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Last Updated: Friday, 10 February 2006, 11:03 GMT
Uphill battle
By Rob Hodgetts

British downhill skier Finlay Mickel
Britain's Mickel came a career-best 10th in a Wengen World Cup race

Plucky Brits have long enjoyed throwing themselves down some icy track in the brave but vain attempt to upset the world order in winter sports.

For many, Eddie Edwards' antics in the ski jump in Calgary in 1988 reduced the Winter Olympics to a chilly version of It's a Knockout.

But with rigorous qualifying standards put in place since then, only a small but elite team of British athletes will compete in Turin.

So is Britain still a nation of alpine also-rans, occasionally punching above their weight? Or should the snow stars provide a better return for their lottery funding?

We are improving but realistically we should be doing an awful lot better
GB ski and snowboard team performance director Mark Tilston
"For a country which has got very limited winter sports facilities we fare quite well," said British Olympic Association chief Simon Clegg.

"But we are never going to be able to deliver results on a consistent basis because of that lack of infrastructure."

Britain has won 19 medals at 19 Winter Olympics since they began in Chamonix in 1924, compared to 685 medals from 26 Summer Games.

The gold and bronze from Salt Lake City, an above-average haul, put Britain 19th on the medal table, 12 golds and 23 gongs overall adrift of table-toppers Norway.


A scarcity of resources - both natural and man-made - means that winter sports are expensive and therefore limited to a small amount of people.

"The numbers game is where we fall down," said British ski team boss Mark Tilston.

"We'll get out of any year group maybe four skiers that even try to go full time at the end of school. Countries such as Austria will have literally hundreds."

Britain's curling gold in Salt Lake City proved the exception to the rule after Rhona Martin's team beat favourites Canada in the semi-final and Switzerland in the gold-medal match.

"There's about 18,000 curlers in Scotland, while Canada has about one million. It's a big sport there," Martin told BBC Sport. "To have beaten them was the biggest shock."

For those that do make it to the elite end of their winter sport in Britain, a large proportion of the expense is covered by funding from the national lottery.

With ice skating we have the best opportunity of all winter sports to produce medallists
Keith Horton, general secretary of the National Ice Skating Association

The four-year cycle leading up to Turin provided about 2.5m, shared between six winter sports - alpine skiing, snowboarding, curling, bobsleigh, skeleton and speed skating.

But this sum is meagre compared to an outlay of about 71m for 18 summer sports in the build-up to Athens, or the investment in winter sports by other countries.

"In this era of lottery funding, the money tends to follow successful sports and successful athletes," said Clegg. "Certainly, failure makes it more difficult to succeed."

Britain has never won an Olympic skiing medal, notwithstanding the bronze won by Alain Baxter in 2002 which was subsequently stripped from the Scot after he failed a drugs test.

But this is down to a deficiency in athleticism and fitness rather than a lack of mountains, according to Tilston.

"I don't really buy into the whole, 'were not an alpine country therefore were handicapped from the start' argument," he said. "We are improving but realistically we should be doing an awful lot better.

Eddie Edwards competed in the ski jump at Calgary in 1988
Edwards competed in the ski jump at Calgary in 1988

"My philosophy is that because we're not an alpine country and don't have a chance to practice the sport on a weekly or daily basis, we should be doing better preparation at home.

"For me it comes down, in many cases, to school physical education programmes. Kids aren't doing basic gymnastics, athletics or other sports as a regular part of their lifestyle from a young age.

"So they get tired quickly, the skill level dips and they practice bad habits. Some of our 18-year-olds wouldn't get in a regional team in one of the big alpine nations."

Britain's most successful winter sport in recent times has been ice skating.

John Curry (1976), Robin Cousins (1980) and Torvill and Dean (1984) all won gold medals while Torvill and Dean added a bronze in 1994.

The supply has dried up since then, but the sport is still thriving recreationally, with about three million people a year using Britain's 62 rinks.

"With ice skating we have the best opportunity of all winter sports to produce medallists," said Keith Horton, general secretary of the National Ice Skating Association. "The problem is converting those into Olympic champions."

One problem is getting quality ice time for elite performers, but more significantly British skating has been hampered by the degeneration of the governing body in 2000.

"We've spent the last four years modernising, putting in new management, financial structures and coaching schemes," said Horton.

"We believe the stage is set as a springboard to move forward and develop athletes over the next eight years to 2014."

For now, though, the challenge for Britain's Winter Olympians is to beat the average of one medal per Games.




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