Great Sporting Moments: Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean win Olympic gold for ice dancing, Olympic Games, Sarajevo, 14 February 1984
It was hardly a mainstream sport. But for one magical Valentine's evening, ice dancing was the only thing that anyone in Britain cared about. Robin Scott-Elliot remembers Torvill and Dean's perfect dance in Sarajevo
Wednesday 15 July 2009
The girl was the same height as the wall that enclosed the arena. She held a bouquet in one hand and with the other picked furiously at something stuck on the ice, desperate to ensure the surface was perfect for the two competitors waiting their turn. Out of sight, they watched and a country watched with them, millions upon millions waiting, united in a universal anxiety. Perfection was not to be long delayed.
Satisfied with her precise labours, the girl made for the small gate that led off the ice. Jayne Torvill smiled down at her as she scrambled off, her skates now a clumsy hindrance. Alongside Torvill, Christopher Dean stared ahead, inscrutable, his face a mask of calm, his long slender neck, accentuated by his collarless top, giving him the serene air of a swan on the summer water.
The ice was Dean's natural habitat, and, at last, the girl banished contentedly into the depths of the Zetra stadium, he led his partner on to the rink.
The gate was closed behind them and they skated briskly to the centre, the brilliance of the ice and the whitewashed wall blurring the spectators and highlighting Torvill and Dean, each clad in billowing tops of darkening purple, he in black trousers and black skates, she in a short dress, also purple, and white skates. It was the evening of Valentine's Day, 1984, and in Sarajevo, the host city of the XIV Winter Olympics, two Britons were on the brink of passing forever into sporting greatness.
"My whole family went round to my granny's – we always went there for special events like royal weddings. I remember being very nervous – there was so much expectation. And it was just perfect."
Fran, aged 14 in 1984
Whatever the standing of ice dancing as an Olympic sport – a debate for another time, and it would be far from alone in the dock – the simple truth is that on that night in the former Yugoslavia, Torvill and Dean executed an achievement of immense worth. Sport may become, as the Olympic movement demands, relentlessly faster, higher, stronger, but grace spans ages, through a Bradman drive to a Cruyff turn and on to a Federer forehand. Torvill and Dean, artists on ice, reached the rare ground of sporting perfection. What is more, under an almost intolerable weight of expectation, they captured a nation.
Twenty-four million people watched the BBC (the corporation was so fearful of the host broadcaster cutting away during the routine that they covered it with just their own single hand-held camera), a figure that astonishes almost as much as the string of sixes that was to be strung across the screen once the pair's finale had left them laid out on the ice. It was double the number who watched the 2008 Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea and nearly 5 million more than viewed England's 1990 World Cup semi-final against Germany.
"Everyone at school was so excited. I remember getting Torvill and Dean for my sticker album – they were so hard to come by. Everyone wanted one. I was so pleased."
Kim, nine in 1984
That long, life-changing day had begun for the 26-year-old Torvill, and Dean, 25, in the Olympic Village some time before 4am. By 4.30am, they had already laced up their skates and were on the ice.
It was the first time that competitors had been able to practise in the 8,500-capacity stadium, and the British pair were the only ones to show for that earliest of morning slots. For the first time, the notes of Ravel's Bolero began, with a tinny resonance, to echo across the near-empty venue. They slipped comfortably into the routine and moved through it with practised ease. As they finished, they were surprised by a smattering of applause; a handful of cleaners readying the Zetra were entranced. They recognised that something out of the ordinary was in the offing.
By 1984, Torvill and Dean were established as sporting giants in the UK. They had broken Soviet hegemony and had come to dominate world and European ice dancing. Since 1981, they had won every title they had competed for. In a Britain troubled by its diminished place in the world and increasingly divided by domestic strife – the miners' strike was a month away – these two, from working-class backgrounds in Nottingham, provided an escape clause. But for Torvill and Dean that meant the added, intensifying pressure of great expectation, accompanied by endless speculation over their relationship off the ice. Britain wanted another, more accessible, Charles and Diana. Torvill called Dean her "blond prince".
"We all wanted to be Jayne Torvill then," a friend admitted to me last week.
They escaped the build-up to the Games by training with the German team in Oberstdorf, financed in that amateur era by a £14,000 grant from Nottingham city council. There, relatively undisturbed, they perfected their routine with coach Betty Callaway. In ice dancing, pairs were allowed to perform a free dance for 4 minutes 10 seconds; the Bolero, despite desperate attempts to shoehorn a piece that lasted for 17 minutes in its entirety, could not be arranged into anything less than 4 minutes 28 seconds. Dean had the solution.
