Saturday 24 March 2012

Olympic Countdown

Since this article first appeared a lot of new information has been revealed and new research has been carried out. This article should be seen as a mere snapshot of the information known at the date of its publication. Several facts may now be outdated or inaccurate.

Less than 12 years after hosting the 1964 Winter Olympics Innsbruck found itself doing so again after the appointed host city, Denver, withdrew because of financial problems and public opposition.

The big hero of winter sport at the time was John Curry (1949-1994). It was his balletic approach to skating that caught the public imagination.

Curry’s Olympic career actually began in 1968. He was placed on the reserve list for the British team going to the Grenoble Olympics. Four years later he made it onto the team proper in Sapporo, Japan.

It was at the 1976 Innsbruck games that John Curry became a household name worldwide. He went to into the games as British and European champion, with the added honour of being chosen as flag-bearer at the opening ceremony. As favourite to win gold Curry was confidant of victory. Then, after completing his gold medal-winning routine, barely off the ice for more than a few minutes, he was handed a German press article.

The following day the press was full of this “interview” with John Curry at which he “came out as gay”. No such interview took place. Denying it would have been pointless, so a press conference (with no press present!) was arranged by British team officials to put across Curry’s response.

What is significant about the affair is that Curry’s skating ability drowned out the more sensational aspects. His sexuality didn’t end his career. No-one had been out at the Olympics before, and Curry seriously thought of pulling out of the up-and-coming World Championships to avoid creating too much distraction. As it happened no such distraction surfaced, and Curry ended his competitive career in 1976 as British, European, World and Olympic champion.

As a 15-year-old in the UK, I was certainly unaware of any adverse press coverage on Curry’s sexuality. What mattered more was that he’d won an Olympic gold medal. The only change it made to Curry himself was that he didn’t wear stage make-up in the Olympic ice gala at the end of the skating competition in case people said he looked effeminate.

When he arrived back in England Curry was received like a hero. No-one cared that he was gay. That is, not until the glare of his Olympic win had faded. After moving to America to escape media intrusion Curry was diagnosed with AIDS and returned to England. He died in 1994.

John Curry’s artistic interpretations inspired the skater who stood to his left on the medal podium. Bronze medal winner, Canadian skater Toller Cranston making his 2nd Olympic appearance. Such was the appeal of the new Curry/Cranston style of artistic figure skating that the actual skating of ice figures was dropped in 1990.

Curry and Toller both turned professional in 1976. They performed successfully in ice shows and tv specials, working together in the ice ballet “The Snow Queen” in 1982. Toller Cranston is now a successful artist and painter.

I’ll not call pairs skating a “team” event as such, but if I did the Innsbruck games would have its first lgbt team competitor in Randy Gardner. With skating partner Tai Babilonia Randy was US pairs skating champion going into the Olympics and they had high medal hopes. They finished 5th, the same position they reached at the World Championships the following month. Every year until the next winter games Randy and Tai were US pairs champions, and World champions in 1978. It seemed nothing could stop them winning gold at the next winter Olympics.

We will return to Canada next time and the 1976 summer games in Montréal.

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