Tales of the Blade: Madge Syers - Transcript

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Trascribed by Taeri (@twizzlesetc) and Niamh (@rivrdance)

Tilda: Welcome to In The Loop — Tales of the Blade, where we dive into the fascinating and often humorous history of figure skating. Let’s introduce this week’s hosts.

Evie: Hey, I’m Evie, and I’ve spent the past week looking into the figure skating of the early 1900s and found so many hidden gems along the way. You can find me on Twitter @doubleflutz.

Tilda: Hi I'm Tilda, your friendly neighborhood political scientist. Long time no see. I'm glad to be back in the recording studio. You can find me on Twitter @tequilda, though bear in mind I'm on a grad school social media hiatus.

Evie: Tilda, welcome to our new series Tales of the Blade. Because obviously, we need to go with the most dramatic, edgy title possible.

Tilda: I came up with it.

Evie: It’s a good title. It’s very good. Anyways, for everyone who’s listening to this and doesn’t know what this series is about, this is going to be a series of shorter episodes from ITL where we will dive into specific topics about the history of figure skating because there is a lot of interesting things that happen in the past about figure skating that not a lot of people know about. So, we're here to tell you all about it and have a chat along the way hopefully. The twist is that one of the host knows all about it and has researched it, and the other host doesn't. So Tilda, you do not know much about this topic, correct, that we are going to be diving in today. We kept it all secret from you.

Tilda: Yes, I know absolutely nothing. I will be reacting genuinely to this as we go along. I'm very excited and also excited that I didn't have to do any work or research. (Hosts laugh)

Evie: You got a bit of a slack week, it's lovely. Let's start off by asking you Tilda, how much do you know about the early days of figure skating? Around the time of the ISU's inception, like late 1800s to early 1900s figure skating.

Tilda: I actually only know what we talked about it one of the episodes we had last summer, which was about gender in figure skating, when you did mention some of this stuff. But that's all I know literally.

Evie: That's a good starting place. Today we're going to be talking about early figure skating and specifically we're going to be talking about Madge Syers, who was a British figure skater. She was predominantly competing in the early 1900s and she was the first woman to ever compete in an ISU championship and the first woman to ever medal at one. She was also the first ever ladies figure skating Olympic champion. We're going to be talking all about her and the early history of figure skating in general. Are you excited Tilda?

Tilda: I'm very excited. Also because you said it's very wack?

Evie: Oh yeah!

Tilda: You set my expectations high, so I'm really expecting you to step up your game Evie.

Evie: Okay, I can step it up. Let's go. Alright. Let's just start off with a general sort of primer. About the early competitions in figure skating. Skating competitions around the time of the ISU's inception -- so you know late 1800s was when the ISU was created -- they actually were not segregated at all by gender. Both men and women competed at the same competitions at the same level. They allowed them to compete at the World Championships in the same categories too when they started in 1896. However, no women actually competed until 1902, when Madge entered for the first time. It was kind of like a, 'We're not specifically saying that women can't enter the World Championships, but we're not expecting any of them actually give it a shot.'

Tilda: So how come women weren't competing?

Evie: Well, it was just the clubs in figure skating, the historical clubs that were mainly in England, Europe and North America, they were mainly populated by upper class white men and maybe their wives but for a long period of time, it was very clear this was a men's sport.

Tilda: So it was a boy's club and women were sort of implicitly kept out.

Evie: Exactly. They were allowed to join clubs. They weren't allowed to join immediately. It took a number of years for the majority of the big figure skating clubs to accept women to join and train with them. But yes, for the majority of the time, women were practicing their figure skating in these clubs but they were not competing at an international level. There were kind of two predominant styles of figure skating that were present in this era. There was the British style, which focused more on the performance of figures. I guess the right word would be proper. It was very much like, we can't have any flourishes or crazy artistic movements. We have to protect our late Victorian image of, 'Yes I'm a proper man who will skate in a circle and maybe I will jump over some hats on the ice. But that will be it!'

Tilda: Hats?

