An interview with Chris Howarth, 1980 Olympian, coach, and commentator for British Eurosport.39 minutes, 15 seconds.
Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:
On his most embarrassing skating moment: Oh, my goodness, there was one terrible one. It makes me shudder just to think about it, actually. I was competing in — I think it was the old St. Ivel, the Rotary Watches International in Richmond ice rink [near London]. I’d just come back from Vienna, where I’d skated really well, finished second, and there was a lot of media coverage, a lot of excitement, everyone expecting me to do really well in this competition. And I don’t know where I skated or whatever, but it was a nightmare skate. I think I fell over six times. Home rink, home crowd, everybody rooting for me, and I just wanted the floor to open and to die on the spot. It was awful. That was the worst skate I ever had, I think.
On skating as a young competitor in white boots dyed black: It was really really tough to get black boots my size. I’ve got little feet. So my mum dyed them. And I used to go around doing lunges, we would call them drags, leaving black lines all the way around the rink where the dye had come off these poor boots [laughs]. And in fact they were second-hand boots. We couldn’t afford new boots. I think I even won junior nationals in second-hand skates. So I left black lines all around the ice. And if someone fell on them, [the black dye] was all over their dress. I was very popular [laughs].
On competing against Robin Cousins and John Curry: It was exciting and tough at the same time. Because John, really, after winning Olympics in 1976, had transformed figure skating, certainly the men’s freestyle, and the artistry side became so much more important. And because I’m a short guy, that wasn’t where I was heading. I couldn’t skate like that, and I believe that nobody can — he was in a class, a league of his own. And then there was Robin, and I was second to Robin all the time. Forever. I could never beat him. And he was a different kind of skater, much more athletic, which suited me as well. It was just a marvelous privilege to be around and to compete alongside Robin when he went to Europeans and Worlds, and to be there — it was just brilliant. I think it actually got more out of me — I was never near as talented as both those guys, but it helped me fulfill my potential, I suppose, because I had someone to look up to and the level was so high.
On why British skaters’ international success has declined since the 1980s: It’s a delicate question. Now this is my opinion , but we were at the top of our game in freestyle, certainly compulsory figures we were good at always, and the girls were doing well as well. And the sport changed. When you had the likes of Brian Orser, Brian Boitano, Josef Sabovcik, the sport changed dramatically and the technique for doing triple jumps and for training completely changed. And we didn’t. England stuck to its laurels. And then we had Torvill and Dean and the ice dance, so that kept the thing [going]. But by that point the freestyle had already started to go downhill. So we were still riding on a high, three Olympic champions in three Olympics, you think things are going well. But we were already on a slippery slope. And the development for the coaching, the development for the training, just wasn’t good enough, and we lost touch. And it got worse and worse and worse before anybody realized anything. Now, what, six or seven years ago, eight years ago, there were dramatic changes within the ice skating association in the UK to try to rectify the situation, but they’ve got a lot of ground to build up. There are no quick fixes for that sort of thing. It’s starting to go in the right direction now. So we have had our successes, but it’s not like it was in the heyday.
On starting his broadcasting career with Eurosport in 1989: I was teaching and doing odds and ends in England and all sorts of places. And I can remember vividly one day having a phone call while I was teaching. Somebody said, “it’s Eurosport here” — and I’d never heard of Eurosport, they’d literally started that week — “and I’ve been given your name by Helen Day”, who worked for Alan Pascoe and Associates who ran the PR [public relations] side of skating in UK at that point. “And we’ve got the world figure skating championships from Paris starting tomorrow, and we don’t have a commentator. Are you interested?” So I thought, hmm, am I interested? I always wanted to do something like that, so I said, yeah, I’ll give it a go, but I’ve never done anything like this before. And they said, that’s fine, you’ll be with an experienced broadcaster, you’ll be the colour commentator, so you talk about what you see. So I thought, OK, I’ll give it a go.
