before competing again in St Moritz in 1928. For Mildred Richardson of London, in eighth place, it would be her only Olympic Games.
Although the numbers were relatively slight, figure skating was to have tremendous popular appeal and spectator interest in Olympic competitions was intense. Though she came last in the 1924 women’s figure skating, Norway’s Sonja Henie aged eleven, would redefine the sport. From 1927 to 1937 Henie won ten consecutive world titles and three individual gold medals at the St Moritz Olympic Games in 1928, in Lake Placid, 1932 and at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany 1936. Turning professional in 1937, Henie became one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood with the release of motion pictures Thin Ice (1937) One in A Million (1939) and Sun Valley Road (1941).
The All-Female British Winter Olympic Team in 1932
The Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games in 1932 saw the first all female British Olympic team of just four figure skaters, who could therefore only participate in the individual competitions (and not the mixed pairs). The figure skating as a whole was contested by 13 nations; more than any other sport. However, the women singles was restricted to 7 national representatives (including Austria, Belgium, Canada, Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, and the United States) with the mixed pairs contested by just four teams (Canada, France, Hungary and the United States). However, social class was an important part of the story of how and why the four British women came to be on the team at Lake Placid.
The reasons for a small team were mainly financial, so far as the British Olympic Association (BOA) said it was concerned, but also because the Winter Olympics had much less national prestige than the Summer Games. A letter from the Skating Association was considered in November 1931, that forecast no British representative would be in the medals and, in view of cost, one man and one woman should be sent as a token gesture with the hope of a top six placing. Similarly the British Ice Hockey Association sought to identify male British-born players in Canada and the United States both to enlargen the search for talent and to save on travel costs. Bobsleigh was not considered a national sport, so any male competitors had to fund their own way. As late as December 1931, the BOA decided that only one skating competitor was proficient enough to fund at Lake Placid, presumably Mollie Phillips although she was not named, and allocated £75 14 shillings and 3 pence for the purpose.
For the first time in Olympic history, Great Britain’s flag bearer at Lake Placid was a woman. Mollie Phillips was by far the senior member of the team at the age of 24 compared to Joan Dix at 13 years of age; whereas Cecilia Colledge and Megan Taylor were both just 11 years old. Colledge was 11 years and 83 days, making her slightly younger than Taylor, at 11 years and 102 days, and she remains the youngest ever Olympian. Dix’s father Fred was originally from Norfolk and he had been a speed skater, competing at the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games.
Megan Taylor was the highest-placed British athlete in seventh place, just ahead of Cecilia Coledge, Mollie Philips and Joan Dix. Born in Wimbledon, Megan Taylor was coached from infancy by her father, Philip, who had been a speed skater. She would be a longtime rival to Cecilia Colledge, and, by extension, Sonia Henie. Colledge, was the daughter of a surgeon and was coached by Jacques Gerschwiler, and had trained at the exclusive Ice Club, Westminster from 1928. In each case therefore the young women of the team (Colledge, Dix and Taylor) had a considerable amount of financial support and family interest in their chosen sport, to the extent of training as full time as education would allow. It was this familial support, and some private appeals by the Skating Association, that got one woman and three girls to Lake Placid.
Given the social background of these young women, the staging of the Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games and Los Angeles Summer Olympics of 1932 caused the British Olympic Association once again to debate the relationship between amateur values and specialist preparation. Even the timings, using a chronometer rather than a stop-watch, evidenced this increased technocracy. This was primarily described as an American ‘problem’ in correspondance between the BOA with the IOC over ‘broken time’ payments and implied professionalism. But skating also provided a public platform for young women to become sporting, and Olympic heroes.