Evie: Yes! I think it was the Edinburgh Skating Club. Apparently one of their initiation things for testing to see if people could get into the club was they stacked three hats on top of each other and the men would have to jump over them to show they were okay at jumping.

Tilda: No! (Hosts laugh)

Evie: Because, you know, all I'm saying is bring back the hat jumping in figure skating. I think it is time that we introduce hat jumping.

Tilda: Yes, yes.

Evie: That's all I'm saying. I'm all for this. It's like hurdles on ice.

Tilda: What base value would you give that?

Evie: Obviously, it would be extremely high. It would be 15 points obviously. Hats on the ice, 2019! The British style of skating was very prim, proper. Because it was the late 1800s to early 1900s, when people did skate, the majority of the time the men were all in full suits and the women were in long dresses. The British style, parts of it were reflective of that because you obviously could not move a lot when you are wearing these kind of clothes. The artistic side of things couldn't be explored, I guess, because how much can you wave your arms and stretch out your legs in a full three-piece suit? Not much. The other side of things, the international style of figure skating, which is more reflective of what we have in the sport today, it focused on performance, its interpretation, expressing things to music. It was more performative and less athleticism focus.

Tilda: I'm still stuck on the suit thing. Did they really wear formal wear when they were competing?

Evie: I don't know if they wore formal wear but I guess they wore normal suits they would wear every day kind of thing.

Tilda: They didn't have Adidas back then? (Hosts laugh)

Evie: Ye olde Adidas!

Tilda: Did the women have to wear corsets while skating?

Evie: I don't think they would wear corsets, but they would wear the traditional proper dresses of the time period. They weren't necessarily constrictive in the waist area, but they gave the form that would be the womanly form, you know, of the typical woman of that time period. It certainly wouldn't be fun to skate with!

Tilda: I'm understanding more and more why women weren't competing. That seems like a serious disadvantage to me.

Evie: Yeah! Obviously, they couldn't make the dresses shorter or anything because the morals of the time period. God forbid you show your ankles in a figure skating competition.

Tilda: I guess they couldn't wear pants either.

Evie: No, no. Oh boy, it was just a whole thing. Those were kind of the two predominant styles of figure skating in that era and they were reflective in the competition. You would have figures as one segment of the competition and you would have the free skating. Obviously, figures are cycled out of competitions in the 1990s and are not a thing in the sport anymore, but free skating is very much still here. The sport was quite different back then and there weren't many ladies practicing figure skating. Again, it was mainly a very high class sport as it kind of is still now to this day. It was mainly for upper class white individuals who had the time and the expenses needed to practice the sport. We're going to go in to talking about the subject proper of this episode. Madge Syers -- the woman so good at figure skating the ISU banned all women from competing for a short period of time. So, Florence Madeline Cave was born on the 16th of September in 1881 in Kensington, London. She was the tenth child of her family. Her family had 15 kids.

Tilda: Whoa.

Evie: I know, it was a big family. But also, it doesn't stop there because she also had 10 step-siblings. This is a tangent completely unrelated to figure skating but I need to go off on this, I found out this while I was researching. Okay so, Madge's father -- he had his main wife in Kensington with Madge and her other 14 siblings. And she had a second wife in another part of the country where he also fathered 10 kids.

Tilda: Did they know each other? Did the family know each other?

Evie: No they didn't!

Tilda: *gasps*

Evie: It was a secret second family. Completely unrelated. No one knew about it until Madge's mother passed away and literally, a few months after she did, her father married his secret wife and ... What a scandal! I read about this and I was like, this is the most wild thing I've ever seen.

Tilda: The gossip!

