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Vienna is the birthplace of both figure skating and psychoanalysis, which may be the greatest natural parlay in sports, since figure skaters are slightly goofy athletes. To become a world champion a skater must have the grace of a matador and the constitution of a bull and maybe a little bit of the footwork of both. The thing that bugs skaters most is that unbelievers think it is easy. "We don't flit around on our toes like a bunch of Tinker Bells, you know," says American Gary Visconti, who weighs 120 pounds and is built like a Volkswagen shock absorber. "This is a tough sport." Tough is right. Especially when you consider that as a final gesture to this wonderful insanity they do it all to music.
The best skaters in the world—the last 118 who could still wobble after several months of regional shakedowns in 16 countries—came to Vienna last week for the 1967 world championships, the slippery World Series. Only the 18 toughest made it through Saturday night to get awards. Two high-winging Austrians swept the men's freestyle event. Vienna's world champion Emmerich Danzer, who is 22 and looks like a Princeton undergraduate, had the courage to 1) show up in a purple stretch suit, and 2) come from behind teammate Wolfgang Schwarz to keep his title.
Michigan's gutsy little Visconti was even farther back, in fifth spot going into the finals. "But you know me," he said. "Me, I'm going to give them the works." And so saying, he pulled himself up to his full 5 feet 3 inches and blasted through his routine. He tried two triple jumps and actually survived one of them. It won the bronze medal, an armload of flowers and enough adulation to run for mayor.
Those eternal Russian students, 34-year-old Oleg Protopopov and his 31-year-old wife, Ludmila Belousova, won the pairs competition. Again. There is every indication they will have a longer run than Sarah Bernhardt.
Great Britain's dance champions, Bernard Ford and Diane Towler, won the dance title—which is not exactly a newsworthy event in the world of sport except that they worked the theme from Zorba the Greek into their act and you should try that on skates some time.
It was a dizzy week for Austria, with enough research material to keep the Freud students busy for another year. In Vienna, where the air is still thick with waltz music, the Danube still flows and the Vienna Woods have survived the subdividers, everybody is a patsy for figure skaters. Vienna drew the world championships because the Vienna skating club is 100 years old this year. The Austrians are rich in skating history: they began doing fancy stuff on ice about the time Americans began using ice to cool beer. During the Civil War a visiting American dancing master named Jackson Haines cut a few fancy turns on ice, called everybody in to take a look at them and figure skating was born. In the years since, the Austrians have won 32 world championships, and those upstarts, the Americans, have won 23. With each year the competition has grown tougher.
World skating championships start out deceptively slowly, tightening each skater down a psychological turn at a time. By the time of the finals they stand around the edge of the rink with the veins throbbing in their foreheads, shaking as if seized with the flu. It is as if the idea is to determine who shows the most grace under pressure. Anybody who cracks has to turn in his skates. The free skating is the ninth inning, the good part, where the skater gets a few minutes alone on the ice, with a scratchy tape recorder in the background playing something like Intermezzo, to show the crowd his real stuff.
Somewhere back in the Jackson Haines era someone inserted compulsory school figures into the rules. This means that skaters have to go through intricate maneuvers in front of a panel of nine judges wearing lumpy coats and insulated boots. The idea is to prove that each contestant knows his ABC's of skating and can pull off something like a left-outside rocker and right-forward paragraph double three and still keep his cool.
The scoring is a morass of technicalities, but the only thing you have to know is that the skaters must cut a pattern on the ice, and trace it precisely three times with each skate. Afterwards, the judges gather around and look at the pattern and shake their heads and sneer openly. Some of them get down on their hands and knees and whisk at the ice with little brooms. Then they all stand up and vote. The high and low votes are discarded, things like ordinal points are figured in, everybody argues a lot and accuses everybody else of nationalism, and somehow the skaters are ranked.