Losses in Davos
Dawn came to Davos at half past six on the first day of the 16th World Championship in Speedskating, but it would take some time yet before the Sun rose over the mountains. The skaters greeted each other at breakfast with friendly, but distracted nods. Their morning rituals were performed somewhat quieter than the preceding days, and in some cases markedly more meticulously. Races were at hand.
And they were not to be just any races. The conditions had been so wonderful for the whole week, and the weather still looked as beautiful. It was clear, this championship was going to be something special.
Most of the skaters were newcomers to Davos. Only Schilling, Wathén and Öholm had skated here before. Schilling was a Davos veteran, with visits as far back as 1897. (No doubt) he knew his way around, a good man to turn to for any newbie.
The weather was still good when the starting time was approaching. (The Dutch meteorological institute (KNMI) have published full historical observations lists on the web, which I have found very useful, unfortunately the Swiss nor most other countries seem to have done the same.) The skaters were gathering, and the spectators, too, to the sound of jingling sleighbells. The idle, pleasure-loving residents of the Kurhaus and the other large hotels, a very multinational crowd, promenaded—bareheaded, clad in the latest sports outfits of the most expensive fabrics. There was music in the air, the hotel band was playing a concert from a little gallery on the wooden pavilion at the far end of the rectangular rink, behind which snowcapped mountains rose against the deep blue sky.
There were stands on three sides of the rink, all black with people now as the last bets were exchanged before the races. Oscar Mathisen stood on the starting line along with the Finnish champion Antti Wicklund (using the old spelling, and still apologising for it). He had drawn the first outer lane. After a week of pure pleasure he felt excellently disposed, well ready to fight for his first international gold medal. Neither the occasion nor the crowd did impress him. He had seen bigger crowds before, though it was something about the atmosphere here, the strangeness of the whole environment, and something about the reek of power emanating from the silken and furred specimens adorning the bleachers surrounding him—something unsettling.
The starter was ready with his flag. He lifted it, waved it, and they were off. The skaters raced up the first straight and through the first curve. Oscar was drawing nearer to the Finn on the back straight, using long strides, and sensed that he was well placed. Then he prepared to enter the last inner curve.
And lost his footing.
Limbs-spread and helpless in the high speed he slid straight towards an iron post, hit it hard, rotated across the outer lane and ended up in a high snow pile on the periphery of the rink.
Wicklund perhaps was hindered. His final time, though it was a pb, at any rate was a little disappointing, or perhaps he was just tired from his train journey. We will never know, will we?
Oscar was battered, and the left side of his head felt all smashed up. But inside at least a remnant of a mind was still working, and it said to him: “Don’t give up! The race is lost, but finish it! Finish it!! FINISH IT!!!” With this one thought ringing in his mind he clambered up, got his footing and skated on towards the finishing line. The times were announced to 47,4 and 54,4—Oscar’s poorest time ever (he claims—and apparently with good reason, as he didn’t skate any races until 1905—I don’t have any of his times from his first season, though). On the stands, several impolite utterances were heard as betters who’d had faith in the Norwegian youngster were counting their losses.
While Oscar staggered painfully up to the rink restaurant where the skaters were to gather after the first race, no doubt with his brother and perhaps others sympathisingly attending, the rest of the participants skated their 500 meters. Both skaters in the second pair beat the leading time of Wicklund, Bohrer narrowly beating Schrey with 46,2 against 46,4. Pbs for both, of course, and really good looking times. But better was to come.
Öholm now felt more confident than ever of extending his wins as he was ready on the line with the Dane Sørensen. With his hardest opponent from Klagenfurt eliminated, and the Finnish champion not impressing, he set his sights on matching the time of Bohrer. He knew from experience it could be done better. The ice and the weather still was good, and the Swedish champion skater skated as good as he could and nearly matched his time from last year, clocking 45,2— close to the world record again.
That was a good piece of work, boding very well for the rest of the championship. The time of Sørensen was 49,6. Now, Wathén and Sigurd Mathisen were ready. Sigurd, piqued by his brother’s misfortune, skated with aggression and soon built a strong lead on his pairmate. His time however was announced to 45,4, one fifth behind the Swede, with Wathén equalling Wicklund.
