The Winter Olympics begin in two months and the world's best figure skaters are honing their skills for their big moment. You might have expected the British national championships, which finished in Sheffield at the weekend, to be alive with excitement and anticipation.
The days when Britons ruled the ice rinks of the world, however, seem light years away. The number of entries in Sheffield told their own sorry story. An injury to the British No 1, Jenna McCorkell, left just three entries in the women's event, which was won by 18-year-old Vanessa James, who was born in Canada, lives in the United States and has a British passport through her Bermudan father. All three competitors fell and James won despite skating tentatively because of a stress fracture to her right ankle. The men's contest featured nine skaters, but there were only four ice dance couples and two in the pairs competition.
Is this really a nation that won three Olympic skating gold medals between 1976 and 1984? Is it the same country in which, just 11 years ago, 23.95 million people watched Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean's Olympic comeback? The only 1990s programmes on British television which drew bigger audiences were the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, an Only Fools and Horses Christmas special and an episode of EastEnders.
Sally Stapleford, a former British champion and European silver medallist who is one of the world's most respected judges and administrators, shakes her head. "It's very disappointing," she said. "One or two of our younger skaters have shown a bit of promise, but to be blunt the sort of standard they're at is way below what young skaters in other countries are achieving."
Sinead and John Kerr, a sister-and-brother ice dance couple from Livingston, will be Britain's only figure skaters at the Winter Olympics in February. They were 12th in this year's world championships and won the national title at the weekend by 30 points, a staggeringly large winning margin. Britain's best individual skaters are simply not good enough to go to Turin: McCorkell finished 22nd at the world championships while the men's No 1, John Hamer, who successfully defended his national title in Sheffield, was 29th.
Terrestrial television coverage of ice skating has all but frozen over, yet it was not so long ago that it was a mainstay of winter schedules. Indeed, between 1976 and 1984 ice skaters won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award three times - in the same period there were no football or rugby winners - through John Curry, Robin Cousins and Torvill and Dean.
Today, ironically, there is a rapidly growing interest in ice skating as a recreational activity. Temporary ice rinks are flourishing in city centres; the Kerrs were in London last night to open a facility in Canary Wharf. ITV, meanwhile, has been filming, for broadcast in the new year, perhaps the ultimate tribute to ice skating's potential. Stars on Thin Ice is a reality TV show, hosted by Torvill and Dean, in which celebrities like Kelly Holmes and Paul Burrell, Diana's former butler, learn to skate.
While sporting success often goes in cycles (Curry was Britain's first figure skating gold medallist since Jeannette Altwegg in 1952), the sport has clearly failed to build on its past success. Even today 50,000 youngsters follow "learn to skate" programmes every year, yet only 150 take up the sport seriously.
The National Ice Skating Association points to a decline in the number of ice rinks. "Over the last 10 years we've probably lost 10 rinks and only two have been replaced, with the new facilities at Nottingham and Sheffield," Keith Horton, the NISA's general secretary, said. "Nottingham and Sheffield are fabulous ice centres, but cutting down from 70 to 60 ice rinks inevitably has its effect on the sport.
"If you live in East Anglia, for example, your closest rink is either Peterborough, Milton Keynes or Nottingham. If you live in Norwich, how many parents are going to drive their kids that sort of distance to enable them to skate? You also need a minimum of £7m to build an ice rink and it can be difficult to make them cost-effective."
Horton believes that ice skating is one of many activities that suffered because of the decline of competitive sport in schools and the increasing burdens on teachers, who have less time for sport. He also thinks parents are less inclined to support their children's sport and recognises that skating can be expensive.
Similar observations, however, could be made of cycling and sailing, in which Britain has enjoyed great recent Olympic success. Moreover, UK Sport's policy of giving financial backing at élite level only to those capable of competing on the highest international stage means that, while cycling and sailing have few funding problems, no British skaters receive support.
Horton expects Lottery support for the Kerrs at the start of their next four-year Olympic cycle and is seeking further financial assistance on the back of a range of reforms. "One of the areas where I would be openly critical of our association is that perhaps we haven't been as tough with our athletes as we should have been in the past," he said. "Too often we've allowed them to do their own thing.
"We're completely reconfiguring our squad structure. We'll have a very small squad of between 10 and 12 athletes, who will have very clearly defined targets which they'll have to hit year after year or they'll be out. We're looking at the 2014 Olympics. We have to be realistic. For 2010 we're looking at John and Sinead Kerr and perhaps, if she gets it together, Jenna McCorkell."
He added: "It's a huge disappointment to me that Jenna hasn't got to the Olympics. She has exceptional talent. She's had funding from the Northern Ireland Sports Council, UK Sport and ourselves over the last three years. I have to be careful how I say this. She has tremendous natural talent. To become an Olympic or world champion you need more than natural talent."
The Kerrs, who have their long-term sights on the 2010 Olympics, do at least represent a ray of hope. Torvill and Dean were their inspiration and Dean, who now works as a coach in Colorado, invited them to work with him for three weeks in America in the summer. Thanks in part to support from Sport Scotland and the NISA, they have been able to go full-time this year.
John Kerr believes there is a fresh mood in the sport. "British ice skating has been a bit complacent in the past," he said. "We haven't been prepared to take on ideas from other countries and to really push on by improving the coaching. I also think a lot of our skaters haven't had the right attitude in the past. We seemed to be happy just to go along to take part rather than contend for medals.
"The same applies to a lot of British sport, although I think there's been a big change for the better in recent times. In ice skating today there's a much better competitive structure in place."
Ice kings and queens Britain's golden era of skating
* 1976 JOHN CURRY
Curry brought a new dimension to ice skating through his skill as a ballet dancer. He overcame the nerves which had cost him dear earlier in his career to win the European and world championships and Olympic Games gold medal in 1976. Diagnosed HIV-positive in 1987, he died of a heart attack in 1994.
* 1980 ROBIN COUSINS
Cousins, who had dreamt of being a dancer rather than a skater, enjoyed a hugely successful career on ice. His athleticism, artistry and innovative choreography were rewarded with Olympic gold in 1980. He is now a respected commentator and runs his own entertainment and production company.
* 1984 JAYNE TORVILL AND CHRISTOPHER DEAN
Ice dancing's greatest couple won Olympic gold in Sarajevo in 1984 - a year in which they also won the World and European Championships - when they earned 12 perfect marks of 6.0 for their Bolero performance. A comeback 10 years later ended in disappointment when they won only bronze in Lillehammer. Dean now coaches in Colorado but has returned to Britain to film an ice skating reality TV series with his former partner.Reuse content