It’s winter and unusually cold here already in South Texas with several nights dipping below freezing and several days hovering just above. After the devastation caused by last year’s severe winter storm, my husband is busily trying to protect his fragile flowers and shrubs with “plankets,” alternately covering and uncovering as the temperatures and sunshine shift. I, meanwhile, stay indoors. I don’t like winter, even a mild one.
You’d think that after 40 years spent in Connecticut I would have come to at least some nostalgic appreciation for the beauty and calm of a snowy landscape, the homey scenes of all those Hallmark holiday cards, but nope. We went skiing with friends once up to Sugar Bush, Vermont. The landscape was beautiful and the weather was perfect for downhill and cross country — or so I was told. I spent the whole time drinking hot tea in the lodge and enjoying the fireside ambiance — when I wasn’t shopping for those cute only-in-ski-country sweaters in the shops.
With that backstory, it might surprise you to hear that I am an avid, ardent, and fairly knowledgeable fan of winter sports, especially of the Winter Olympics, and most especially of the ice skating, skiing and ski jumping competitions. I trace that enthusiasm to one distinct source in my childhood: the Ice Capades.
Founded in 1940, the Ice Capades was a touring theatrical show featuring skating performances by former Olympic and national ice skating champions who had retired from competition. With its lavish costumes, daring choreography, and big-name stars, it was something of an icy Las Vegas review, only more family friendly. The shows toured cities large and small all around the country, and by the 1950s, it had become a popular theatrical event even in places like South Texas where ice and winter sports were decidedly unfamiliar.
My Mother first took me to the Ice Capades in late October, 1958 (the 19th edition) at the Memorial Coliseum in Corpus Christi, Texas. Corpus was only a 90 mile drive, so we could easily go down and back, have a nice restaurant meal and attend a matinee performance all in one day. My memories of that first show (and subsequent ones in later years) are a little vague, anchored mostly by my Mother’s commentary on the stars we were seeing such as Sonja Henie (Norwegian-American three-time Olympic gold medalist, 1928, 32, & 36), whom I remember being applauded as something of a “grand dame” as she slowly waltzed around the rink on the arm of a younger male skater, although she was only in her 40s at the time; Frick and Frack, the famous slapstick comedy team (Frick with a new partner because Frack had become ill); and of course, those crowd-pleasing pinwheels, wherein a line of 32 skaters spun around (a move my Mother insisted was inspired by the Radio City Rockettes, which she had seen). And I clearly remember always being cold in the arena.
The Ice Capades and similar spin-off shows (Ice Follies, Stars on Ice) were popular for several decades well into the 1990s, but by then, comprehensive television coverage of ice skating and other winter sports had educated the public and cultivated among us a preference for displays of competitive skills over kitschy theatricals (the 1992 theatrical drama of the Tonya Harding-Nancy Harrigan scandal notwithstanding). The first live coverage of the winter Olympics on American television was of the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California. CBS paid $50,000 for coverage rights. Trusted news anchor Walter Cronkite hosted the telecasts on-site, and Olympic men’s gold medalist Dick Button (1948 & 52) pioneered the role of ice skating commentator, a role he continued to dominate on television regardless of network for 50 years.
I was one of those who started watching the winter Olympics in 1960, and have seen every one since. I have vivid memories of favorite ice skaters and their signature moves: perky Dorothy Hamill (gold 1976) with her distinctive haircut and the Hamill Camel still done today; Michelle Kwan (1998 silver and 2002 bronze) and her effortless, gliding change-of-edge spiral; Scott Hamilton and his back-flips on ice (four US championships and Olympic gold in 1984); Brian Boitano (gold 1988) with his one-hand-over-head jump called the Tano; the beautiful East German Katerina Witt whose moving routine to music from Schindler’s List won her gold (in 1984 & 88) without even attempting an axel; and fancy foot-work dancer Kurt Browning of Canada, a four-time Canadian champion, four-time World champion and three-time Olympian, who was actually the first men’s figure skater to land a quadruple toe loop at the World’s competition way back in 1988.
But beyond them all, there was still my forever favorites, ice dancers Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean from Great Britain, with their Olympic gold performance to Ravel’s Bolero in 1984. It actually moved me to tears as I watched it live from Sarajevo, and I can still visualize every move of their routine when I hear the music today. The control, the passion, the perfect synchronization between music and movement. Their skill and expression netted a perfect artistic score of 6.
Ice skaters were always my favorites, but there are other Olympic greats I remember: Jean-Claude Killy, 1968 Grenoble triple gold medalist in Alpine skiing, who became an international heartthrob and star, along with ice skater Peggy Flemming, who was the only American to win a gold medal that year; Noriaka Kasai of Japan, the only athlete to compete in eight winter games, who took the silver medal in large-hill ski jump at Sochi in 2014, which made him the oldest ski jumper to ever medal; Bonnie Blair, American speed skater who dominated the sport by winning five gold medals and one bronze over three Olympic games (1988, 92 & 94); Apolo Anton Okno, American short-track speed skater who won eight medals over three games (2002, 06 & 10); Tara Lapinski, at age 15 the youngest female gold medalist in the winter games (in figure skating), 1998; and those famous underdogs, the four-man bobsled team from Jamaica, who didn’t win anything, but who brought out such good will and good-natured sportsmanship in Alberta, Canada, in 1988.
In 1960, television offered about 20 hours of covered events; this year, NBC will offer over 200 hours of coverage on their major networks (NBC, CNBC and USA, plus streaming on Peacock). Because of Covid restrictions, the games will be coming to you from — are you ready?? —the NBC studios in my old hometown of Stamford, CT, where roughly 900 announcers, technicians, and support staff will manage coverage from afar (with some technical and support staff in Beijing).
Covid or no Covid, I’m excited. I’ve already planned my easy-prep meals and invited ourselves, with bring-along dinners, over to our son’s house to watch his humongous TV. (This is our version of “the big game,” though I’m afraid I am not an ice hockey fan even at the winter Olympics.) I will be watching Nathan Chen in men’s ice skating and expecting Shaun White and Chloe Kim to each capture gold again in snow boarding. I’m also looking forward to the new sports of big air skiing, mixed-team ski jumping, mixed team skating relays, and mixed-team aerials. And guess what else? The Jamaicans are back! They have qualified both a four-man and a two-man bobsled team, and for good measure, have their first female athlete in the monobob (another new event).
The 2022 Winter Olympics are here and it’s going to be great. Maybe the Jamaicans can help thaw the world a little, and I won’t have to be cold in the home arena.