Dick Button was the first of the Crazy Eights.
That’s what U.S. Figure Skating calls its four Olympic gold medalists in a year ending in 8.
Button, who happens to be a felicitous 88 years old, won in 1948, followed by Peggy Fleming in 1968, Brian Boitano in 1988 and Tara Lipinski in 1998. Now that it’s 2018, is it time for another member of this exclusive club?
Nathan Chen is considered the best chance for a Team USA gold.
“I think he’s wonderful,” Button said, “but I think all of the men are wonderful and it will come down to who performs the most and the best quadruple jumps. Period. End of story.”
That could be Chen, who became the first man to land five quadruple jumps in a program in competition.
Back in his day, Button chalked up a profusion of “firsts,” “onlys” and “youngests.”
Seventy years ago he was the first person to land a double axel – 2 ½ revolutions – in competition at the Olympic Winter Games St. Moritz 1948.
“By the way, that jump had a cheat on it,” Button said with a laugh, noting that he would not have gotten full credit under today’s rules. “But listen, I did it and that was what counted.”
Four years later, Button was the first skater to land a triple jump in competition, this time at the 1952 Winter Games, for his second straight gold medal.
Button also is known for inventing the flying camel spin, formerly known as the Button camel. That came about by necessity rather than an urge to push the envelope.
Button said skaters used to practice camel spins in a roped off area because they were so dangerous that “you could slice one of the other skaters very easily. I skated too close to the rope and knew that I would probably spin around and twist the rope in my legs and kill myself, so I just jumped over it and – lo and behold – the flying camel was born.”
Button is still the only U.S. skater to win back-to-back gold medals and the only American to win the European championships. After he and Canada’s Barbara Ann Scott won in 1948, skating officials decided to limit the event to Europeans.
“I’m the only person to have won all the titles, which is the U.S. title, North American, European, world and Olympic,” Button said. “Scott Hamilton (1984 Olympic champion) couldn’t equal the European championship and I love noodling him about it.”
Youngest Male Olympic Champion
Button was 18 when he was the first American figure skating gold medalist in 1948 and is still the youngest male to win. Chen, who is also 18 years old, is about three months older than Button was at his first Games.
That distinction, however, isn’t important to Button. “I have zero enthusiasm for some stupid record that is meant to be broken,” he said.
After Button hung up his skates, he was a major voice of figure skating for decades as a U.S. television announcer and remains an astute observer of his sport.
“I don’t watch very much skating any more because it’s all the same program,” said Button, who does make a point of watching major championships including the Olympic Winter Games. “There is no theater about it.”
He is no fan of the current scoring system, which replaced the old “6.0” with point values for elements and execution.
“I don’t know what the new system is, I don’t learn it, I don’t care about it, I don’t like it,” he said. “I don’t like what I see today.
“They get points even for quadruple jumps that are not clean, that they make mistakes on and fall down on. Now, can you explain that to me? If you’re a pole vaulter and you knock the bar off the supports, do you get points for it?
“I’m not a happy camper at all in the world of skating today.”
Button began skating when he was 12 years old in Englewood, New Jersey. His 1955 book, “Dick Button on Skates” describes him as an “awkward twelve-year-old butterball of a boy.” Newspaper accounts from his gold medal victory in 1948 recount his first skating teacher telling him, “You’ll never learn to skate, not even if hell freezes over.”
Obviously, the instructor did not have an eye for talent. Button won the national novice title in 1944, the junior event in 1945 and the first of his seven senior titles in 1946, a remarkable progression.
At his first world championships in 1947, Button lost to Hans Gerschwiler of Switzerland, who passed away last September at age 96.
A Career Like No Other
He never lost again. Button defeated Gerschwiler at the 1948 European championships, the Olympic Winter Games and the 1948 world championships, where he was the first American to win a world title and captured the first of his five straight world crowns.
“It was a different world in 1948,” Button said. “No. 1, it was an amateur world. Nobody got anything. If you went to Cleveland or Philadelphia and skated four nights in their carnival, you were lucky if you got your transportation and a $25 gift.
“No. 2, now there are no figures in figure skating.”
In Button’s day, compulsory figures, in which skaters carved patterns in the ice, counted for 60 percent of the total score. “It took two days to do the figures, because you had to do them on the right foot and the left foot,” he said.
The rest of the score came from the free skate.
They skated outdoors, so athletes had to become experts on ice conditions and how to handle the elements. “On the unimportant part of your program, you’d have to skate into the wind, and then you’d have the wind behind your back to help you,” Button said.
“In those days also, the judges sat on the ice inside the barrier. They had great big boots on and blankets over their knees to keep them from freezing, and if you went too close to them, you tripped.”
Button said he lost the 1947 world championships because Gerschweiler was better at understanding the brittle outdoor ice.
