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Button, Dick

Dick Button

1929-

American figure skater

Ranked as one of the greatest figure skaters of all timeperhaps second only to Sonja Henie in terms of his impact on the sportDick Button remains an influential force on the contemporary scene more than fifty years after he won his second of two Olympic Gold Medals. In addition to his Olympic triumphs, Button was the reigning U.S. men's champion from 1946 to 1952 and claimed the World Championship titles from 1948 to 1952. Honored with the James E. Sullivan Award in 1949 as the country's Best Amateur Athlete, Button finished his B.A. at Harvard University in 1952 and followed it with a law degree in 1956. A regular commentator on ABC's Wide World of Sports since 1962, Button won an Emmy Award as Best Sports Personality in 1981. He also heads Candid Productions, a television production company that he founded in 1959, and is instrumental in

sponsoring several professional skating competitions that have expanded the range of opportunities available to figure skaters after their amateur careers end.

Sixteen-Year-Old U.S. Champion

Richard Totten Button was born in Englewood, New Jersey on July 18, 1929, to businessman George Button and his wife, the former Evelyn Bunn Totten. He was the youngest of three boys and at first did not appear to posses any special athletic ability. Button started skating at the age of six with his school friends and enjoyed the sport enough that he later traded in a pair of hockey skates that he had received as a Christmas present for figure skates. Button's family was wealthy enough that he could take private lessons with coach Gustav Lussi at the Philadelphia Skating and Humane Club and in Lake Placid, New York. The lessons paid off and in 1943, when Button entered his first competition at the Eastern States Novice Championship, he skated away with the silver medal.

Just weeks after that second-place finish, fourteen-year-old Button won the gold medal at the Middle Atlantic Novice Championship in April 1943, which began a string of victories. In 1944 he took first place at the Eastern States Junior and United States Novice Championships; the following year, Button won the gold medal at Junior Championships. In 1946 the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) resumed its men's senior competition, which had not been held for the prior two years because of World War II. Sixteen-year-old Button won the event and became the youngest men's champion in U.S. figure skating history. He repeated as champion every year through 1952. With seven championships, Button shared the honor of holding the most U.S. men's titles with Roger Turner, who reigned from 1928 to 1934.

Olympic Gold Medalist

In his climb to the top of the U.S. field, Button earned a reputation for innovation, often combining moves that highlighted the control and power of his skating. In his first International Skating Union (ISU) World Championship appearance in 1947 (the first time the event was held since 1939), Button introduced the flying (or "Button") camel, in which he jumped into the traditional camel spin with one leg stretched out parallel to the ice. Button finished second in the championship, even though he earned the most points of any skater in the competition.

Button began the 1948 season with his second victory in the U.S. Championship, followed by a victory in the European Championship (which North Americans were allowed to enter at that time). In his first Olympic appearance at the 1948 St. Moritz Games, Button built a solid lead through the first two stages of the competition, compulsory (or school) figures and the technical program. In the free skate, Button amazed the audience by performing a double axel jump, requiring two-and-one-half turns in the air. It was the first time the jump had been completed in competition and it helped Button win the gold medal. In doing so, he became the first American to claim the men's title at the Olympic Games.

Entering Harvard University in 1948, Button continued to reign as men's U.S. champion while he completed his bachelor's degree, which he received in 1952. Button was also honored with the James E. Sullivan Award, given by the Amateur Athletic Union to the best amateur athlete in the United States. Until Michelle Kwan won the award in 2002, Button was the only figure skater to earn such a distinction. In 1952 Button returned for his second Olympics, this time in Oslo, Norway. As the current U.S. and World Championship titleholder, Button was the favorite entering the competition. Button again made Olympic history by completing a triple-loop jump in the free skatethe first triple jump of any kind ever completed in competitionand claimed his second gold medal. Ever the perfectionist, Button was dissatisfied with his performance; as he recalled in a profile on the U.S. Olympic Committee's Web site, "I overtrained for the second [Olympic Games] and made some errors and that has always bugged me more than the fact that I won the Olympics." Button followed the Olympic victory with a final win at the World Championship in Paris, France and then retired from amateur ranks. Throughout the 1950s he skated with the Ice Capades, a popular skating program that toured the country; Button also entered Harvard Law School, where he completed his law degree in 1956.

