Thursday, February 10, 2011

February 10, 1968: Skating's turning point

GRENOBLE, France - Standing on its own, the story could be summarized in one sentence: "After building a big lead in the compulsory portion, American college student Peggy Fleming cruised to the gold medal today in the women's figure skating competition at the Winter Olympics." Simple, to the point, a good AP lede if you ever saw one.

But if you dig a little deeper into the story, Fleming's victory in 1968 was more than just another American gold medal. Using proper context, you can see just how much Fleming's skating meant to America and her sport.

From a technical standpoint, Fleming represented one of the last of the ballerina-style figure skaters. Standing only 5'4" and weighing just 115 pounds, Fleming stood out against her other competitors because of her apparent lack of an athletic body. While most female figure skaters had started building their bodies like those of the men, bringing the sport in an athletic rather than artistic direction, Fleming represented those who preferred the artistry of the sport.

From a confidence standpoint, Fleming's victory was huge, as she was the only American athlete to win a gold medal at the Grenoble Olympics. Nothing would have been more embarassing to America than getting shut out of the medal table, and Fleming made sure that didn't happen.

From a revitalization standpoint, Fleming may have saved American figure skating. After the entire team died in a 1961 plane crash, many wondered if the United States would ever be competitive in the sport again. Fleming showed that yes, the Americans could bounce back, and that they'd be a force to be reckoned with in future Olympics.

And from a publicity standpoint, Fleming played a big role in making the Winter Olympics popular in America. The 1968 games were the first ones to be broadcast in color (and the first to feature the "Bugler's Dream" theme song), and ABC needed successful stories to carry its broadcast. Fleming's success and care-free attitude - she openly admitted that she often skated at a weight 5-10 pounds heavier than she preferred because she had a weakness for chocolate cake - helped make her among the most popular female athletes in America.

So yah, you could see the results of the 1968 Olympics and summarize figure skating in one sentence. But dig a little deeper, and Fleming's victory becomes so much more.

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