This was the first time a ‘winter sport’ had ever been incorporated in an Olympiad, with the inaugural Olympic Winter games still 16 years away, and the competition took place at the end of October – more than three months after the athletics had drawn to a close.
Madge Syers, one of 15 children fathered by a Kensington property developer, had already created a landmark of her own in 1902, becoming the first women to enter the World Figure Skating Championships and promptly coming away with a silver medal. Her husband was Edgar Syers, a fellow figure skater and coach who was 18 years her senior but had come third in the 1899 World Championships and, at the age of 45, planned to compete in the pairs alongside his wife in London.
Madge went into the new Olympic event in a rich vein of form, having won two World Championship golds – in the ladies’ competition this time – in the previous two years. “The rink was filled to overflowing with an enthusiastic crowd of onlookers, who witnessed perhaps the most strenuous, delightful and varied display of figure skating that has ever taken place,” said the Official Report of the venue, Prince’s Skating Club, and their mouths were certainly left agape by Syers.
The competition began at 10am on Wednesday, October 28. “It was soon apparent, read the report, “that Mrs. Syers, after a year’s retirement from competitions, is still in a class by herself. The wonderful accuracy of her figures, combined with perfect carriage and movement, was the chief feature of the morning’s skating.”
Syers had worked her first three loops almost to perfection, and by the end of the first day’s compulsory figures she was far ahead of her four opponents. The following day, she returned for the free skating round. Once again, “the free skating of Mrs Syers was as far in advance of that of her opponents as her compulsory figures had been”. The judges voted her a comfortable first, followed by the Dutchwoman Elsa Rendschmidt and fellow Briton Dorothy Greenhaulgh-Smith.
That was not the end of the day’s successes. Sure enough, she paired up with Edgar to compete in the pairs, although they had not benefited from much recent practice time together and faced stern opposition in the form of German duo Anna Hubler and Heinrich Burger. Sure enough, Hubler and Berger won easily, the husband and wife team settling for bronze. But the event’s success was remarkable in itself, firstly for its own popularity on the Olympic stage and secondly for the continuation of the form that Syers had not been abashed to show in mixed competitions earlier in the decade.
And perhaps this was a watershed moment. “The successful appearance of ladies in these competitions suggests the consideration that since one of the chief objects of the revived Olympic Games is the physical development and amelioration of the race, it appears illogical to adhere so far to classical tradition as to provide so few opportunities for the participation of a predominant partner in the process of race-production,” reflected the report in its write-up of the figure skating event. “More events, in fact, might be open to women, whether they are permitted to compete with men or not.”
In common with several of her fellow Olympians in 1908, there is a sadness to Syers’ tale – one that in some ways makes her legacy even more powerful. Her health began to fail after the Games and she retired from the sport that she had showcased so thrillingly. She co-wrote books with Edgar, as she had already been doing – their third and final volume, ‘The Art Of Skating (International Style)’ was influential in subsequent years. She eventually died of heart failure, brought on by acute endocarditis, in September 1917 at the age of just 35. Edgar passed away 29 years later, at the age of 82.
In 1981, Syers was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Hers had been an early victory for feminism: the manner in which she had proved herself among male peers at the start of her career arguably paved the way for a ladies’ competition in 1908, and added a powerful voice to the argument for enhanced female participation at the Games.