Sportscaster and Producer

In 1959 Button formed Candid Productions, a television production company that later presented many professional skating competitions and other sports programs such as The Battle of the Network Stars. In 1962 Button began appearing on ABC's Wide World of Sports as a commentator on figure skating; the association has lasted more than forty years and led to an Emmy Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences as Outstanding Sports Personality in 1981. After marrying skating coach and choreographer Slavka Kohout in March 1973, the couple had two children, Edward and Emily, before divorcing in 1984.

Chronology

1929 Born July 18 to George and Evelyn (Bunn Totten) Button in Englewood, New Jersey
1941 Begins taking figure skating lessons
1952 Receives B.A. from Harvard University
1956 Receives law degree from Harvard University
1962 Begins appearing on ABC's Wide World of Sports
1973 Marries Slavka Kohout on March 10
1984 Divorces Kohout
2001 Recovers from head injury received while skating

Awards and Accomplishments

1943 Won silver medal, United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) Eastern States Novice Championship
1943 Won gold medal, USFSA Middle Atlantic Novice Championship
1944 Won gold medal, USFSA Eastern States Junior Championship
1944 Won gold medal, USFSA United States Novice Championship
1945 Won gold medal, USFSA Junior Championship
1946-52 Won gold medal, USFSA Men's Championship
1947 Won silver medal, International Skating Union (ISU) World Championship
1948 Won gold medal, ISU European Championship
1948 Won gold medal, Saint Moritz Winter Olympic Games
1948-52 Won gold medal, ISU World Championship
1949 Awarded James E. Sullivan Award for best amateur athlete in the United States
1952 Won gold medal, Oslo Winter Olympic Games
1976 Inducted into the U.S. and World Figure Skating Hall of Fame
1981 Received Emmy Award, Outstanding Sports Personality, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences

In his role as a Wide World of Sports analyst, Button remains one of the most familiar figure skaters to the American public decades after his retirement as an athlete. He is also regarded as a leading authority on the sport. When figure skating underwent one of its biggest changes in 1990, dropping the compulsory figures from the men's and women's competitions, Button was a leading critic of the move. "The skating of figures is an art form in itself," he told Sports Illustrated, "it has nothing to do with free skating." When the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan controversy erupted in 1994 over Harding's attempt to force Kerrigan out of the Olympics with an injury, however, Button refrained from commenting. "I found it disgusting, especially the shark-feeding media," he later told Mark Leibovich of the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service in a 1996 interview.

Remained a Force in Figure Skating

Although a leading advocate in popularizing figure skating, Button does not hesitate to critique trends that he thinks are harmful to the sport. Reviewing the competitive pressures that young figure skaters endure, Button is apprehensive at the toll such demands take on the young athletes' lives, particularly in terms of their schooling. "I have an interest in the sport, but I also have an interest in the people who do it," he explained in a 1998 interview with Mark Kram of the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, "The problem is, the people who do it are just so overloaded." He added, "What it comes down to is that there is so much money to be made, it doesn't seem to matter if [the skaters] are educated or not." Button is also critical of the ISU's refusal to adopt fundamental reforms in the judging process, even after a scandal erupted at the 2002 Olympics over the initial second-place finish of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier in the pair's competition. Sale and Pelletier were later awarded a gold medal, but the ISU continued to drag its feet on reforming its practices.

A legend in his sport, Button continues to be one of the most influential persons in figure skating more than half a century after his Olympic triumphs. Not only has he educated the American public on the finer points of skating, he has also managed to popularize the sport as a mass-media spectator event. Although his appreciation for the sport is obvious, however, Button does not shy away from expressing his frank assessment over the sport's shortcomings. In doing so, he remains an influential, if sometimes contentious, authority in the world of figure skating.

