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Ice, artistry and AIDS: the tragic story of Olympic champion John Curry

Bill Jones’ detailed look at the troubled figure-skater was nominated for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

Image: Polfoto/PA Archive/Press Association Images

EIGHT YEARS BEFORE Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean performed their memorable Bolero routine at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, another British figure-skater had already turned the sport on its head. But where the Nottingham pair were celebrated as the nation’s sweethearts and subsequently began a lengthy love affair with the British public, John Curry quickly disappeared.

When he died in 1994, the vast majority of people hadn’t heard anything from him in over a decade.

Ten years later, Bill Jones produced a Channel 4 documentary on Curry, which delved into a career that had culminated in a magical two months in early 1976 when he was crowned European, World and Olympic men’s singles champion. Jones finished the film, filed away his production notes and moved onto his next project.

But after his 2011 literary success ‘The Ghost Runner’ – the remarkable story of the misunderstood, long-distance athlete John Tarrant, Jones was looking for a new story. He began to think about John Curry again. He went back, dusted off the research from a decade before and his interest in the tortured soul began to grow at an alarming rate.

“I was intrigued by how little we had said, really and how shallow it had gone – which is what always happens in a 50 minute film”, Jones told TheScore.ie.

“I discovered some of his family were still alive and went down to meet his Mum and his brother in Warwickshire and discovered there were remnants of John’s life still laying around, effectively. There were a number of boxes which, on the face of it, were quite meaningless but among the jumble of Valentine’s cards, passports, private photographs, Polaroid snaps, programmes, little letters and invoices and receipts, each memento was like a little door in itself. So, from a biographer’s perspective, it was a gold-mine and John Curry was so unbelievably dark and complicated that it would’ve been madness not to try and unlock everything.”

Ice Skating Source: Witters/Witters/Press Association Images

As much as Jones had easy access to the performances and interviews that punctuated Curry’s figure-skating career, he knew little of his private life. Then came a turning point. When he tracked down Curry’s first lover in Switzerland, he was presented with John’s voice via a litany of letters that spread across a quarter of a century. Finally, the knots began to unravel.

Curry’s life was a complex mess from the very beginning. His father, Joseph, was captured at Dunkirk during the second World War and spent three years in a German POW camp before escaping. But the psychological damage of such a harrowing experience ensured he returned home a deeply troubled man. Despite owning an immensely successful business, he sought solace in alcohol and endured rather than enjoyed relationships with his wife and sons. When John was a teenager, his father was found dead in a hotel in the final days of 1965. An inquest later found he had committed suicide by overdosing on a sleeping tablet he regularly took to help with his insomnia. The acute bleakness, the melancholy and longing for escape seamlessly passed from father to son as did a litany of other eerie similarities.

The figure that returned to the Midlands from the POW experience was a dark, unhealthy, intense man – echoes of John straight away. John’s father died between Christmas and New Year and John always hated Christmas. The unpredictability of John’s moods seemed to reflect his own father’s and he was troubled by dark and somewhat horrific dreams about his father too. John died when he was 44, I’m pretty sure his father wasn’t much older.”

There was also the shame. Whereas John’s father had taken his own life – a social taboo that few understood, John himself had a secret. And by his late teens, he was struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. It led to more isolation and the world of figure-skating seemed tailor-made for him as a result.

John Curry with medal John Curry shows his Olympic gold medal at Heathrow Airport on his arrival from Innsbruck, scene of his triumph, in 1976. Source: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Images

“Skating undoubtedly suited his existential, bleak sense of being alone. Loneliness is the word that probably crops up the most in all his correspondence. He never had a significant other that lasted more than five minutes. And anyone that did, certainly later on in his life, they died of AIDS anyway. He was lonely as a child, he was lonely as a gay man in London when he moved down there to advance his skating technique. But the whole thing about the sport is quite bleak: frigid, dark, ghastly tungsten lighting, the frosty chemical smell you get from artificial ice and that was it for John from the age of 5 or 6.”

Curry spent his entire life struggling to be understood. From an early age, he was different from the rest. He desperately wanted to dance and everything he did as a child became a routine. He even choreographed the way he’d use the stairs in the family home. But dance lessons were refused by his father, who deemed it inappropriate for the son of a wealthy, well-known businessman. Instead, ice-skating was encouraged and so began a rare thing in John’s life: a relationship that lasted.

But if his abilities on ice came naturally, there were still plenty of problems. Firstly, there was his lack of interest in staying within the pre-determined confines of the sport. He wanted to push boundaries and craved creative, artistic, emotional performances. But ice-skating wasn’t ready for a revolution and Curry had to painstakingly learn the technical elements to ensure his place among the elite. And then there was his ‘way’. Coaches grew concerned over his sexuality and how it bled into his on-ice persona.

“John immediately set about subverting the whole sport with that peculiar single-minded certainty that possessed him throughout his life. He saw something, he went for it and nobody stood in his way. He was prepared to ride the resistance of the British skating establishment to skate in the way he wanted. He was prepared to sack coach after coach until he found one who was sympathetic to his aesthetic, which was to decry the athleticism of the Eastern European skaters and replace it with a (Rudolf) Nureyev-like balletic grace. The consequence was that John was unpopular as a professional skater later on (after his Olympic triumph, Curry spent many years choreographing and starring in his own complex theatrical ice shows), he was permanently broke and permanently falling out with promoters, entrepreneurs and managers. Not many people are blessed with the courage to follow something when the cost is so high.”

Ice Skating - John Curry - Richmond Source: T. Sapiano/S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

Bravery followed Curry, whether he knew it or not. As a young man in London, he immersed himself in a gay scene when it was still a criminal offence to do so. Later, in the immediate aftermath of his Olympic success at Innsbruck in 1976, he spoke openly to a reporter about his sexuality and the news quickly filtered worldwide. In the early 1990s, as the virus that would eventually kill him slowly ate away his beauty, he invited newspaper photographers to come and take pictures of his emaciated body.

But through all the secrets and the lies, the mysteries and the dramas, there was the skating. And despite being alone, suspicious and secretive, each performance Curry gave on the ice was akin to a journal entry. Every routine, particularly in his post-Olympic career, was autobiographical.

“He would do something like the Myth of Icarus – the story of someone who flies too close to the sun. And that is so John. He flew and lived too close to the edge. In the case of Icarus, it’s the sun that causes his demise but what John is doing is replacing the sun with his Olympic medal. If you want something too badly it can destroy you and John felt destroyed after the Olympics. He did a Spartacus routine and John’s sexual preferences were also quite dark. He was undoubtedly a sadomasochist and he performs the first part of Spartacus tied up, his arms bound to his body. And there’s a jaw-droppingly moving routine he did towards the end of his professional life about a man who’s trapped on the moon and everytime the sun comes up, he thinks he’s going to be rescued. But then the sun goes away. All these things are John saying ‘I’m lonely’ or ‘I’m troubled but I’m not going to tell you’.”

“And then there was the selection of records he picked for a BBC Radio 2 chat show in the mid-1980s. I got the songs, listened to them and read the lyrics and there’s something there with every one, particularly Tina Turner’s Private Dancer. The lyrics aren’t about AIDS but they are in John’s case.‘All the men come in these places/And the men are all the same/You don’t look at their faces/And you don’t ask their names’.” 

“These are fascinating clues and when you find them and you’re like me, part of you thinks they were left there to be found.”

Alone:The triumph and tragedy of John Curry by Bill Jones is published by Bloomsbury 

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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