In the 5th pair Sætherhaug was poorly paced by his pairmate, the Englishman Dix, and could only Equal his pb from Frogner at 46,2, also equal to Bohrer. Dix had 51,6. The veteran Schilling was no better a match for Wikander (o.sp.) in the next pair, but the Finn had had records in his sights for the past week, sprinted excellently to finish in 44,8, and the world record was equalled again!
The young Dutchman Kalt, youngest in the championship, skated alone as his compatriot Koning (not the world champion) did not appear. Unfortunately he suffered the same fate as the other teenager, as he fell and pulled out of the race. Remaining now were only the Swedish debutant Pettersson and the other Finnish title hope Strömstén. The latter did win the pair, but his time 47,2 did not impress. Were the Finns to rely on Wikander this time?
Points after first distance: Wikander 1, Öholm 2, Sigurd 3, Bohrer & Sæterhaug 4.5, Schrey 6, Strömsten 7, Wicklund & Wathén 8.5, Pettersson 10, Sørensen 11, Schilling 12, Dix 13, Oscar 14 and last.
Now it was time for the lunch break, a well-needed break for young Oscar, who ate a bit of grub with his face swelling and lay down in the dressing room for some rest. Meanwhile the spectatorship all went home to their hotels and the Kurhaus for a hearty lunch.
When they returned, the Alpine sunshine had been unkind to the ice, which had begun to soften considerably. Bohrer and Sigurd in the first pair skated laps of 45 and more. The young Austrian soon built a gap on Oscar’s brother and increased it. Their times were 9.42,8 and 9.56,4, way behind their best.
It must have been a good race, because Schilling and Sørensen (probably) in the next pair couldn’t touch it, finishing in 10.07,2 and 10.26,4. But now the Sun (probably) went behind the mountains, and the troubled ice of Davos got some relief. It didn’t help Pettersson and Wathén in the (probably) next pair. The young Swede proved more than a match for the experienced Finn and beat Sigurd Mathisen to second place so far with his 9.53,0, while Wathén clocked 10.00,8. But now the ice was freezing, and already Öholm and Wikander (probably) in the 4th pair had much better conditions. With a string of 43 laps the Swedish favourite skated well away from the Finnish sprinter and set a new pb at 9.04,8, Wikander finishing in 9.20,6. Öholm now seemed to have strengthened his chances considerably. In (probably) the 5th pair, however, the two Finnish favourites Wicklund and Strömstén had a sharp duel that the national champion decided in the last few meters with only a 5th of a second’s difference: 9.01,4 and 9.01,6.
Oscar felt much better as he approached the starting line in the 6th pair, although the whole left side of his face now was very sore and manifestly swollen. But his battling spirit was intact, and he was determined to sell his hide dearly. It gave him hope that the leading time was only 9.01,4. After all he had twice skated faster himself.
The race started in a maddening pace, well below the world record of Eden with three 40 laps. This couldn’t last, but he kept a large difference throughout the race, lapped his pairmate Dix 3-4 laps before the end, and finished in 8.55,4, a new personal best time. Dix’ time was 9.54,0.
Only now did Oscar’s mind begin to consider the full implications of his fall. It was as if he’d been half asleep until now. The time looked good enough for a win, and had he only a proper 500 m time to go with it... there’s no telling what could have happened! Wait and see, he thought inside himself. I have more to show you yet!
As expected, the two last pairs could not touch his time. (Probably) In one of them, Kalt skated alone, producing a disappointing time: 10.18,6. (Probably) In the other, Sæterhaug and Schrey had a close fight, which the Norwegian decided in his own favour by 3 seconds. As it happened, he also beat the time of Öholm by one fifth of a second, and thus narrowed his gap in the points table from two and a half to just one and a half. The championship race wasn’t over after all!
Points after day one: Öholm 7, Wikander 8, Sæterhaug 8.5, Strömsten 10, Wicklund 10.5 Schrey 12, Bohrer 12.5, Sigurd 14, Oscar 15, Pettersson 19, Wathén 20.5, Dix 23, Sørensen & Schilling 25.
In an extra race after the 5000 m, Oscar and Sigurd Mathisen skated a 500 m, won by Sigurd, who equalled his new pb, while Oscar set a new one at 45,8.