SELECTED WRITINGS BY BUTTON:

Dick Button on Skates. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1955.

Where Is He Now?

More than fifty years after his second Olympic gold medal, Button remains an important force in contemporary figure skating. In the wake of the judging controversy in the pairs' competition at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, Button was one of the most vocal critics of the ISU's unwillingness to reform its practices. Using his forum as a commentator on ABC's Wide World of Sports, Button was particularly critical of the ISU's continuing accreditation of judges who had been found guilty of cheating at past events.

In January of 2001 Button suffered a head injury when he fell during a rehearsal of a skating performance to be included in a Wide World of Sports segment. The mishap required several weeks of rehabilitation before Button could return to the air. On the U.S. Olympic Committee's Web site Button said, "I'm fine, I'm here, and I'm wreaking havoc as usual." Button continues to serve as an analyst for about ten USFSA and ISU events each year. He lives in Manhattan and owns a fifty-acre farm in Old Salem, New York.

Instant Skating. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1964.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Books

Brennan, Christine. Edge of Glory: The Inside Story of the Quest for Figure Skating' Olympic Gold Medals. New York: Scribner, 1998.

Brennan, Christine. Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating. New York: Scribner, 1996.

Fleming, Peggy with Peter Kaminsky. The Long Program: Skating Toward Life's Victories. New York: Pocket Books, 1999.

Smith, Beverley. Talking Figure Skating: Behind the Scenes in the World's Most Glamorous Sport. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1997.

U.S. Figure Skating Association. The Official Book of Figure Skating. New York: Simon & Schuster Editions, 1998.

Periodicals

Kram, Mark. "Dick Button Is a Pioneer, Educator of Figure Skating." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (January 2, 1998): 102.

Leibovich, Mark. "TV's Guru of Skating Still Knows How to Navigate Around Thin Ice." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (January 26, 1996): 126.

Wulf, Steve. "Disfigured." Sports Illustrated (June 20, 1988): 13.

Other

"Dick Button." ESPN Web site. http://espn.go.com/abcsports/columns/button_dick/bio.html (December 8, 2002).

"Flashback Figure Skating's Dick Button." United States Olympic Committee. http://www.olympic-usa.org/news/020902figure.html (February 9, 2002).

Sketch by Timothy Borden

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Dick Button

Dick Button

Dick Button (born 1929), a dominant force in figure skating in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was instrumental in developing the sport in America. He is the only male figure skater to clench the "grand slam" of skating, winning the United States, North American, European, World, and Olympic championships in the same year. Button later became a somewhat controversial commentator on figure skating for television.

Richard Totten Button was born on July 18, 1929, in Englewood, New Jersey, the son of George and Evelyn B. (Totten) Button. He and his two older brothers, Jack and George, were raised in wealth and privilege. Button began skating when he was five years old, using his brothers' old skates.

When Button was 11 years old, he received his first pair of skates for Christmas. He wanted figure skates, but received hockey skates from his father. The skates were exchanged, but Button's burgeoning figure skating career was almost cut short again. The youngster was 5'2" and weighed 160 lbs. His first coach did not believe he had any ability and would never learn to skate.

Early Skating Success

Button's parents found him another coach. He was first taught by Joe Carroll in New York City in 1942 and eventually would train with a coach who would become famous for instructing Olympians, Swiss-born Gustave Lussi. Button attended public schools in Englewood, New Jersey, until high school, when he attended the private Englewood School for Boys. For the next ten years, during his summers off from school, Button would train with Lussi in Lake Placid, New York, where the 1932 Winter Olympics had been held.

