Britain keeping ahead of the winter Games

What worked for Sydney might for Salt Lake. Alan Hubbard says Team GB have discovered an edge
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The Independent Online

No longer are British competitors the seven-stone weaklings of winter sports, used to having snow kicked in their faces by the nations who are big on skis and skates. We are finally coming in from the cold, and next year's Olympic Games in Salt Lake City – assuming they go ahead – could see Britain's finest performances in half a century.

That, at least, is the view of Simon Clegg, chief executive of the British Olympic Association and chef de mission of Team GB, now being assembled with a thoroughness that is the envy of many better- equipped countries.

Clegg has just returned after leading a posse of team managers and coaches on a recce mission not only to Salt Lake, but also to Canada's former Olympic city of Calgary, which will be the British base for an assault on the slopes, rinks and podium that is unprecedented in its expectations.

"We approach these Games with a whole range of medal opportunities," says Clegg, citing the hopes in the new Olympic sport of bob skeleton, where Alex Coomber is world champion in the women's event and Krystan Bromley is in contention in the men's. Then there are the men's and women's curling teams, from Scotland, snowboarder Lesley McKenna, third in the World Cup half-pipe standings, and her cousin, Alain Baxter, who had Britain's best-ever slalom skiing result last year – fourth in the World Cup final.

True, Britain's bobsleigh boys, who won bronze in Nagano four years ago, have gone off the boil, and there will be no waltz for the figure skaters, a discipline in which three gold medals have been accrued since 1976. But Brit-ain's women bobbers, competing for the first time, are already sliding into the top 10. "The overall picture is healthier than I can remember," says Clegg. "I believe this will be the best British Olympic winter team since the Second World War."

Things have certainly moved on apace since the BOA press office received an enquiry requesting biographical details of "this new bloke Bob Skeleton". This may well be because the BOA say they are taking winter sports as seriously as those in the summer Games. "Because of our lack of facilities, winter sports have always been the poor relations, but an Olympic gold medal is an Olympic gold medal, whatever the discipline," argues Clegg.

What seems to be making the difference is the investment in Britain's newly established winter sports base in Lofer, Austria, a 42-bed centre of excellence with on-site or nearby facilities for every event. To this the BOA have added a new dimension, an arrangement for the 100-strong team of competitors, coaches and back-up staff to use one of the finest facilities in the world in Calgary prior to the Games.

The set-up will be similar to that on Australia's Gold Coast, where a resort-style hotel complex provided a springboard for Britain's best summer Games for threequarters of a century.

The £1 million outlay proved worthwhile, and the BOA believe that, while costing less than a fifth of that, the Calgary camp, an hour-and-a- half's flight from Salt Lake, will be similarly beneficial. The British were quick off the mark on the Gold Coast, laying claim to the best training facilities well ahead of other nations. So too in Calgary. The BOA have signed a five-year deal with the Canadian Olympic Development Org-anisation that in return will give the Canadians access to Lofer, which they can use as a European base for the 2006 Games in Turin.

"A smart move," acknowledges Dr Roger Jackson, the former Olympic rowing gold- medallist who runs the Calgary centre. "The British have been ahead of the game, much to the envy of other countries."

Recently he showed the new sports minister, Richard Caborn, around Calgary's facilities, many of which were a legacy of their 1988 Games. Caborn apparently gulped in awe at what he saw, though he might as well have wept.

Apart from the revolution-ary Ice House, the only fully enclosed refrigerated building in the world, serving three sliding sports – bobsleigh, skeleton and luge – Jackson's separately housed unit at the University of Calgary includes a breathtaking state-of-the-art complex which embraces speed and figure skating, ice hockey and curling, with a full-sized indoor running-track around the perimeter. Its sports medical unit includes seven full-time surgeons.

Part of the funding comes from the State of Alberta's VAT-style goods tax, part of which is earmarked for sport. "It shows what a Third World nation we are when it comes to facilities," sighs Clegg.

The BOA do not receive any Government funding, all income being raised by donations, sponsorship and commercial activities. It is this which will pay for the Calgary expedition, as well as the increased insurance costs necessary because of recent terrorist activity in the US.

"The security of the team is paramount and we are happy with the arrangements being put in place," says Clegg. "Unless something extraordinarily untoward happens between now and 8 February and the Games are called off, we will be there." With the champers on ice, one hopes.