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Sonja Henie

Temper Remembered

Public interest in Henie has fueled continued debate about her off-ice and off-screen behavior. A bubbly, smiling figure in her performances, she was in fact a fierce competitor who wanted nothing to do with her rivals. Her brother, Leif Henie, coauthored Queen of Ice, Queen of Shadows: The Unsuspected Life of Sonja Henie (1985), in which he discussed her violent temper. At the time of the 1994 Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan rivalry, their altercations were compared in the press with the sparring that went on between Henie and Swedish skater Vivi-Anne Hulten many years earlier. At the age of eighty-two, Hulten still had plenty of venom for Henie. She remembered in the Sporting News how Henie had screamed at her after the 1933 World Championship competition, saying she was an unworthy opponent. "She went after me in every which way from that point on," said Hulten. "Nobody hit me in the leg or tried to shoot me, but there were some likenesses to what's happening now." Hulten charged that Henie was responsible for having her strip searched and detained on suspicion of smuggling jewels while traveling across the German border in 1935. After she complained to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, the guard was summoned to apologize for the incident. He named Henie as the instigator. Moreover, Hulten believed that Henie's father influenced competition organizers by playing poker for "appearance fees" and, in one case, the agreement to place Hulten third in the 1936 Olympics.

Other stories echo these allegations, although in a milder fashion. During the years that Henie won her world championships, the five-member judging panel was dominated by three Norwegians. Complaints by Austrian skaters would result in new rules allowing only one judge per country for each event. In a 1999 account for Newsweek, silver-medal holder Cecilia Colledge also remembered competing against Henie in the 1936 Olympic games. She recalled the champion's marvelous clothes and icy disdain. "To her, there were no other skaters," wrote Colledge. "Even on the podium after the Olympics, there were no kisses, no handshakes, not even a word." A male cast member from the Hollywood Ice Review had warmer memories of Henie in a 1996 interview in Films in Review. Bill Griffin described Henie as a perfectionist with a short fuse. It was Selma Henie, he said, who ended her daughter's squabbles and made sure that things ran smoothly. Griffin saw Henie as person intent on reaching her professional goals and little else. "You could laugh with Sonja, but she had other things on her mind. I don't think she ever really learned to enjoy life. She had to concentrate on her profession, and fulfill contracts, really from the age of nine on," he explained.

Another accusation that hurt Henie's image was the perception that she was a Nazi sympathizer. This was particularly true in Norway after World War II, where her status as one of the most admired Norwegians of all time was threatened by criticisms that she had not contributed to war relief efforts. It was also noted in Queen of Ice, Queen of Shadows that before the war started the Henies had visited with Adolf Hitler and that during a 1936 show in Berlin she had given him the Nazi salute and said "Heil, Hitler."

But Henie will be best remembered for putting skating above the personal and political. Her passion for performing turned her into a huge financial and popular success among athletes. During sixteen years of touring she earned something in the range of $10 million and her movies probably netted her more than $25 million. However, these are not Henie's most enduring achievements. Likewise, her films are still enjoyable, but their style and that of her skating is dated. Her jumps and spins seem ridiculously easy compared to the athletic feats of contemporary figure skaters. It is her effect on the sport of figure skating that is unrivaled. She took a largely unnoticed, technically-oriented sport and turned it into a dynamic art form that, along with its star performers, is avidly followed by fans around the world.

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Famous Sports StarsFigure SkatingSonja Henie Biography - Early Advantages, Youthful Champion, Chronology, Turning Professional, Film Stardom, Awards And Accomplishments - SELECTED WRITINGS BY HENIE: