September 9, 1949– John Curry:
“With my medal, it seemed that I had acquired all the trappings that went with it, the chains as well as the ribbons.”
If you read #BTD regularly (and you really should), it may seem strange to do a second tribute to a figure skater in as many days, especially in the summer (see Rudy Galindo here), but I think Curry’s story is important to tell. It remains nearly operatic in its tragedy.
On a winter evening in 1976, millions of people watched innovative, gorgeous John Curry skate to Olympic glory. Overnight he became one of the most famous men on our pretty planet and he changed ice skating from negligible sport to high art.
The Husband and I have been fans of figure skating, watching on television for decades. We have our favorites, and we also get chuckles watching ice skating’s insular world, with all of its rules, regulations, and costumes, along with the denial that there is anything intrinsically gay about figure skating.
I enjoy a good game of inventing names for the various positions and skating moves: The Double Nipple Of The Party Boy, The Death Spiral Camel Toe, The Triple Axle Rose, The Fruit of the Loop, The Lose Your Cherry, Kiss The Nun, and The Hair Bending Junior Swizzle Swish. On that rare occasion that I have put on a pair of skates and hit the ice, I looked just like a newborn fawn standing up for the very first time.
I always admired the good-looking, charismatic Curry, an especially elegant British Olympic Champion who infused figure skating with the possibilities of dance. As an athlete, he was visionary, defining the sport with balletic sophistication. He became one of the first athletes to speak openly of being Gay and HIV Positive.
Dick Button, the Men’s Olympic Champion in 1948 and 1952:
“Curry was the finest and most intelligent all-around skater I’ve ever seen. He skated with a combination of superior athleticism, solid technique, classical line and musical sensitivity. He was choreographically inventive.”
Curry was born in 1949, in Birmingham, England. He wanted to become a ballet dancer, but that was forbidden by his abusive, alcoholic father. He turned to the expressiveness of ice skating, which came close to being dance, but okay with dad.
By 1970, he had become the British National Champion. Curry found the training facilities inadequate in England, and in 1973 he moved to Colorado to train with Carlo Fassi who had coached Peggy Fleming to her 1968 Olympic championship.
At the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Curry faced tough competition from Vladimir Kovalev of the USSR and closeted Canadian Toller Cranston, along with skepticism from the Eastern Bloc judges who always preferred athleticism over artistry.
In the short program, Curry removed a planned spread-eagle flourish from his approach to a double-axel jump. The East European judges apparently appreciated that he did not embellish on what was required. In the long program, Curry balanced his refined style with vaulting jumps to receive higher marks than Kovalev, the silver medalist, from eight of the nine judges.
“I think he brought the purest form of ballet to the ice. He was a real purist, totally devoted to the art of skating. He also had the technique and athleticism to make that art look effortless. It was a wonderful blend of art and sport.”
Just hours after receiving his 1976 Olympic Gold Medal, Curry inadvertently disclosed his gayness to a reporter, thinking he was speaking off the record:
“I just accept being gay as the way I am. I don’t think of it as being bad or wrong or to do with any form of illness. I never pretended not to be gay, ever. I think the more open people are, the easier it gets for everybody else because it demystifies it. I don’t want others to be frightened like I was…”
After the Olympic Games, no longer bound by amateur rules, the professional Curry continued to explore different forms of skating, bringing his acclaimed Ice Dancing show to Broadway in 1977-78 and later touring with his own John Curry Skating Company. He did not go for glitzy Ice Capades shows. Curry:
“I never could see the point of spending 12 years training to go dress up in a Bugs Bunny suit. I was brought up on the Royal Ballet, and I hope it shows in my work.”
Curry directed a 1980 West End revival of the Lerner and Loewe musical fantasy chestnut Brigadoon and he also found work as an actor, appearing in the Roundabout Theatre’s 1989 revival of Privates On Parade, Peter Nichols‘ 1977 farce about a mostly gay, World War II military entertainment troupe.
Actor Alan Bates had seen Curry on stage and he became a big fan. A married father of teenage twin boys, Bates was at the height of his own fame. He was famous for that notorious hot scene in Ken Russell‘s now classic film Women In Love (1969) where he wrestles naked with an equally hunky Oliver Reed. Secretly, Bates had enjoyed many liaisons with other men for decades. Curry was just one of them. But, for 20 years they shared an intense and intriguing romance.
In 1987, Curry was diagnosed with HIV. He later stated that he felt “ashamed” for having contracted any STD, much less the plague. His first lover, skating coach Heinz Wirz claims Curry sought out extreme, sometimes violent sexual experiences, but his affair with Bates seems to have been tender and genuine.
During a 1993 vacation, Curry confided in Bates that he never had wanted to have a long life, or to grow old. What mattered to him was a life lived well in the present and to have it matter somehow. He told Bates that he was ashamed of being broke and was afraid that he had accomplished too little during his life.
On a spring day in 1994, Curry left this world while being held in the arms of Bates. He was just 44 years old. Curry’s athleticism and aesthetic grace had thrilled audiences. He transformed skating into a dazzling art.