Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories celebrating some of Canada’s top sports heroes and moments as the country marks its 150th birthday in 2017. We’ve also revisited the lives of baseball hall of famer Ferguson Jenkins, speed skater Gaetan Boucher, skier Nancy Greene, distance runner Tom Longboat, Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer, sprinter Harry Jerome and auto racing’s Villeneuve family. We’ve also looked back at the Richard Riot and explored Babe Ruth’s Canadian origins.
Find all of CBC Sports’ Canada 150 stories here.
When you met Barbara Ann Scott, Canada’s first Olympic skating champion, your first reaction was to take the offered hand, bow deeply, and place a soft kiss of supplication to true skating royalty.
She had that kind of aura — one appropriate for the country’s first modern international athletic superstar, but also something earned through decades of seemingly letter-perfect public appearances, endless generosity to young skaters and love for Canadian sport.
From the time Scott won the first of two world championships, in 1947, through the Olympic gold medal in 1948 at St. Moritz, the Ottawa skater dominated and dazzled headline writers who fell for her grace, charm and (heavens, we can’t say that about a young woman) athleticism.
“She was certainly the queen, and the king, and the whole royal family around skating, being the first Canadian to win Olympic and world gold medals,” says Debbi Wilkes, herself a Canadian legend on the ice, having won a 1964 pairs silver with partner Guy Revell, at the Innsbruck Games.
“When I first met her, I guess it was 1963 … at the Olympic trials in [Toronto’s] Maple Leaf Gardens … it was like meeting the Queen — she was so lovely, so graceful, so supportive, warm, and authentic in her praise and congratulations. It’s still a highlight of my skating career.”
Born to be a star
Scott was the antithesis of so many Canadian heroes on the international sporting stage whose success was somewhat unexpected. She had it young, embraced it, throve on it and met the pressure head on with eyes open and smile wide.
Her nickname was Tinker (as in Tinker Bell). She carried barely 100 pounds on a 5-foot-2 frame and was already national junior champion at age 11 and senior winner at 15. European and North American titles would be added in 1947 and a star was, rather than born, confirmed.
Figure skating was a tough gig in those days and at the ’48 Games it was outdoors. The rink had been used for two hockey games earlier that day before Scott won gold, so it was bumpy and scarred. Wind and cold could affect your performance.
Mattered not a whit, as Canada’s entrant had earlier crushed the field in compulsory figures (tracing tight, accurate patterns such as figure eights on the inside edge, into the ice as judges looked down and frowned), and did the same in the free skate.
Austria’s Eva Pawlik took silver, and Jeannette Aitwegg, of Britain, won bronze.
Ottawa welcomed Scott back with open arms, hearts, and wallets, showering the still 19-year-old with gifts including the keys to a yellow Buick convertible, only to receive it back two months later because IOC boss Avery Brundage threatened the skater’s amateur status.
Being a female athlete 70 years ago came with other challenges, as evinced by this exchange with a CBC radio commentator after Scott had met with Princes Elizabeth, the Commonwealth’s future Queen:
Reporter: “What did you talk about? … Styles and food, or what?”
Scott (smiling sweetly): “No, we talked about skating … horseback riding … Switzerland …”
Followed later by:
Reporter: “Did you exchange recipes, or anything like that?”
Scott (still smiling): “No, no recipes, but I did notice in her wedding presents she had a large cookbook.”
It was the skater’s athleticism, especially the introduction of double loops, that set her apart from everyone else in the immediate post-war era. For Canadian skaters, it was the victory itself that set the table for what was to come. For Canadian girls it gave them an athletic hero to counter the boys’ Maurice Richard or Teeder Kennedy.
“That win was what set the sport of skating in Canada on its path of success, to its support from the public and, in time, from government,” says Wilkes, who after retiring would become the TV colour voice of the sport for 35 years. “It opened the door to everyone’s imagination — everyone wanted to be Barbara Ann.”
She could be a real doll. Actually, she was a doll.
The Reliable Toy Company issued a Barbara Ann Scott collectible in 1948, priced at $5.95 and available in a number of outfits, all with little white skates. They sold like crazy for about eight years.
Canada’s Sweetheart (who away from the spotlight was tough, funny, smart, forthright, straightforward and, if the occasion warranted, could cuss like a stevedore) went pro after the Olympics, skating in many shows around North America and Europe.
She famously appeared as a “mystery guest” on the popular What’s My Line? television program in 1955, carrying her poodle Pierre (complete with apparently faux diamond collar and red painted nails).
The panel knew who she was.
Marriage to American publicist Tom King saw a move to Chicago, a switch to equestrian sports (dressage of course, at which she excelled) and a dropping out of the Canadian limelight until the early 1960s when the other Barbara Ann Scott career began — ambassador for her sport, her country and its athletes.
“(Barbara) did not suffer fools well, and yet she managed somehow despite all the grabbing for attention, she still managed to retain this elegance, grace and poise around some of the craziest situations where fans would just be trying to grab hold of her,” says Wilkes. “She always managed this beautiful, warm acceptance of the situation and really enjoy it.”
An incandescent star in furs and fake jewels (the real ones were left at home).
Scott’s final appearances were memorable. In 2010 for the Vancouver Olympics, she was one of eight honoured Olympic flag bearers in the opening ceremonies. Earlier she had presented the flame to a standing ovation and rare bipartisan support in Canada’s Parliament at Ottawa.
Barbara Ann Scott died on Sept. 30, 2012, leaving an athletic, social and personal legacy that will be difficult to match.