Friday, February 4, 2011

February 4, 1948: Double axel

UPDATE: This event has been replaced. See the new entry here.

ST. MORITZ, Switzerland - The 1948 Winter Olympics were the first ones since the 1936 games in Germany. The games had been awarded to Sapporo, Japan, but Japan later declined to host because the preparations were draining valuable resources that Japan would need to invade or bomb half the Pacific. The Olympic organizers tried to return the games to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, which had hosted them in 1936, but that became awkward when Germany invaded Poland and, eventually, half of Europe. A third attempt was made, this time in Finland, but that became uncomfortable when the Soviet Union annexed Finland, so the decision was finally made to scrap the 1940 games.

The Olympic committee had hopes for 1944, but since those games were scheduled for Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, another awkward situation came up. For the second straight winter, the Olympics were cancelled. When 1948 rolled around, the IOC was desperate to hold the games in any way possible. The finalists for hosts were Lake Placid, N.Y., and St. Moritz, Switzerland. Since Switzerland had been neutral throughout World War II, the IOC chose St. Moritz, hoping the city could bring the Olympics back in style.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a young figure skater named Dick Button was likely couting his blessings. Born in 1929, and thus too young to serve in World War II, Button spent his youth working with the best figure skating coaches in the country, preparing for his opportunity to compete in the Olympics. Entring the 1948 season, Button had won the national championship at his age level three straight times, plus a North American championship. He had also finished second in the first World Championships after the war, finishing behind only Switzerland's Hans Gerschwiler.

When the Olympics rolled around, Gerschwiler and Button were considered the two favorites. Still only 18 years old, Button had proven himself a worthy challenger to the 27-year-old Gerschwiler on the international stage. When the figure skating competition rolled around, Button got off to a great start, taking a sizeable lead on Gerschwiler after the figures (compulsory) portion of the competition. But he wasn't about to rest on his laurels.

Button had been practicing a double axel jump for a couple years leading up to the Olympics, but had never landed it in practice and thus had never tried it in competition. But the day before the free skate portion of the competition, he landed it in practice for the first time and decided to add it to his performance. On February 4, 1948, aided by the first successful double axel in figure skating history, Dick Button became the first American to win the gold medal in men's figure skating. He also became the youngest man to win a figure skating gold medal, a mark he still holds.

Button successfully defended his gold medal in the 1952 Olympics, where he became the first man to land a triple jump of any kind in competition. He remains the only American to win two straight Olympic figure skating gold medals.

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