By Hiro Yoshida
The 2011 European Figure Skating Championships in Bern, Switzerland that took place exactly a decade ago this week were an unforgettable competition for a variety of reasons. Ten years on the memories are still vivid for those of us who attended.
The venue for the championships was the PostFinance Arena. The buildings in which competitions are hosted normally play a minor supporting role with the biggest concern for the media attending being how easy it is to access various areas, such as the press centre, media tribune and mixed zones. Prior to departing for Switzerland, I had heard from a number of colleagues that the arena was cold. It is common practice for journalists to share information amongst ourselves so we know what kind of clothes and other items to pack. Temperatures can vary from venue to venue with some only requiring a light jacket while others can be chilly enough to wear a down coat.
As soon as I arrived at the PostFinance Arena, I realised my colleagues had not been exaggerating about the cold. There was no discernible difference between outside and inside the venue. For most of the championships, the temperature hovered around freezing point Celsius. The entrances to the arena were large metal gates that let cold air blow in from all four corners of the building. There were also gaps at the corners of the roof. Around the concourse, there were giant crates filled with brown, dusty Swiss Army blankets. Even those failed to provide much respite from the bitter cold. While working on the press tribune during one of the early sessions, I turned on my laptop only for it to promptly shut itself down refusing to work in those temperatures. During the Opening Ceremony, I recall one section of spectators standing up and shouting “We are cold” during one of the speeches by a dignitary. They were certainly not the most pleasant conditions in which to spend up to nine hours a day. I frequently had to retreat to the press centre 100 metres from the arena and continue working from there. Fortunately, it was warm and during the break between sessions a hot pasta dish was provided for the media which was a very considerate touch by the organising committee.
If things were uncomfortable for those of us watching, they were downright challenging for those practising and competing, particularly in the pairs and ice dance events. Many skaters told of how their hands were so cold that safely executing lifts was difficult. Russian pairs skater Alexander Smirnov joked at a press conference that if he and his partner Yuko Kavaguti had known about the conditions in advance they “would have prepared for it at home in St. Petersburg by skating naked.”
Nevertheless, we witnessed some spectacular performances and memorable moments in Bern.
In the men’s event, French skater Florent Amodio achieved the rare distinction of winning the title in his European Championship debut. Compatriot Brian Joubert picked up the silver medal behind Amodio and in doing so claimed his tenth consecutive European medal, a feat matched only by the legendary Karl Schäfer. It was also Joubert’s final European medal. 2008 European champion Tomáš Verner from the Czech Republic took the bronze medal.
The expectation in the ice dance event was that reigning European silver and 2010 World bronze medallists Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali would be the ones to beat. In the end, errors the Italians made in the short dance put paid to their quest. Instead, Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat won their first European title and indeed medals in their sixth appearance at Europeans. They became the fifth French team to win European ice dance gold. By finishing second, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev from Russia became European medallists for the first time. Scottish sister and brother Sinead Kerr and John Kerr captured a second European bronze medal. For them and the Italians, 2011 Europeans would turn out to be their final competition.
The pairs title turned out to be a closely fought battle between Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy and defending champions Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov from Russia. The Germans prevailed in the end to capture a fourth and final European crown. Russian pair Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov were a distant third. Although absent, the shadow of the soon to debut new pairing of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov from Russia loomed large and they would dominate at the European Championships over the coming three seasons.
The final day of competition featured what was undoubtedly the highlight of the championships, particularly for the local audience. Swiss champion Sarah Meier capped her career with a European title, the first for Switzerland since Denise Biellmann won back in 1981. Through an invitation from a mutual friend, I actually had a meal in Zurich with Meier the weekend before her victory and remember being struck by how calm and poised she had been at the time after arriving back from her final preparations in Oberstdorf, Germany. In Bern, the whole arena, including her fellow competitors, were delighted for her and I cannot recall a more joyful victory ceremony with silver medallist Carolina Kostner from Italy and Kiira Korpi from Finland who won the bronze medal celebrating with Meier.
Immediately after the exhibition on the final Sunday, I took a train bound for Zurich Airport. Before I arrived, I got a text message from a friend to say our flight home had been cancelled due to an airline strike. I ended up spending an extra night in Switzerland and the following day made a cross-country train journey to Geneva to catch a flight to Belfast before taking a bus to Dublin to ensure that I made an important appointment on the Tuesday morning.
A full decade later memories of the 2011 European Championships in Bern still give me the chills in all sorts of ways!