As a result, the following year Button decided to train under the sky instead of inside the 1932 arena in Lake Placid, New York.
“I skated outdoors every day in rain, in snow on the Lake Placid club tennis courts,” said Button. “As soon as the sun went over the mountaintop the temperature changed. If it was slushy before because of the heat of the sun, you then got a freeze on top of slush and it wouldn’t be thick enough to carry you.”
He also arrived in St. Moritz early so he could train at high altitude. Button said he was “shorter and stockier” than some of the other skaters, so it was difficult for him to adjust to the altitude.
“So we went and we lived for almost a month at the Palace Hotel, and it was very elegant and very fancy,” he said.
Button and his mother traveled by boat to England, a journey lasting several days, then took a train to Switzerland where they were met by a horse-drawn sleigh and taken to their hotel.
They also went to the 1948 European championships in Prague, which were about two weeks before the Winter Olympics.
The aftermath of World War II was still very visible in the Czech city.
“You found rubble on the side of the street with German helmets on it,” Button said, “and nobody picked them up because they didn’t want them.”
It rained the entire time, which affected the figures competition. “The judges couldn’t see what you were doing,” Button said. “My coach Gus Lussi turned and said, ‘Just make sure you scrape a little snow pile at the start of your figure so that you’ll know what to get back to,’ and I did.’”
He and Gershweiler split the figures, then Button won the free skate.
On To The Olympic Winter Games
The weather in St. Moritz, however, was perfect and the ice was “simply gorgeous,” Button said.
He won four of the five figures. He also landed a double axel for the first time in practice before the free skate.
What made Button decide to put the risky jump into his program? “Because it was there,” he said.
In his autobiography, Button wrote, “I disliked being so unprepared. But the cravenness of backing away from something because of the pressure of the Olympic Games repulsed me and, once I had made up my mind, I could not divert the steps that culminated in the double axel.”
Would he have won without it?
“Yes, I think so,” Button said. “I was very far ahead in the figures.”
He skated to “Romanian Rhapsody,” receiving first place votes from eight of the nine judges. The Swiss judge went with his countryman, Gerschweiler.
“Of course,” Button said.
After returning home with his Olympic gold medal, Button expected to attend Yale. He had taken the year off following his high school graduation and his father said he’d better go to the Yale campus to remind them he was coming that fall.
The dean of freshmen asked Button what he was going to do about his skating.
“I said I only need three days off to go to Vienna where the world championships are,” Button said, “and he said, ‘You’ve got to do one thing or the other. Either go to college or skate. You can’t do both.’ Listen, I was flying. I won the Olympics. There was no way I was about to give up skating.”
So, Button went to Harvard and spoke to Dean Robert Watson.
“I said, ‘Mr. Watson, do you think I could get in?’” Button said. “He said, ‘You know perfectly well you can get in. If I didn’t allow you in, I couldn’t go home to dinner tonight.’”
Button then remembered that Watson was married to Polly Blodgett, a former national junior figure skating champion.
He attended Harvard and had “perfect timing” to return to the Winter Games in 1952 in Oslo. This time Button won all nine judges and his triple loop made history.
He later toured with ice shows, and was the expert commentator for CBS television for the 1960 Winter Games, which started his illustrious Emmy Award-winning broadcasting career.
In 2006, a segment called “Push Dick’s Button” allowed viewers to send him questions, which he answered on the air.
Button And Fleming – A Perfect Pair
Button’s most famous television partnership is with Fleming, which worked, he said, “Because neither of us wanted to step on the other’s foot. She was very unwilling to really be critical of skaters and I think that counterbalanced with me.”
Button delighted in skaters acknowledging his criticism. He once said that Russian skater Evgeni Plushenko was spinning with “his head leaning forward like it was about to fall off like a cannonball rolling down the ice.”
Plushenko, who worked on the spin, responded in an article, “What does Dick Button think about that now?”
“That was my favorite gold medal for commentary,” Button said. “Because I knew he was listening.”
Now NBC announcers and Olympic skaters Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski have taken the reins. “I think both of them are excellent,” he said. “I think Johnny Weir is very bright and together they make great music. I particularly like their costumes.”
Button also founded Candid Productions, which created made-for-television sports events. For the World Professional Figure Skating Championships, he introduced the easy-to-understand 10.0 score, and also paid the performers, paving the way for the athletes to earn a living while competing.
Button, who lives in New York, is an avid collector of skating art from 17th-century Dutch paintings to sculptures, costumes, advertising art and antique skates. His collection appeared in an exhibition last year at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
Naturally, Button, a former actor, has an opinion on the current figure skating movie, “I, Tonya.”
“I loved it,” he said. “I thought the mother in particular was exceptional. I’m a member of the Screen Actors Guild and I will certainly vote for this.”
That’s Dick Button, still calling them like he sees them.