Evie: Her father was a builder in London and his work provided the family with a pretty moderate amount of wealth when Madge was younger, but he did end up falling out of his fortune in the early 1900s when he accrued significant debt from the properties he was building. He lost a lot of his fortune and he was declared bankrupt in 1903. But that didn't stop Madge from, in her early years, doing a lot of different sports. She was apparently a very gifted swimmer. She did equestrian, but favored figure skating the most out of all of them. Obviously, it was as a more higher class woman, she was expected to marry pretty young, settle down, have a family but she still really enjoyed doing sports, especially figure skating. When she was a teenager, she met Edgar Syers who was a coach at the Prince's Figure Skating Club. He taught the international style of figure skating, and he ended up teaching Madge the new and developing form that was really becoming popular in Europe and slowly moving onto England. She was really a fan of it. She really enjoyed it much more than the British style and she became very proficient in it. When she was 18, I believe, she married her coach Edgar in 1899 and she became Madge Syers. He was actually 18 years older than her.

Tilda: Wow.

Evie: He would also end up becoming her partner in Pairs skating when they started doing that also later in her career.

Tilda: I have some opinions on that. That doesn't sound very healthy.

Evie: Well it was also the time period! It was pretty common for the age gap between the husband the wives to be pretty large in comparison to nowadays.

Tilda: Did she have kids?

Evie: She didn't.

Tilda: Ohh.

Evie: Madge actually passed away when she was 35. She died in 1917 from heart failure caused either by acute endocarditis or there was a conflicting source saying that she died in childbirth but there's been nothing really clear about how she died, apart from the fact that she died from heart failure. She died very young and she retired right after her first and only Olympics because of her fading health. They never had kids. Because Edgar was a coach of figure skating and he was very adamant that Madge was onto something, she was definitely going to go places.

Tilda: Cool, he was supportive! I like that.

Evie: He actually persuaded her to enter Worlds in 1902. It was going to be held in England, so maybe she should try and enter. And so she did! She became the first woman to ever enter a World Championships in the 1902 Worlds because her husband supported her and urged her, and she discovered that the ISU didn't have any rules technically specifying that competitors had to be male. So she had a go at it. She ended up winning the silver medal right behind Ulrich Salchow, who no surprises, invented the jump the Salchow.

Tilda: My fellow Swede!

Evie: Your fellow Swede! There were only four competitors at this Worlds, but you know, silver, that's pretty good.

Tilda: Yes, yes it is.

Evie: A lot of the officials were kind of taken aback over her choice to compete here, but there wasn't an initial protest given her skating ability was said to be incredible. The fact that it was a home championships and she, along with Edgar, were prominent members of the British Federation, I don't think anyone was going to argue with the fact that she was going to enter here. She placed second in a field of four and apparently, we've got some amazing details about what she wore at worlds.

Tilda: Ooh, do tell.

Evie: Apparently, she absolutely stunned the crowd with her appearance. She was dressed to the nines in a full-length skirt, satin blouse, pearl necklace, hat and leather gloves.

Tilda: Ooh, fancy!

Evie: I'm sure it must have been a sight to behold. But anyway, she was amazing. She stunned the crowd with her outfit. One of the officials at the event, T.D Richardson, wrote “Rumour, nay more than rumour – a good deal of expert opinion – thought she should have won.” [Tilda: Ooh] So there you go, that’s how good she was. And apparently, legend has it that Ulrich Salchow actually presented her with his gold medal after the ceremony like an acknowledgment of her dominance of the sport, like he literally put it over her head apparently. Which is just wow.

Tilda: We stan sportsmanship. Typical Swede, I tell you. We’re very good with that stuff.

Evie: Obviously she won the silver medal, this was the first time a woman had ever won a medal or even entered in the World Championships. Everyone was like oh my God, this is crazy, and the ISU were like yeah, this is crazy, we were not expecting this to happen, maybe we should talk about this at the next congress. So, they did. They were so alarmed by how amazing Madge’s performance was, and her success to medal there, they chose to address the presence of all female competitors in skating at the 1903 ISU congress. We do have some really great points of debate that were included in the congress. [Tilda: Okay.] Are you ready for this? Brace yourself because they are crazy-wild. So these were the reasons the ISU congress were against women competing in figure skating. The first one, that a woman wearing a dress as opposed to pants prevented the judges from seeing the feet. That’s literally it. You can’t wear a dress, we can’t see your feet properly, but also do not shorten the dress because this is the early 1900s.

