Vienna is the birthplace of both figure skating and psychoanalysis, which may be the greatest natural parlay in sports, since figure skaters are slightly goofy athletes. To become a world champion a skater must have the grace of a matador and the constitution of a bull and maybe a little bit of the footwork of both. The thing that bugs skaters most is that unbelievers think it is easy. "We don't flit around on our toes like a bunch of Tinker Bells, you know," says American Gary Visconti, who weighs 120 pounds and is built like a Volkswagen shock absorber. "This is a tough sport." Tough is right. Especially when you consider that as a final gesture to this wonderful insanity they do it all to music.
The best skaters in the world—the last 118 who could still wobble after several months of regional shakedowns in 16 countries—came to Vienna last week for the 1967 world championships, the slippery World Series. Only the 18 toughest made it through Saturday night to get awards. Two high-winging Austrians swept the men's freestyle event. Vienna's world champion Emmerich Danzer, who is 22 and looks like a Princeton undergraduate, had the courage to 1) show up in a purple stretch suit, and 2) come from behind teammate Wolfgang Schwarz to keep his title.
Michigan's gutsy little Visconti was even farther back, in fifth spot going into the finals. "But you know me," he said. "Me, I'm going to give them the works." And so saying, he pulled himself up to his full 5 feet 3 inches and blasted through his routine. He tried two triple jumps and actually survived one of them. It won the bronze medal, an armload of flowers and enough adulation to run for mayor.
Those eternal Russian students, 34-year-old Oleg Protopopov and his 31-year-old wife, Ludmila Belousova, won the pairs competition. Again. There is every indication they will have a longer run than Sarah Bernhardt.
March 13, 1967
Great Britain's dance champions, Bernard Ford and Diane Towler, won the dance title—which is not exactly a newsworthy event in the world of sport except that they worked the theme from Zorba the Greek into their act and you should try that on skates some time.
And, in the grand finale, America's Peggy Fleming leaped into a double Axel, landed smartly on her shocking pink pants, got up and won her second world championship.
It was a dizzy week for Austria, with enough research material to keep the Freud students busy for another year. In Vienna, where the air is still thick with waltz music, the Danube still flows and the Vienna Woods have survived the subdividers, everybody is a patsy for figure skaters. Vienna drew the world championships because the Vienna skating club is 100 years old this year. The Austrians are rich in skating history: they began doing fancy stuff on ice about the time Americans began using ice to cool beer. During the Civil War a visiting American dancing master named Jackson Haines cut a few fancy turns on ice, called everybody in to take a look at them and figure skating was born. In the years since, the Austrians have won 32 world championships, and those upstarts, the Americans, have won 23. With each year the competition has grown tougher.
World skating championships start out deceptively slowly, tightening each skater down a psychological turn at a time. By the time of the finals they stand around the edge of the rink with the veins throbbing in their foreheads, shaking as if seized with the flu. It is as if the idea is to determine who shows the most grace under pressure. Anybody who cracks has to turn in his skates. The free skating is the ninth inning, the good part, where the skater gets a few minutes alone on the ice, with a scratchy tape recorder in the background playing something like Intermezzo, to show the crowd his real stuff.
Somewhere back in the Jackson Haines era someone inserted compulsory school figures into the rules. This means that skaters have to go through intricate maneuvers in front of a panel of nine judges wearing lumpy coats and insulated boots. The idea is to prove that each contestant knows his ABC's of skating and can pull off something like a left-outside rocker and right-forward paragraph double three and still keep his cool.
The scoring is a morass of technicalities, but the only thing you have to know is that the skaters must cut a pattern on the ice, and trace it precisely three times with each skate. Afterwards, the judges gather around and look at the pattern and shake their heads and sneer openly. Some of them get down on their hands and knees and whisk at the ice with little brooms. Then they all stand up and vote. The high and low votes are discarded, things like ordinal points are figured in, everybody argues a lot and accuses everybody else of nationalism, and somehow the skaters are ranked.
This form of mild torture takes up most of the week while the town gets ready for the main event. There is a crisis on the hour every hour, building up to one of the most beautiful contests in all of sport, the women's free-skating finals.
Girl watching in general, and Peggy watching in particular, is one of the more rewarding aspects of figure skating. Most girl figure skaters wear bruises on their hips, little swirly skirts and goose pimples. Not Peggy Fleming. She is the one without the bruises. She is 18 years old, four times U.S. figure skating champion and reigning world champion. She doubles as the hockey coach of the Colorado College Phi Delta Theta Red Barons. They do not play hockey very well ("They don't even skate very well, but I love them," she said). The Red Barons lost last week 6-1, and someone ratted on them by writing the coach in Vienna.
It doesn't matter. The coach is the best skater in the world and easily the prettiest. They sighed as she stepped out to skate. After her first few figures Vienna's Die Presse called her "the fragile skater" and Express said she was "America's shy Bambi." Both went a little wild about her gracious moves and gestures with the fingertips.
