It’s 42 years since Robin Cousins stood rinkside at the Olympic figure skating arena in Innsbruck and witnessed John Curry skate to gold. Cousins was 18, the youngest skater in the 1976 competition, and still four years away from the night when he would succeed Curry as Olympic gold medallist. For Cousins, Innsbruck was all about experience and learning, and he finished tenth. He remembers how it felt to watch Curry that night.
“It all came together for John in Innsbruck,” explains Cousins, now 60. “Like him, I wanted to do something different from everyone else – but John’s ethos was purely aesthetic dance perfection. He loved the perfect line, the perfect jump, and it made him mesmerising to watch. “Everything was so precise, and yet there was such freedom in that performance. It was balletic and beautiful, but I still find it a very masculine performance – his aura and command. Every performance of John’s was a statement.”
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Curry’s unique contribution to men’s figure skating sealed his place in the sport’s history. But lasting fulfilment eluded him and he died in 1994 at the age of 44 from an Aids-related heart attack. Now his story has been made into a feature-length documentary, The Ice King, to which Cousins has contributed.
Cousins first heard of Curry in 1969 when he was 12, by which time Curry – eight years his senior – was rising up the British rankings. By 1973 they were competing against one another.
“As a kid there was quite a lot of hero worship there for me,” recalls Cousins. “But I soon discovered that while you were on the ice with him, in the nicest possible way, he had no idea you were there. It was all about him, what he needed. Of course I didn’t understand that then. But I did later.
“John and I were absolute opposites. I lived for the spotlight, I loved the frivolity and the showbiz of skating. John hated all that. He was interested only in the pure aesthetic value he could bring to skating as a form of dance. He never understood why I left ballet behind to skate, when he only became a skater because his father would not allow him to do ballet. “But I learned so much from watching him. Being on the same training ice in Innsbruck gave me an insight into how he coped with the pressure of being the favourite. It helped me four years later.”
Curry’s Olympic win carried another public landmark – immediately after his victory, an American journalist unexpectedly outed him as gay. “I didn’t hear about that for ages,” says Cousins. “There was no internet, no social media, and it wasn’t the talk of the sport. But just a couple of weeks later he won the World Championships, so maybe that was his two fingers up [at being outed].”
Such was his popularity, Curry was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1976, and later his professional skating company performed in London’s West End, featuring routines Curry commissioned from such choreographic titans as Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Twyla Tharp. Ballet critics lauded him, but plans to tour came to nothing. He moved to New York and staged another hit ice show, but it was only in the early 1980s that he was able to put together the balletic ice company he had dreamed of. A world tour included dates at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and was commercially and critically successful. But after two years of solid touring Curry sacked his producers in 1985, effectively closing the company.
“It was apparent to me that he was a complex man who found it hard to be happy,” says Cousins. “Nobody really knew him. Skating was our commonality, but there was no conversation once we left the rink. What would we have talked about? My dream was joining [international touring ice show] Holiday on Ice and performing, which was not what he wanted at all.”
What would he have made of ITV’s Dancing On Ice? “He would have understood the public appeal, although he would have asked, ‘Where’s the craft, the learning?’ But there would have been no disrespect.” After his company closed, Curry rarely skated in public. In 1987 he was diagnosed with HIV, and in 1991 with Aids. He spent the last years of his life with his mother in Warwickshire.
“I didn’t find out he was ill for a good while, and I didn’t see him after he took himself away from the ice,” says Cousins. “In skating there was a huge sense of loss when he died – but what a legacy. I think of him fondly. I wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation had he not gone before me. I loved what he stood for. He didn’t want to be like everyone else.”
John Curry: The Ice King airs on Monday 9th July at 10pm on BBC4