Tilda: I’m sorry, but surely they could see their feet? Wouldn’t they judge their edge-work and stuff, shouldn’t you see that even with a long skirt?

Evie: Yeah, exactly. They’re just complaining for complaining’s sake.

Tilda: Suspicious.

Evie: Guess what, the second point gets even more suspicious. That a judge might judge, or favour a woman he was involved with romantically. Can’t judge someone that you’re having a relationship with, evidently, what a scandal that would be.

Tilda: Hold on, isn’t that just regular judge’s bias that should be…

Evie: Eliminated normally? Yeah. Guess they didn’t really have to think about that in those times, but yeah.

Tilda: Wouldn’t it be the same thing if your best bud was competing?

Evie: Yeah. And the last one, the one that kind of sums up the entirety. It is difficult to compare women with men. [Tilda: Is it?] Okay, I mean the figure skating competitions in that day, there wasn’t really a difference in what men and women could do in terms of technicality, because if they were jumping at all, they were only doing either singles or half jumps. So hmmmm, does that make sense? Or is that just early 1900s era sexism?

Tilda: I’m sure they were dazzled by the beauty of the women and couldn’t think straight.

Evie: And of course, all the judges back in those days were men so that kind of bias? If we see a beautiful woman skate, we might be inclined to mark her better than the men. Anyway, after a long amount of debate at this congress,they voted 3-6 in favour to ban all women from competition in figure skating for the foreseeable future. All women were banned from competing at the World Championships after 1903. Interestingly, the British federation were one of the opposers to this, they weren’t really keen on it, mainly because they had Madge who was winning medals at Worlds now. She had also won a variety of British skating championships, and was doing really well. They’ve got a star skater, they don’t want her to get banned from the biggest competition of the year. That’s just bad business. [Tilda: Right, of course.] And, we actually have some protest from him [the British delegate] that was recorded from bits of the congress saying that “the idea that the dress prevented the judges from seeing the figures were absurd, just require that the dress be short because you can’t see figures in long dresses anyway.” [Tilda: I like this dude.] He also said “if a man is so dishonourable to judge a woman that he is an attachment with, his skating association must certainly step in and prevent it.” That makes complete sense. [Tilda: Wow, yeah, of course. Logic.] And then to finish off, he said “if it so difficult to compare women with men, then just judge women in every aspect the same as men.” So there you go, this guy, a round of applause [Evie claps]. This guy gets the award for being sensible.

Tilda: I can just imagine the snark when he speaks.

Evie: You mean like uh guys you know we can just judge them the same way, they’re basically doing the same stuff. Is it just me or is this not an issue? What are we doing here?

Tilda: Well, I’m glad someone saw it.

Evie: Exactly, someone saw it, but his vote was obviously not enough to turn the tide of the ban which did go into effect. And Madge in response actually did some crazy things to counteract it. So, in retaliation she actually shortened her skirts to mid-calf, so no-one could complain her feet were not visible. [Tilda: [Gasp] Mid calf! Evie!] I know! You can see your ankles! Who would have thought ankles? Anyway, she shortened her dresses to mid-calf and she kind of set that as a trend in women’s figure skating, in those years. She actually competed and won the 1903 Swedish Challenge Cup, which despite its name, was actually the former name of the British Figure Skating Championships. She won there in a mixed field of competitors, and then she won again in 1904, funnily enough beating her husband in the process.

Tilda: Yes! This is what female liberation is all about.

Evie:And you got to remember that in the early 1900s, the women’s suffrage movement in the U.K. was definitely in full swing, The first large procession of women wasn’t until 1907 but there was something in the air about suffrage, which would be a great title of a book. And then, in 1905, the British federation successfully lobbied the ISU at the next congress to allow women to compete again, although there would be a seperate female-only event , known as the Ladies’ Championship of the ISU.

Tilda: I am insulted that they didn’t call it Worlds.

Evie: It’s not Worlds, and the women who win this event are not World Champions, they are ISU Champions.

