The 2018 Winter Olympic Games are being held in South Korea for the next week two weeks (Feb 9-25).
Often billed as the lesser Olympics (with fewer events, fewer participating countries, and less media attention), the Winter Olympics is the place where the world’s greatest ice and snow athletes come to compete. Figure skating is the oldest sport on the Winter Olympic Games program.
Growing up, my favorite events to watch were the figure skating competitions. The sparkly costumes, the fun music, the gravity-defying jumps and spins! Even if you don’t understand the technique or the scoring system, figure skating is a fun event to watch.
Michelle Kwan, photo source: gettyimages.com
You might be surprised to learn that when figure skating first came on the Olympic scene at the St. Petersburg Olympics in 1896, it was an all-male affair. Imagine “Blades of Glory” without the hairspray.
Image © 2007 DreamWorks Pictures
The first time women’s figure skating was officially included as an Olympic event was the London (Summer) games in 1908.
Today, figure skating’s most famous (and infamous) figure skaters are women: Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, and Tonya Harding. There are exceptions to every rule (we’re looking at you Scott Hamilton and Johnny Weir), but generally, the ladies have this one in the bag.
And they have one trail-blazing woman to thank for their success: Madge Syers, often dubbed the Mother of Figure Skating.
Madge Syers — Google Images
The very first woman to compete in an Olympic figure skating competition–and the first woman to win a Gold in the same sport–was born Florence Madeline “Madge” Cave in London in 1881. Madge was an accomplished swimmer and equestrian who started figure skating when she was eighteen. She showed skill and promise skating individually at competitions.
Take a moment to remember that skin-tight skate costumes covered in sequins and rhinestones were not yet invented. Imagine a Victorian-era woman balancing on a pair of steel skates while dressed in a full length skirt, satin blouse, pearl necklace, hat, and leather gloves.
Madge Syers as pictured in The Art of Skating by Irving Brokaw, published 1915 by American Sports Publishing Company, New York. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Madge also competed in pairs competitions with her coach, Edgar Morris Wood Syers. By 1899, Madge and Edgar took their partnership to the next level and married. Off the ice, Madge and Edgar co-wrote several instructional books on figure skating, and a volume of poetry that captured their love of the sport.
To follow Madge’s rise from small-time skater to Olympian, one has to read between the lines. Specifically, the lines of the International Skating Union’s rule book, where Madge discovered that the ISU did not specify gender in their rules. Therefore, they had no legal means to prevent her from entering and competing in the 1902 World Championships, where Madge competed against three men and took second place. Against the odds, she won the approval of the judges and the respect of her fellow competitors–some stories claim that the Gold medalist (eventual ten time World Champion Ulrich Salchow) presented his Gold medal to Madge.
Illustration in the “Fourth Olympiad 1908 London Official Report” published by the British Olympic Association in 1909. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Remember that this was 1902, and though the Women’s Suffrage movement was well underway in England, it would be another 26 years before women were legally allowed to vote in Great Britain. In a sport dominated by men, Madge Syers was refusing to be excluded.
And her skill made the gatekeepers sit up and take notice. After her sensational performance at the 1902 event, the ISU discussed whether women should be allowed to compete against men in the figure skating competitions. Unfortunately, prejudices (and sexism) were too deeply ingrained in the minds of the ALL-MALE committee and the ISU voted in favor of barring women from the competition altogether. Their reasoning?
1.) a woman wearing a dress as opposed to pants prevented the judges from seeing the feet
2.) a judge might judge or favor a woman he was involved with romantically
3.) “it is difficult to compare women with men”
But Madge was not to be so easily deterred. In response to the ISU’s main concerns, she shortened her skirts to calf-length (and started a new fashion trend)!
Madge would continue competing in European Championships and picking up medals and accolades left and right. Her success in the sport made it hard for the ISU to continue barring women from competing at the Olympic level.
The ISU revisited the subject of women in competition in 1905. This time, due to much lobbying, the motion passed to create a separate event for women called “the Ladies’ Championship of the ISU”. Madge competed, winning the first (1906) and second (1907) ladies titles.
By 1908, the ISU had come to its senses and allowed women to compete in the Olympic figure skating events. She competed in the compulsory figures and free skating events, earning perfect scores from all five judges to become the first ladies Olympic Gold champion. She also took home a Bronze in the pairs competition with Edgar.
One can only imagine the satisfaction Madge must have felt at finally being recognized for her skill at the highest level, on par with the best men and women in her field (or rink).
The 1908 competition marked the end of Madge’s figure skating career, as she retired due to failing health. Just nine years after her groundbreaking win, Madge died on September 9, 1917 at the age of thirty-five. She was a pioneer for women athletes whose life seems to have proved the old maxim: The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.
Sarah Parke writes historical fiction and fantasy (sometimes at the same time) for young adults and those young at heart. For a complete bio and an author interview, visit Sarah’s website at www.sarahparke.com.