Button soon proved he had great natural ability. Combined with intense training and great coaching, he soon had success in competition. Button also grew into a 6'1" frame. In 1943, he placed second at the Eastern States novice single championships. Showing his competitive spirit, Button was unhappy with his second place win. Later that year, he won first title. Button won the major novice singles championship at the Middle Atlantic States competition. He went on to win national men's novice (1944) and junior titles (1945).

In 1946, Button capped his rise to the top of American men's figure skating by winning the U.S. national senior singles championship, in Chicago, Illinois. He was only 16 years old at the time, the youngest man to win the title. Button had to come from behind to win, as he placed second after compulsory figures. This marked the first and only time a figure skater won the novice, junior, and senior titles in succession. Button would go on to win the men's singles title every year through 1952.

Changed Skating Style

Button competed at the 1947 World Championships, the first World's held since 1939 because of World War II. He placed second to Hans Gerschweiler, though some believed Button should have won. This finish prompted Button to change his skating style. In addition to becoming more precise in his school figures, more importantly, he became more bold and daring in his free skate.

The new approach in free skate allowed Button to emphasize power in his spins and jumps, becoming more artistically daring. He also focused on developing new jumps and spins, especially jumps. Button was encouraged in his pursuit by Lussi, who was a disciplinarian but also supported Button's quest for innovation. Button's work in this area paid off in 1948 when he won his first world championship. This marked the beginning of his fame as a powerful figure skater. Button would go on to win the world championship every year through 1952.

While Button was reaching the summit of the figure skating world, he still attended Englewood Boys School. He lettered in football and played baseball there, but figure skating was his main focus. Button skated for hours every day, rising early for school, to skate, and to pursue other sports. He graduated in 1947 then took a year off of school to train for the 1948 Olympics.

To practice for the Olympics, Button competed in the 1948 European championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Not only did this competition assist Button in preparing for the Olympic games, it allowed him to show off his newly developed style to the judges so they might be more favorable later on. It was the first time an American competed, and Button impressed the judges enough to win the title. After this victory, non-Europeans were excluded from competing for the championship.

Won First Olympic Gold

Button cemented his status as a leading figure skater at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. This was the first time the Olympics had been held since 1936. Button was leading after school figures, then won the gold medal with his free skate.

Button's free skate was innovative for several reasons. He did two moves on the ice that had not been done before in world competition. Button did the first double axel (a jump that rotated in the air for two-and-a-half rotations) and the Button camel (the first version of the flying camel, a jump into a spin). Button landed the double axel for the first time two days before the competition, then landed it perfectly in competition.

Button won the Olympic Gold Medal when eight of nine judges gave him first place. In 1948, Button won all five major championships: Olympic, European, World, North American, and United States. He was the only American to accomplish it, and the first man to ever do it. Button's win marked the beginning of American influence in skating, which had been dominated by Europeans for a number of years. Button's new style made free skate more important than the compulsory figures, which had previously been the more important part of competition. Eventually, figures would be eliminated and it was the free skate that would attract audiences.

Entered Harvard University

In the fall of 1948, Button entered Harvard University. He could have gone to Yale University, but Yale would not let him take time off to compete as a skater. While attending college, Button continued to win the World and U.S. championships, as well as a number of North American championships.

In 1949, Button won the Sullivan Award as the United States' outstanding amateur athlete. This was the first time a figure skater won the prestigious the award, the finest honor an amateur athlete could receive. Button's win also showed the increased importance of figure skating.

As Button continued to win major competitions, he also was more innovative as a skater. He developed a number of jump combinations. In 1949, he came up with the double loop combo of two double loops. In 1950, Button devised a triple double loop. In 1951, he did a double axel, double loop. These combinations would go on to become something many high level skaters would learn.

Won Second Olympic Gold

In 1952, Button repeated his gold medal victory at the Olympic Games in Oslo, Norway. Again, button achieved something no skater had done before. He landed a triple loop in his free skate program, the first time he or any skater had done a triple jump in competition. Button was in the lead after school figures, but would have lost the gold medal had he not landed the triple loop.