Most girl figure skaters have a distressing tendency to suffer from what could best be called linebacker leg, all the better to lift them in soaring leaps off the ice. Peggy, 5 feet 4 in 108 well-distributed pounds, is the sort of girl, to hear Austrian experts tell it, who could change the pattern of figure skating in years ahead. Peggy is the only world-class skater who swings gently into a turn, picking up momentum by arching her body rather than stroking off powerfully with a leg.
"She has always been good," said her coach, Carlo Fassi, standing on the sidelines and trying to keep his voice from rising hysterically. "But we have to care tenderly for Peggy to keep her from getting tired. I think these other skaters sometimes practice too much, that is, practice all out. I don't think that Kansas boy Ryun runs an all-out effort every day. You train too much, it gets you nothing but big legs."
And the fragile Bambi swung gently through her compulsory figures, looking every moment as if she would shatter into pieces of shining crystal. She racked up 1,223.4 points, plus a perfect score of nine ordinals, a milestone in figure skating history, and had anything but a fragile grip on the championship. Her closest rival was 69 points behind.
Then, when the Austrians weren't looking, the fragile Peggy calmly attacked a Colorado-size lunch; when dessert came, she sat staring happily into the depths of a piece of chocolate cake, building a mountain of whipped cream on top of it with her spoon.
"It makes you feel good to be the champion," she said. More whipped cream and the mountain got higher. "I like the feeling very much. Sometimes, when I am practicing my freestyle routine off in a corner, I can see the other girls sort of watching me. I don't try to keep any secrets from them. I know they are planning to work some of my things into their routines. But the original is always best, don't you think?" More whipped cream and the mountain began to teeter on top as though it would collapse in a splash of calories.
"There are two schools of thought in skating," she said. "One is the almost balletlike approach. That is, where the movements are more graceful and everything blends in smoothly as you flow across the ice. The other is more directly athletic. It is more traditional, it is almost what you would call the 'Ice Follies' concept. I try to combine a bit of both, but most of the emphasis is on the ballet approach. It works better for me."
It works indeed. Peggy began to attack the chocolate cake. "I got up to 112 pounds once," she volunteered, looking over the top of the whipped cream while the cafe owner hovered nearby anxiously, "but it didn't last.
"This is really a hard sort of life. It is a lot of traveling and training and work and appearances. Right now I love it, of course, and I really look forward to the Olympics. But after that—I don't know. People keep asking me will I turn professional? Will I continue as an amateur? Gee, I really look forward to leading a life of my own, a kind of other life. I don't think I will skate in competition too much longer."
She finished the cake. Then she went off to the Spanish Riding School to see the famous Lipizzan horses and feed them handfuls of sugar. When she returned to the hotel, Coach Fassi was near collapse. "You may practice for only 15 minutes," he said, "and then off to bed for a long nap."
Peggy's Vienna rival, 18-year-old European champion Gabriele Seyfert of East Germany, stood watching the free-skating finals at rinkside the next day. "Peggy," she said, "has no weaknesses. I am the more athletic type but I am trying to overcome that. The ideal thing would be to skate as Peggy does, which is softly, and then connect it with the high jumps between."
In a flash of pink jersey, with Tchaikovsky's Pathétique in the background, Peggy swirled onto the ice. There was one moment of Bambilike perfection and then a moment that later brought out a touch of the hockey coach.
"Well, gee," Peggy said. "I got a little behind my music and I was trying to catch up. And I got a little too close to the wall."
In that moment, coming down gracefully from a double Axel, Coach Fleming was on the seat of her pants, skidding shockingly toward the wall, the palms of her hands against the ice, while the audience was in sympathy. But by the time the music had shifted to Traviata, then Samson and Delilah and Thieving Magpie, she was back into the fluid, swinging routine.
Technically, it was two double toe loops, double flip, double Axel, some waltz jumps blended into a flying camel, with all that blended into a double Lutz. But never mind the technicalities. It was a dazzling picture of pink on ice and skating's most graceful show. Where the others had bounded to the attack, Peggy flowed into the jumps. It made all the difference.
When the judges shuffled out, she had it sewed up: a total of 2,273.4 points. East Germany's Gabriele Seyfert was next, with 2,179.4, and Hana Maskova, the leggiest, loveliest Czech in the world, was third, with 2,151.2. In seventh and eighth places were Americans Albertina Noyes and Jennie Walsh.
"I would like," said Peggy, looking very breakable under the weight of the gold medal, "to go out and do the whole thing over again and do it right."
Members of the European press nodded thoughtfully at that. They loomed up large and bearlike all around her. "I'm really hungry," she whispered to an American standing nearby. "I had a club sandwich for dinner about 6 o'clock and now I get to have some dessert."
Then someone inquired how such a tender girl managed to get such vast power and motion into her leaps over the ice.
The coach of Colorado's Red Barons smiled daintily and said a fragile thing. "Inner guts," she said.