Tilda: Of course. I mean talk about devaluing the female excellence.

Evie: They were held in a separate location, at a separate time than the main World Championships.

Tilda: They didn’t even allow them to come to the World Championships and compete there?

Evie: No. It was a completely separate event. There was the World Championships where all the men could compete, and then the Ladies’ Championship of the ISU, in separate locations, no overlap.

Tilda: Oh my God. That’s so insulting.

Evie: For the first couple of years, when the competition was taking place, the winners were the ISU Champions, not World Champions,and then in 1924, it was officially changed to the Ladies’ World Champion. There was a little change in the air though, because in 1908 the Olympics happened. This was the first Olympics to feature figure skating,there was only the Summer Olympics back in 1908, they weren’t split into Summer and Winter until much later but yes, the 1908 Olympics… and figure skating was one of the main events, and it was one of, if not the first, I believe Olympic sport to allow women to compete. [Tilda: Really?] Yeah, and there was Men’s figure skating, Ladies’ figure skating and Pairs figure skating, as well. They were held in London [U.K.] and Madge was one of five women competing in the Ladies’ segment. Her score ended up actually being 207.5 points higher than the women in second place, which is a bit of a flex. She won by a substantial margin. Not only did she compete and win the Ladies’ event, but she also competed in the Pairs competition with her husband Edgar. They didn’t win, but they did get the bronze medal. So, that’s something. That was the Olympics, she was the first ever womens’ Olympic Champion [in figure skating.] And then, after the Olympics, and the fact that the Mens’ and Ladies’ Championships were held in obviously the same place, because it was the Olympics, a few years after that the ISU merged the Ladies’ Championships of the ISU into the World Championships as a separate segment, and yes, they were all together, and as I said before, she did retire right after the Olympics because of her health issues. In her retirement, in her post-career, she authored a couple of books with her husband, including titles such as “The Book of Winter Sports” which detailed techniques of figure skating, and she passed away in 1917 from her heart failure. Her husband actually out-lived her for quite a while. He lived to the age of 82, and passed away in 1946, and he actually remarried a few years after her death to a 21 year-old woman named Eva V. Critchel, and he was 58 at that time. [Tilda: Wow.] Another big age cap, somethings never change. I wanted to end with a poem that Edgar actually wrote about Madge, and it's called “To My Lady’s Skates.” "The praise of glove, of fan, or shoe, full many a ode relates; May not my muse, with theme more new, Commend my Lady's Skates? Eff little feet to guide these blades My Mistress fair provides; And, sweetest of our glacial maids, On them serenely glides." Aww.

Tilda: That’s cute. I’m flip-flopping here between “Aww, that’s cute” and “Men!” [Evie laughs]

Evie: So yeah, that’s all that I had prepared.

Tilda: Thank you so much Evie for the history lesson.

Evie: That’s all right. I hope you enjoyed the little history lesson.

Tilda: It’s been very entertaining and educational.

Evie:Well, there you go. That was the goal.

Tilda: So, we’re going to have more episodes in the series, I think is the plan. So, please do keep an eye out on our twitter and see if more is coming soon. If you heard about some obscure historical event about figure skating that you would like us to research and talk about then please do send it to us, that would be awesome.

Evie: Please let us know, we’d love it. If you want to get in touch with us, then please feel free to contact us via our website, inthelopodcast.com, or on twitter or tumblr. You can find all our episodes on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and Spotify. Big thanks to Becs and Karly who helped me with the research for this episode, and to Taeri and Niamh for transcribing.

Tilda: And if you enjoy the show, and want to help support the team, please consider making a donation to us on our ko-fi page,and a huge thank you to our listeners who have contributed to our team thus far. You can find the link to all our social media pages,and the ko-fi on our website.

Evie: If you’re listening on iTunes, please consider leaving a rating and a review if you enjoyed the show. Thanks for listening, this has been Evie,

Tilda: and Tilda.

Evie: See you soon guys.

Tilda: See you soon.

Evie: Bye!