It used to be a sport for kids and sissies—but now thousands of grown-ups find skating a hip way to keep fit
Scott had a lot to do with it and so, curiously, did the federal government. Whatever the causes, the effects are apparent this season on ice rinks across the country: figure skating has stopped being a once-a-year spectacle and now threatens to become something approaching a year-round national obsession for whole families.
It is emphatically a do-it-yourself phenomenon. In the late 1940s (when, if I may digress, I appeared as one of a contingent of slant-ankled elves in the annual New Westminster, BC, ice
show), figure skating was something that other people did. For the population at large, it meant the annual appearances of the traveling ice shows. For parents, the figure-skating classes down at the local rink seldom meant more than a handy place to dump the kids on weekday afternoons. And for the males of my generation, figure skating was something you tried to outgrow as quickly as possible. Although most of us were exposed to the sport early in life, we came to regard it as an essentially
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“When you’re skating, you haven’t got time to worry about anything else”
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activity — not quite so bad as violin lessons, but much less appealing than tobogganing or heisting bubble gum from the corner confectionery.
The change since those days has been almost total. Barbara Ann Scott's 1948 Olympic victory lent the sport a cachet that has attracted adherents ever since. The postwar suburban explosion has brought a boom in family-style winter clubs — places where figure skating is at least as popular as curling or squash. Finally, the federal government, despite a lacklustre performance in other fields, has energetically promoted the sport through its Fitness And Amateur Sport Directorate. What it all adds up to, in statistical terms, is a minor revolution in do-it-yourself athletics. In 1947, the year before Barbara Ann Scott’s victory, there were fewer than fifty accredited figure-skating clubs in the country. Today there are about three hundred and thirty, and their membership is nudging one hundred thousand. “The whole thing just caught fire after Barbara Ann came home,” says Charlie Cumming, of the Canadian Figure Skating Association, “and it hasn’t looked back since.”
The significant thing, though, is that the skaters aren’t all kids. The CFSA estimates that at least thirty thousand grown-ups skate regularly — a phenomenon which, in my day, would have
been tantamount to every dad in town attending ballet classes. What has happened — and this is one of the more encouraging manifestations of the New Leisure — is that parents who used to drop their kids at the local rink and then go shopping are now staying to skate themselves.
They’re finding that it’s not exclusively kid stuff. Figure skating can be as exacting as rock climbing and as mentally demanding as chess. It is also splendid exercise — an activity that requires the use of every muscle and often transforms mopey housewives into what Charles Atlas used to call human dynamos. Mary Louise Riley, a mother of three who has been skating regularly for four years at the Toronto Cricket, Skating And Curling Club, finds that after a two-hour session on the ice, "I’ve got more energy than when I started.”
The Rileys are one of these new skating families. John Riley, whose downtown job requires nothing more strenuous than balancing budgets, says that mastering one-foot eights and inside Mohawk turns has a soothing, antiulcerous effect: “When you’re skating,” he says, "you haven’t got time to worry about anything else.” Their three boys, unlike my contemporaries, have developed a healthy respect for the art — not because it’s graceful and healthful, but simply because it happens to be fun, and because it helps their hockey.
It may be significant that Ottawa’s Fitness And Amateur Sport Directorate, which is now issuing a series of selfinstructing sports manuals, made figure skating the subject of its first booklet. This is because few sports are so accessible to people of all ages, or provide such a balanced form of exercise. Monopoly and Scrabble used to be the leading family sports, but figure skating might well be the next one.
At any rate, the winter-club boom shows no signs of abatement. Such pleasure domes as Edmonton’s Royal Glenora and Vancouver's North Shore Winter Club are becoming standard fixtures in most large Canadian cities, and their activities are predominately en famille.
At some clubs, in fact, it’s common to see three generations of a single family on the ice at the same time. Clarke Hill, of Toronto, the patriarch of one such clan, took up skating after he retired mainly to keep up with his married daughter and her children. Typically, he used to send his children skating when they were small, but it never occurred to him to venture on the ice himself. After retirement, things looked different. “There comes a time,” he says, “when you have to decide whether you’re going to sit watching TV six nights a week, or go out and do something.” Hill opted for doing something, and thousands of others are now doing the same. ★
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