"Me and my mum, we decided we wouldn't open the door to anyone. We half watched it from behind cushions. We were really, really excited, but when they came on we were so nervous."
Karen, 11 in 1984
They skate hand in hand on to the ice, and kneel. The now-familiar first bars of the Bolero beat out. And still they kneel, but now moving, swaying their torsos to meet each other, breast to breast, Dean ever more swanlike. For 18 seconds they kneel on the ice, a prolonged bout of romantic sparring. Then Dean, still on one knee, lifts Torvill and twists her upright. He spins her round and levers her over his left shoulder. She's on her feet again and he spins on his knees before finally rising to his feet, now nearly 40 seconds after the music began. Hands on hips, they sashay seductively across the rink, upping the pace and then darting side by side over the ice, arms outstretched. The movement is fluid and all the time the steady beat of the Bolero accompanies them.
At one point, they clutch each other dearly, eyes locked. He leads, she leads, then she spins around him and he supports her with one hand – upper body strength is a requisite – as her back arches and her skates leave the ground. His right hand is behind her neck, his right leg lifts hers and the first gasps ripple round the Zetra.
Arms twirl, bodies twirl; suddenly he lifts her. A one point, they make the pretence of a kiss. She spins, arms, legs flying behind, head arced. He whips her up again off the ice and turns. Once, twice, three times, four times. Now the music is quickening, almost pleading. It takes on a final urgency and they make for the centre of the rink and collapse, her arms outstretched, head tilted, his face is pressed to the ice and at last you have a sense of the effort as he lies there panting, his chest heaving. A moment's pause, and the applause begins.
It soon escalates into a standing, prolonged ovation. They rise, once again, and finally the BBC producer lets us off the single camera and we are inundated with angles. They separate and glide to the side to accept proffered bouquets. Dean pecks two fans on the cheeks – and then the first set of marks, for technical merit, sparkles across the screen.
6.0, 5.9, 5.9, 6.0, 6.0, 5.9, 5.9, 5.9, 5.9.
They are still apart and still taking flowers. Dean kisses a woman in a union jack hat which tumbles to the floor.
"I guessed it, you guessed it. The second set of marks can only confirm that Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean have won the gold medal," says Alan Weeks on the BBC.
They are together again, making for the gate, Torvill's face almost hidden behind her armful of bouquets. Someone hands her a Union flag. The second set of marks, for artistic impression, is announced. Again a moment's disbelieving silence.
6.0, 6.0, 6.0, 6.0, 6.0, 6.0, 6.0, 6.0, 6.0.
"Clickety Click – all the sixes" was how the following day's Sun put it. They dominated the front pages and the news bulletins. "Erotic" and "sizzling" were among the more sober judgements. "When we knelt down on the ice, we looked into each other's eyes and saw total commitment," Dean was to say later. "It was almost as if we were looking into each other's soul."
Not only had they written Olympic history, they had also changed ice dancing forever. On the official IOC website, they remain labelled as "Olympic revolutionaries". The rules of competition have since been changed, and much of what they pioneered 25 years ago became illegal, as the sport's reactionary governing body took umbrage at the trend begun in Sarajevo.
Torvill and Dean returned home to Nottingham to be greeted by huge crowds, and toured the city somewhat incongruously perched on the back of an open-top Land Rover.
Later that year they turned professional, and the financial rewards were quick to follow for the former trainee policeman and insurance clerk as they toured the world.
Ten years on from their triumph in Sarajevo, prompted by a change in the eligibility rules, they returned to competition and made an eagerly awaited comeback at the Lillehammer Olympics. Britain was smitten once more, and their upbeat routine to "Let's face the music and dance" was fawned on by another 23 million of their compatriots. But it did not win favour with the judges, and they were awarded a controversial bronze amid a storm of media outrage at the nation's darlings being cheated out of a second gold. One, though, was enough, and that original golden moment endures, its lustre ensured forever.
"Our hands were clenched. We were willing them not to make a mistake. When they finished, we just screamed. When the sixes came up, well, we were crying. We watched it again and again and again. Magic."
Nora, 47 in 1984
"The most cherished prize in sport for the greatest ice dancers of all time," said Alan Weeks as, later that evening, Torvill and Dean skated across to the podium in the doomed Zetra stadium. (It was to be destroyed during the siege of the city a decade later.)
When they stepped off the ice on to the top of the podium, they appeared suddenly mortal again, their skates, like the little girl's not long before, suddenly awkward. They were out of their habitat. As the Union flag rose, flanked by the hammer and sickle, Dean's mask finally fell. He stood gasping the air, the emotion plain to see, and as the last notes of the national anthem drained away, he turned and draped his arms around his partner and kissed her neck.
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