The evolution of Button's triple loop was one of frustration. Button had spent the summer of 1951 trying to execute the jump, but some coaches thought it would be impossible. He became so focused on the triple loop that it negatively affected his ability to do his other jumps. Button finally let it go for a while, only to try again just before Christmas in 1951. This time, Button finally got the feel for jump and was able to do it at the Olympic Games.

Button liked winning gold medals, but he told Vinny DiTrani of The Record, "Being handed the gold medal is like being presented the Nobel Prize for peace. It's a thrill, but there were even greater thrills along the way when you were doing the things for world peace that earned you the honor."

Retired as an Amateur

In 1952, Button graduated from Harvard with his B.A. The university later gave him a special Harvard "H" for athletics. He also retired from amateur competition. Button became a professional figure skater touring with the Ice Capades during his vacations from Harvard Law School. Button graduated from law school in 1956 and passed the bar in Washington, D.C., but never really practiced. He continued to skate, appearing in a Goodwill Tour of Moscow, USSR, in 1959.

Became Commentator

In the early 1960s, Button started for ABC and other television networks as a color/expert commentator for figure skating competitions. He was considered as controversial for his opinions as he was hard on skaters. Some considered him fair, but others believed he played favorites.

Describing his technique as an announcer, Button told Jane Leavy of the Washington Post, "I have carte blanche to say anything I want. I've never been cut, called down, or told to shut up. When I've asked for guidance, they say, 'Tell it the way you see it.' If anyone holds back, I do. I'm reporting skating to 200 million people in the country. Probably only 25,000 to 50,000 understand the sport and only 1,000 really understand. My job is to educate them and make them aware of it." Button won an Emmy for his commentary in 1981 as Outstanding Sports Personality Analyst.

Button was also associated with television in another way. He formed a television production company with partner Paul Feigay, Candid Productions. This company produced sport and entertainment series that included national and world figure skating and gymnastics, horse shows, and national pentathlon. Button's company also created sports-oriented programs, such as The Superstars, The Superteams, and The Battle of the Network Stars. These were reality, made-for-television sports competitions that were very popular in the 1970s, but also continued to air in the 1980s and 1990s. Button also created figure skating championships through this company, including the World Professional Figure Skating Championship in 1980.

Button, involved in another aspect of the entertainment world, invested in and produced a number of stage productions in New York City, primarily on Broadway. Among these productions were Sweet Sue with Mary Tyler Moore and Artist Descending a Staircase. Button also did some appearances himself. He skated in Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates for television and was an actor in movies like The Young Doctors and stage productions such as South Pacific.

Married to Slava Kohout, with whom he had two children, Emily and Edward, Button was considered one of the best figure skaters ever. International Figure Skating publisher, Mark A. Lund, as quoted by Business Wire when Button was selected to be man of the century for figure skating, said "No other individual in the 20th century represents the sport better than Dick Button. From his technical innovations to his creation of the world of professional figure skating competitions with the World Pro, Dick Button has by far had the most influence on the sport during the last century."

Books

Hickok, Ralph, A Who's Who of Sports Champions, Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

The Lincoln Library of Sports Champions, 2001.

Malone, John, The Encyclopedia of Figure Skating, Facts on File, Inc., 1998.

Porter, David L., ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Basketball and Other Indoor Sports, Greenwood Press, 1989.

Periodicals

Boston Globe, January 14, 1992; February 10, 1995.

Business Wire, December 22, 1999.

Calgary Herald, January 3, 2001.

New York Times, February 21, 1992.

Record, February 14, 1992.

Sports Illustrated, June 20, 1988.

Washington Post, February 23, 1980.

Online

"Athlete Profile-Richard T. (Dick) Button," Olympic USA, http://www.olympic-usa.org/athlete_profiles/d_button.html (February 9, 2003).

"Dick Button, Expert Commentator, Figure Skating," ABC Sports, http://espn.go.com/abcsports/columns/button_dick/bio.html (February 9, 2003). □

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