Philip BarkerThe first Russian Olympic gold came in ice skating but Nikolai Kolomenkin's moment of glory was fully 16 years before the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924. He skated to gold during the 1908 London Olympics.

The Olympic Charter now describes winter sports as those practised on Ice and snow, but back then skating was part of a "winter" sports programme which included football, rugby union and hockey.

The events took place in late October and were among the last in an Olympic Games which had lasted the best part of six months.

The National Skating Association of Great Britain was put in charge of organisation. William Hayes Fisher, (later Lord Downham), chaired the Special Committee. This included one of the competitors, Edgar Syers, who as the honorary secretary of the figure skating club sat on the British Olympic Council.

The competition was held at the Princes Club in West London. Some overseas skaters chose to train in Berlin but the Olympic venue itself was specially opened two weeks before competition for practice.

There were strict rules on amateurism at the London 1908 Olympics ©Getty ImagesThere were strict rules on amateurism at the London 1908 Olympics ©Getty Images

For 10 hours a day the club was reserved for Olympic training, but for the remaining time, the general public were allowed in to use the rink. No concerns about security back then.

As with all other sports at the 1908 Games, there were strict rules on amateurism.

"A skater is not recognised as an amateur if since January 1st 1893 he has practised in his own person any sporting bodily exercise as a means for gain." Nor was he or she allowed to have taught skating professionally.

The rules also barred anyone who had "sold or pledged prizes won in sporting competitions" or "knowingly and without protest started in an open skating competition against a competitor who is not an amateur".

Twenty-one competitors from six countries were deemed to fulfil these criteria. This was what organisers called "an excellent and representative entry".

Each country was allowed to enter three competitors in each individual event.

The special figures event was held for the one and only time in London and Kolomenkin reigned supreme. He competed under the alias Panin, because in those days, being a sportsman was not always considered entirely respectable for a Russian gentleman. He was also apparently worried that his fellow students might make fun of him. It was clear he loved his sport for he played football and also cycled rowed and swam. He was also a good enough shot to compete in the 1912 Olympic pistol shooting event.

Figure skating made its Winter Olympic debut at the first games in Chamonix 1924 ©Getty ImagesFigure skating made its Winter Olympic debut at the first games in Chamonix 1924 ©Getty Images

From all accounts, he was very modest, and only grudgingly allowed details of his life to be published in a newspaper.

The official report described Kolomenkin's efforts in the special figures as "far in advance of his opponents, both in the difficulty of his figures, and in the ease and accuracy of their execution. He cut in the ice a series of the most perfect intaglios with almost mathematical precision." This should not have come as a surprise. He had matriculated with a first class degree in mathematics from his university.

The skill involved was all very well, but the correspondent from The Times seemed a little bored by proceedings.

"The casual spectator is apt to find these tedious. The shades of difference which make them so absorbing to the learner escaping his uncritical eye," he wrote.

With one gold medal in the bag Kolomenkin also seemed set for a battle royal with the incomparable Swede Ulrich Salchow in the men's individual competition. They went toe to toe in the first phase, which involved the figures that were Kolomenkin's speciality and it was hard to separate them for "casual spectator" or expert alike.

Unfortunately, Kolomenkin felt unwell before the free programme and withdrew from the competition. This left the way clear for Salchow. He led a one, two, three for Sweden and the following year he executed the jump that gave him lasting fame.

Crowds at the London 1908 Olympics were treated to a feast of sport over six months, including the less common summer pursuit of figure skating ©Getty ImagesCrowds at the London 1908 Olympics were treated to a feast of sport over six months, including the less common summer pursuit of figure skating ©Getty Images

Salchow was used to success in London. In 1902 he had won the world title at the Niagara Rink. In those days the competition was mixed and he beat a girl who was to become famous in her own right.

Florence Syers, from Kensington in London, was known as Madge by her friends. She was a trail blazer for women's sport . In an era when gender parity was unheard of, she had the beating of most men, Salchow excepted. Her success forced the International Skating Union to introduce women's competitions.

The Sporting Life newspaper said that skating "had not yet excited the great British public".

Even so, Theodore Cook's official report of the Games waxed lyrical about the crowd: "The rink was filled to overflowing with an enthusiastic crowd of onlookers, who witnessed perhaps the most strenuous, delightful and varied display of figure skating that has ever taken place.

"Syers was ahead from the start and showed her class in the free programme. She was as far in advance of her opponents as her compulsory figures had been. She excelled in rhythm and time-keeping, and her dance steps, pirouettes etc. were skated without a fault."

She also competed in the pairs with her husband Edgar. Curiously the other British couple in the event was another married couple, Phyllis and James Johnson who took silver behind the German pairing of Anna Hubler and Heinrich Burger. Madge and Edgar had to be content with bronze.

Troubled with illness in later years, Madge died in 1917 at the tragically early age of 35.

Since those heady days at the Princes Club, ice skating has become one of the crown jewels of the Winter Olympics.

Skaters such as Norwegian Sonja Henie, Dick Button, John Curry and Katarina Witt became superstars but not all became millionaires as a result of Olympic gold.  Jeanette Altwegg, the 1952 champion, chose instead to work for a children's village in Switzerland.

Born in Hackney, a stone's throw from the 2012 Olympic Stadium, Philip Barker has worked as a television journalist for 25 years. He began his career with Trans World Sport, then as a reporter for Skysports News and the ITV breakfast programme. A regular Olympic pundit on BBC Radio, Sky News and Talksport, he is associate editor of the Journal of Olympic History, has lectured at the National Olympic Academy and contributed extensively to Team GB publications.