So I went there the following day, and my goodness, it was a nightmare. I was sat there with a guy called Paul Ferguson, who’s a great guy, an ice hockey commentator but who knows nothing about figure skating, and I know nothing about broadcasting. So we were sat in this studio, it was obviously brand new, the ceiling tiles were missing and all the ducts in the air conditioning were open. So we had to put bottles on our bits of paper to stop everything from blowing away. And we were sat on cardboard boxes. And of course Eurosport had no archive footage, so what was on the [broadcast] feed was what they were going to show. So the director is sitting there with the headphones on, all excited, sweating profusely, and says, “We’re going to go live in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1” and Paul Ferguson sitting alongside me says, “Good afternoon, welcome to Paris”. And the director goes “No no no no no, hold it, hold it, we’ve got a problem with the feed, don’t go yet” [laughs]. So we’re sitting around, having a chat, and about two seconds later he says, “OK, we’re going live! 5-4-3-2-1 live!” and Paul Ferguson says, “Good afternoon, welcome along to Paris, we’re in the Bercy Stadium, it’s the world figure skating championships, and on the ice now is…..the Zamboni” [laughs]. So my introduction to broadcasting was 20 minutes of the Zamboni. It was pretty bad [laughs]. But it couldn’t have been all bad because they asked me back for the next day, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
On being positive when commenting on skaters’ performances: I think that’s because I found it difficult myself. It’s a tough sport for anybody, and if you earn a place to get out there, then you deserve not to be slammed. It’s not easy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work. And anybody who’s a skater knows that. You can have a good day, you can have a bad day. And the sport’s got so difficult now that you’ve always got to look on the good side first. And if you can give some constructive criticism to help the skaters, then that’s great.
On different styles of commentating: When I listen to the American commentary, I think they’ve got some great guys there, but there’s too many of them. So everybody’s got to say a piece. There’s only ever two of us [on Eurosport] so we have a bit of banter, a bit of fun, and hopefully give the listening, the watching public a chance to appreciate what’s actually happening. The German commentators don’t talk at all through the performances. That’s taking it to another level. We talk a bit, but it’s just different.
On commentating on good performances as compared to commentary on bad performances: It’s exciting when there’s a good competition. When I think of the competition last week in Paris, the French Grand Prix, Alban Preaubert, who can be a bit awkward, a bit gangly sometimes because he’s such a tall guy, he had the skate of his life. And I love when people perform sort of out of the box. And that to me is what it’s all about, whether it’s the men, the ladies, the pairs, the dance, whatever. When it all works. But then again it’s almost easier to commentate on a skate where things are not working, and you can see the skater’s really struggling and having to work really hard and think and try to find the feel, the axis over the right foot for jumping, that’s quite interesting for me as well. So I quite enjoy that.
On silly things he’s said on air: Actually, I did a bad one last week. I ended the show by saying “And from Chris Howarth and myself, goodbye”. What I should have said was “And from Nicky Slater and myself, goodbye” [laughs].
On developing the Freedom skate blade: I had this idea, when was this, in 1998. I was [at the Nagano Olympics] watching [Evgeny] Plushenko on practice with [coach Alexei] Mishin. And it wasn’t going too well, he was having all kinds of problems with the quad toe loop. His toe was slipping badly. And it just struck me that there’s been no development in skates for years, the sport’s changed, and maybe we needed something else. So I went home, got an old pair of Phantom blades, and I chopped the toe pick off. And I did this with my brother-in-law, and we just literally, in the garage, made a test bed on the front of a toepick. We made loads of little toepicks that we could interchange, you could actually make your own toepick. And I came up with the idea that the toepick you need on your left foot is completely different to the toepick you need on your right foot, because the angle of entry for the jumps is completely different.
So I actually invented this blade called the Evolution, and that’s how it started. I started this company with a guy called Barry Smith, John Watts Skates. We went to Las Vegas, to a trade show, and I met a guy called Nick Perna. He invented the Pic-Skate for inlines. And one thing led to another. It was his design, all we did was try to work out the angles from the information from the designs of the skates that we’d done. And we came up with the Freedom blade. And we launched it and marketed it, and Michael Weiss skates in it to this day. Sadly, it’s not in existence any more, but I got a few ideas in the back of my mind.