Ericsson thwarts Soviet speed skating surge

Picture by IOC

Upon joining the international speed skating circuit in 1953, the Soviet Union immediately began to dominate with a generation of exceptional athletes. But one man, Sweden’s Sigvard Ericsson, emerged to stem this seemingly unstoppable tide. In 1955, he was crowned European all-round champion on home soil in Falun, and followed that up in style less than a month later in Moscow, where he stole the thunder of crowd favourites Oleg Goncharenko and Boris Schilkov to become the first Swede to win the ISU World All-Round Speed Skating Championship title since its inception in 1893. He also became the first skater to defeat the Soviets on that stage since their arrival on the international scene. A few months later, he was awarded the Svenska Dagbladet gold medal, which rewards the top Swedish athlete of the year.

Although Ericsson had competed in the 1952 Games in Oslo, he had failed to make a significant impact, and so he went into the 1956 Olympic Yevgeny Grishin speed skating competition on Lake Misurina determined to succeed. This plan did not get off to the best of starts; he finished 37th in the 500m on 28 January, which was won by the USSR’s .

The following day, in the 5,000m, he was drawn in the eighth pair with Pyum Chang Nam (KOR). Schilkov had previously set the pace with an impressive 7:48.70, a new Olympic record, and although the confident Swede was unable to threaten that benchmark, he still crossed the line in 7:56.70, which was enough to leapfrog Goncharenko, who had been sitting in second, and claim the silver medal.

On 30 January, Ericsson finished sixth in a 1,500m in which Grishin shared first place with compatriot Yuri Mikhaylov, the former’s second gold medal in Cortina. At this stage of the competition, the Soviet Union had scooped up every available Olympic title, but there was one left to decide, the 10,000, held on 31 January. Ericsson was among the favourites for the race, due to his previous successes over that distance at the World and European All-round Championships in 1955.

The contest would prove to be breath-taking. Oleg Goncharenko, departing in the third pair, started things off by breaking the Olympic record in 16:42.30. Four pairs later, Norway’s Knut Johansson then broke it again with a time of 16:36.90. Ericsson was placed in the 10th pair alongside Takeji Asasaka (JPN), and set such a blistering pace that it seemed that the world record of 16:32.60, held by Hjalmar Andersen (NOR) since 1952, was in real danger. Despite slowing in the last two kilometres, he still improved the Olympic record (broken three times in one event) to 16:35.90, ahead of Johansson and Goncharenko, who took silver and bronze.

Once the dust had settled, the Soviet athletes, in their first appearance at the Olympic Winter Games, helped themselves to seven speed skating medals, including four golds. Next down the list came Sweden (one gold and one silver), or, to put it more precisely, Sigvard Ericsson.

The Cortina d’Ampezzo Games would remain the pinnacle of the Jämtland-born skater’s career. After a swansong at the 1957 World All-Round Championships in Östersund (SWE), where he finished ninth, he retired from international competition.


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