There is perhaps no athlete more entwined in the legacy of his sport — and more responsible for its popularity and success — than Dick Button. To track the history of figure skating over the past three-quarters of a century is to follow the career trajectory of Button, from two-time Olympic gold medalist in 1948 and 1952 to expert commentator to the definitive voice of the sport for more than 50 years.
“No other figure skater embodies the sport as much as Dick Button. He is, and always will be, the godfather of this sport,” says NBC Sports figure skating analyst and Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski. “Using his wit, passion, and unfiltered honesty, Dick drew in ever increasing television audiences whether they were new viewers or dedicated fans. [He] raised the profile of the sport to unprecedented heights showing that figure skating encompasses athleticism, grace, and, sometimes, drama.”
Button first entered the broadcast booth in 1960, as an expert commentator for CBS’s coverage of the Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley, CA. CBS had just purchased the national broadcast rights to the Olympic Games — for $50,000 — and needed an “expert” to work alongside host Bud Palmer and explain, for example, the difference between an Axel and a Salchow.
“I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea what an expert commentator or television broadcaster was supposed to do. I learned,” Button recalls. “I was paid $2,000 to go to Squaw Valley, and I spent $3,000 on telephone calls back to New York, asking everybody, What did you like? What didn’t you like? What did you think could be clearer? What did you think was too much? And people told me, and that helped formulate where I was going and what I was doing. I had to learn by doing.”
With no precedent to follow, Button not only learned how to be an expert figure-skating commentator; he pioneered the role. Thinking that viewers might find it more interesting to hear about a move before it happened, he tracked down skaters and coaches to determine the order of their moves. And, after realizing that competitors could not be relied on to repeat that order with 100% accuracy, he began to watch each program in practice and take copious notes.
A wearer of many hats, Button also served as a TV producer, buying and selling television rights to skating competitions (in later years, he would go on to create several made-for-television competitions, such as the World Professional Figure Skating Championships). Following the 1961 plane crash that claimed the lives of the U.S. Figure Skating Team and resulted in the cancellation of the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships, Button prevailed on legendary ABC Sports executive Roone Arledge to include the 1962 Championships in Wide World of Sports.
Thus began Button’s decades-long career as a figure-skating analyst for ABC Sports’ annual coverage of the U.S. and World Figure Skating Championships; he also served in the same role for almost every Winter Olympic Games (regardless of network) until 2010. Throughout his tenure, he was well-known for his passion for the sport, his biting wit, his flamboyant and creative turns of phrase, and his honest criticism of each and every skater’s performance.
Famed coach Frank Carroll once said, “You don’t know what it’s like until you have been dissected by Dick Button on national television,” and, while many of the sport’s top competitors would agree, most would argue that Button’s critique pushed them to do better.
“When I was competing, he was always the man. He was the voice,” says Scott Hamilton, NBC Sports figure-skating analyst and Olympic gold medalist, who shared the booth with Button during the 2006 Winter Games in Torino. “I figured out pretty soon that Dick had no interest in diminishing our time on the ice or inhibiting our respect from the general public. He was up there not to be a cheerleader but to be an analyst, and so his criticisms were — to me — very inspiring and very informative.
“Basically,” laughs Hamilton, “I spent the last five years of my amateur career doing everything in my power to shut him up.”
Of course, Button’s career in figure skating didn’t begin in 1960. There’s a reason those in the industry are quick to deem him “the godfather of figure skating.” During his amateur-skating career, he achieved several notable firsts for the sport: he was the first skater to land a double axel and a triple jump in competition, and he invented the flying-camel spin (which was renamed the Button Camel).
“[I] just always looked for more challenges within the framework of the sport,” says Button. “That was why I kept doing more and more difficult jumps instead of being much more creative and working on differences in the creative side of the sport, which I didn’t learn about until much later.”
His love affair with skating began on Crystal Lake in his hometown of Englewood, NJ. Born in 1929, Button was just six years old when his older brothers George and Jack took him out on the ice for the first time. Whether it was the crisp wintry air, the music struggling to be heard from a nearby loudspeaker, or the feeling of flying one gets when one first sets skate to ice, Button was hooked. He would train with Gustave Lussi in Lake Placid, NY, and enter his first competition — the 1943 Middle Atlantic States Novice Championship — at age 13.
His amateur career would last for the next nine years, during which time he earned five consecutive World Championship gold medals (1948 through 1952) and back-to-back Olympic gold medals (1948 St. Moritz and 1952 Oslo). He is also the only American to have won the European Championship, taking the title in 1948.
During his career, he would make waves by donning a white mess jacket when all black was the traditional outfit of male figure skaters (it helped him stand out at night in dark conditions on outdoor rinks). Button would make a sartorial statement once again when he entered the broadcast booth. Disliking the iconic mustard-yellow ABC Sports blazers, he convinced Arledge that it was customary for figure-skating judges to wear tuxedos (“It was a formal event, after all,” says Button). Arledge believed him, and the tuxedo became Button’s signature for decades.
He retired from amateur skating in 1952. A graduate of Harvard University, he entered Harvard Law School that year. In addition to his career as a television producer and Emmy Award-winning broadcaster, Button — a true Renaissance man — acted in several television and movie roles and has appeared on stage in several touring productions.
“I’ve known Dick since I was 15 years old — he was covering the skating events — and then, when I joined the ABC commentary team, I got to know him a lot better,” says Peggy Fleming, an Olympic gold medalist and Button’s co-commentator on ABC Sports. “He is a character. I respect him so much; he is so knowledgeable. He’s seen all the years of skating, and he has the big perspective and still has his strong opinions about things. He’s usually right, and he’s not afraid to say it.”
Today, Button splits his time between Manhattan and Westchester, NY, where he continues to give skating lectures. His days as a broadcaster may have drawn to an end, but his contributions to the sport of figure skating can never be overstated and will never be forgotten.
“Dick Button created an open and honest space in figure-skating broadcasting where no topic or moment was off-limits,” says NBC Sports figure-skating analyst Johnny Weir. ”He told it like it was, even when his opinion wasn’t a popular one. His zingers were always in my mind when I would perform for him, and I wanted to make him as happy and proud as I would my coaches. I think that is something very special about commentating figure skating. As an athlete, we rarely have an opportunity to speak, and we rely on the TV voices to tell our story for us. Nobody could do it like Mr. Button.”