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When speed skating was king of winter

In January 1918, Oscar Mathisen, the Norwegian speedskating superstar who was the reigning European and world champ, came to Chicago to put to rest once and for all the ridiculous talk of his not being the fastest man on two skates.

He got his butt kicked.

Delivering the drubbing in the two-day, six-race competition before thousands of skating enthusiasts was Bobby McLean, a Chicagoan "who learned to skate on the parks of the west side," as the Tribune was eager to note at every opportunity. McLean and Mathisen both had just turned pro and the smart money said the American might be able to compete at the shorter distances. But the first day, McLean swept Mathisen in not only the 220-yard sprint but also the mile and two-mile races. In fact, he beat the world champion by more than a lap at the longer distance. On the second day, McLean easily won the 440-yard sprint but fell during the half-mile for his only loss. But after a short recovery, he "won the three-mile race with ridiculous ease."

It was the first international skating competition held in Chicago, the Tribune reported, and it came as skating was booming in popularity. Speedskating was a relatively young sport — the first world championship was organized in 1893 — but was drawing large crowds in Chicago for local races as early as 1904. More than 15,000 people enjoyed an outdoor race in January 1915 on the Garfield Park lagoon. About 30,000 saw Arthur Staff win the inaugural Tribune-sponsored Silver Skates Derbies at Humboldt Park lagoon in January 1917, according to the Tribune. Silver Skates grew rapidly. A boys division was added in 1919. Women first raced in 1921, and a girls division followed in 1922.

Many private clubs and Chicago parks fielded teams for the contest, which the Tribune — never shy about promoting its events — called the premier speed skating event in the country. Qualifying meets were held at the disparate park districts throughout the city and in the suburbs. Thousands competed. The contest launched many a national and Olympic career. Northbrook's Dianne Holum and Anne Henning, both Silver Skates champs, became known as the "Golden Girls" after their great success at the 1972 Winter Games. The Tribune's sponsorship ended after the 1974 event, but the city of Chicago has kept it running.

Of course, recreational ice skating has been around much longer and enjoyed by many more thousands. Area park districts recognized that fact, building indoor rinks, constructing temporary outdoor rinks during the winter and even flooding vacant lots to make ice skating one of the most accessible sports throughout the region. In January 1937, the Tribune reported more than 200 skating venues were open, including the lagoons at the bigger parks. In 1969, that number had grown to more than 300, which included frozen ponds and lagoons. That meant there were skating areas of some kind in more than half of the city's parks, according to Julia Bachrach, the district's historian.

Still, the fervor of those early years was hard to top. And residents' relationship to "King Winter" was different also. As Chicagoans enjoy the Winter Olympics in Sochi and cheer on another generation of Chicago-area athletes competing for gold, we're also enduring one of the coldest and snowiest winters in decades. It's hard to believe that the city today could muster 5,000 people willing to endure temperatures hovering around 10 degrees to watch a speedskating race as they did in February 1905, or even match the 15,000 who weathered 20-degree temps for a race in 1915.

Clearly Chicagoans loved the sport and many took it very seriously. For some, McLean's victory over the Norwegian champ was too much, ethnic allegiance trumping hometown loyalty such that on the second day of their battle, the Tribune reported that many in the crowd were cheering for Mathisen to at least make a battle of it. They weren't alone in frowning on Mathisen's poor showing. The king of Norway was none too happy either. The Tribune reported he didn't appreciate Mathisen turning pro to race McLean. And his mood was no doubt not improved a month later when McLean beat Mathisen again in a series of races in Minneapolis, though that competition wasn't quite so lopsided. Mathisen seemed to redeem himself on home ice in 1920 when McLean went to Norway, getting the better of the Chicagoan in a series of races that netted both skaters a hefty $25,000 payday. But McLean left Norway, according to the Tribune, without paying the proper taxes on his winnings.

The king's disfavor was so deep that fellow Chicagoan Staff, following in McLean's footsteps in 1923, cooled his heels for months in Norway waiting for permission to race Mathisen. He never did get to race. Fed up, the king banned professional speedskating events.

sbenzkofer@tribune.com
 

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