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Fleming, Grenoble remember 1968 Winter Olympics

American champion returns to the site of her victory

Peggy Fleming returned to the outdoor rink where she won the gold medal 40 years ago.
Peggy Fleming returned to the outdoor rink where she won the gold medal 40 years ago. (Getty Images)

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By Jean-Christophe Berlot, special to icenetwork.com
(02/02/2008) - Many have professed that skating popularity is down and will not recover any time soon. This week in France is proof to the contrary.

Peggy Fleming -- a queen is back in Grenoble

Her plane landed in Lyon Thursday in the early afternoon. Outside of the passenger room, one man was ecstatic waiting for her. The man opened his arms, and she hugged him warmly. The man's name was Alain Calmat, a former minister of Sports in the French government, representative at the National Parliament and a figure skater. Calmat was the Olympic and world silver medalist in 1964, and he won the world championship in 1965 in Colorado Springs, Colo., before ending his skating career to become a renowned surgeon and politician in France. He was in Lyon to represent French figure skating and to welcome his skating pal from his amateur days, Peggy Fleming.

Forty years ago, almost to the day, Calmat was opening the X Winter Olympiad in Grenoble, France, when he took the last relay of the Olympic torch in front of television cameras (for the first time the Games were televised on color TV) and General De Gaulle, who was the president of France at the time.

To celebrate the event, the city of Grenoble invited Peggy Fleming, Alain Calmat, Patrick Péra (twice an Olympic bronze medalist and the world silver medalist in 1971) and Liudmila and Oleg Protopopov to pay a visit to the city 40 years after they met their fame there. Unfortunately, the Protopopovs could not make it to Grenoble, where they had proposed to skate an exhibition.

A tribute from the French team

The newly built rink in Grenoble was packed beyond capacity Thursday night, as 4,000 enthusiastic spectators gathered to acclaim their champions from past and present. Brian Joubert, Alban Préaubert, Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder skated their current competitive programs from start to finish. Delobel and Schoenfelder gave a vibrant and emotional exhibition of their "Language of Signs" routine.

"I love this program so much," Delobel stated afterwards. "I can feel it so well. It is completely visceral for me."

Joubert got an incredible round of applause from the crowd to boost his confidence. "The European Championships have been really tough for me," he said to the crowd. "Yet it is wonderful for me to come back to you. I love you, and this will help me rebound for the upcoming worlds."

Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat, the 2002 Olympic ice dancing gold medalists, joined their former teammates, as did former world pairs bronze medalists Sarah Abitbol and Stéphane Bernadis, much to the delight of the crowd.

No skater from the French team was even born at the time of the Grenoble Games, but all gave a warm round of applause to their illustrious predecessors.

Peggy Fleming returns to the site of her biggest triumph

Peggy Fleming had never been back to Grenoble since her Olympic victory. This time, she chose to come with Todd, her younger son. Amazingly enough, Todd happens to be 19, exactly the age his mother was when she won the Olympics.

No one in Grenoble has ever forgotten Peggy's free program from that night. That program was the one that made France and the world fall in love with her, and with figure skating altogether.

"So many little girls have decided to skate because of you, Peggy," one of the organizers said when introducing her to the crowd.

A small group of people, led by Gérard Balthazard, the main organizer of the event, along with the Deputy Mayor of Grenoble, took the trio to the 1968 skating arena. Much emotion was awaiting them, as Peggy could revive her Olympic program from behind the scenes.

The ladies dressing room had not changed since 1968, and Peggy recognized it right away. "I never let any boy get in this restroom!" Fleming said laughingly to Calmat and Péra as they entered into the room. "This was the most nervous place to be," she commented. "Here you needed to keep warming up, and you were so frightened. My mom and Carlo Fassi, my coach, had left me alone to do my own head trip. I was so focused."

The group then climbed the stairs to the rink. They have not changed either in 40 years. "It's like a little dungeon," Fleming said. "You have to climb the stairs with your guards, and then you have to face the lions."

"It was so warm," Péra added. "The arena was packed with 12,000 people. You could recognize people watching you on the stairs, not knowing whether to talk to you or not. And then it was your turn."

"I was always so nervous when I was entering into this arena," Fleming explained. "When you are a favorite, you feel so much pressure. When you are skating at a world championship, you kind of know what you are going to feel. The Olympics are a whole different animal. They have a nerve value that no other competition has. When you are scared, your muscles get stiff, and you need to go against that. When I watch Michelle Kwan or others in the middle of a rink going into their Olympic programs, I know so exactly how they feel... You are the one who has to do it."

Fleming showed the spot where she did her layback spin. "My blade got caught in a rut. Whatever happens, you have to keep going and make it make sense. It is the same thing when I work for television. If you flip, you have to keep going...."

The ice rink has long disappeared, as the arena is now used for concerts or bicycle races. Fleming took a black waterproof marker and signed a steel plate on the floor, near the place where she was awarded her gold medal. Calmat even helped her draw her hands on the floor.

"I had no idea of how important this would be for my life. I was so young and naïve. Innocence is a blessing," Fleming said smiling. "Back then I thought that the rest of my life would be easy. In fact, I needed to work even more to live up to the image I had built then!"

Toward Grenoble 2018?

The city of Grenoble is living its glorious years again. Photos from the Olympic Games have been placed every where in the streets; big posters and flags are flying on the main buildings of the city.

The city has already announced that it would like to bid for the 2018 Olympics, 50 years after the first Olympics there. The skating gala opened a full week of celebration and promotion.

As for Liudmila and Oleg Protopopov, they have promised that they would skate an exhibition in 2018, if the city of Grenoble wins the bid again.

Millions of French TV viewers

Peggy Fleming, Alain Calmat and Patrick Péra have joined the French team higher in the Alps, in one of the most glamorous ski resorts -- Courchevel. They will participate in a TV special. Half of France is expected to watch the show.

Skating popularity in France is as strong today as it used to be, and a lot of that is thanks to the events in Grenoble in February 1968. It is easy to see that the sport's fame still owes a lot to Peggy Fleming's victory in Grenoble.