Madge Syers dreamed of Olympic gold. A figure skater, she was known around the world as one of the best skaters alive. Surely she was set for the medal podium! Well, she would have been, if women were allowed to compete in figure skating, which in the early 20th century,they must definitely were not.
BUT MADGE WASN’T GOING TO LET THAT STOP HER.
One of 15 children (Madge’s mum definitely deserves a medal!), Madge fell in love with figure skating in her late teens. This love only intensified when she met her coach (and future husband) Edgar Syers.
The couple started skating as a pair, as well as individually, pushing each other to up their game. They even wrote guides to figure skating, including one written entirely in poetry (natch). But all the skating prose in the world couldn’t give Madge what she really, really wanted — the right to compete.
You see, women weren’t allowed to compete in figure skating, BUT after some serious combing through the rules, Madge worked out that the World Championships rulebook didn’t actually specify anything on gender. So she packed up her skates and headed off to the 1902 World Championships.
When Madge took to the ice, the crowd was mesmerized. In part because, oh my god a woman on the ice, in part because our girl was seriously dressed to impress (pearl necklace and all!), but mainly because she was really bloody good.
By the end of the competition, Madge had placed second, beating a whole host of the world's best male skaters.
In fact, the gold medalist, Ulrich Salchow, was so impressed with Madge’s bravery and talent, he presented her with his medal; showing he believed her to be the true winner.
The International Skating Union was not having this.
The International Skating Union immediately met to discuss the problem that was Madge. Their solution was to bar women from their competitions entirely. They cited three reasons:
1. Long skirts prevented judges from having a good view of a skaters footwork.
2. It was hard to compare a woman’s talents to a man's.
3. A woman may be romantically involved with a man, which could lead judges to over marking.
In response to point 1, Madge shortened her skirts to the knee. For points 2 and 3…well, they were bullshit, so Madge skated on regardless.
Though she couldn’t compete in the World Championships anymore, Madge kept busy by winning as many other competitions as possible.
By 1906, Madge had made it impossible for female skaters to continue being ignored. So, surprisingly, her old foes The International Skating Union created a female figure skating championship.
Madge obviously won the gold.
In 1908, figure skating became an official Olympic sport (weirdly as part of the summer Olympics). It was pretty obvious to everyone by now that refusing entry to a woman was not an option: Madge would find a way to skate anyway.
And so, at the 1908 London Olympics, Madge took to the ice once more. Her skills amazed the judges, who praised her as being in "A CLASS OF HER OWN’" (ain’t that the truth!).
By the end of the competition, Madge had won bronze in the pairs skating and gold as an individual skater, making her the first-ever female figure skating Olympic champion.
Thanks to Madge’s refusal to EVER give in, the door was now open for female skaters. And they came in by the boatload, transforming figure skating into the batshit sport of insane feats of human athleticism that we know today:
This post originally appeared in F Yeah History and is reprinted with permission.
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Written by Natasha Tidd, Sara Westrop, and Helen Antrobus, F Yeah History is dedicated to unearthing history that's just too good for history class. From historic hangover cures to unsung historic heroes, all told with a healthy does of gifs and somewhat terrible jokes, it's history...just not as you know it. Follow F Yeah History on FYeahHistory.com and on Twitter @F_yeah_history.