Olympic skiing: Highlander out to be history-maker

Slalom skier Baxter targets Britain's first alpine medal at the Winter Olympics.
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The Independent Online

Alain Baxter, Britain's best-ever slalom skier, has two alter egos. The first, The Highlander, was all the rage on the international circuit last year as the 28-year-old from Aviemore made his big breakthrough. He racked up four top-10 finishes in the World Cup slalom series, including a fourth place in the season's finale in Sweden. He rose to No 11 in the world, becoming, as he says, "an overnight success after 10 years' hard work". His Scottish heritage, his easy charm, his main sponsor – the whisky liqueur company Drambuie – and his rip-roaring ascent up the rankings meant his marketing men's moniker could not have been more apt.

Baxter's second nickname, coined as a schoolboy, is "Biddy". He says he has no idea of its origins although aficionados of sticky-backed plastic and double-sided Sellotape can tell him it derives from the late and legendary Blue Peter producer, Biddy Baxter, who was never at loss creating something promising out of less than inspiring materials. Going into the Winter Olympics as Britain's best skiing medal hope, Baxter could use some of that magic.

His recent problems have been fundamental. Summer 2001 saw a revolution in ski manufacturing and, in short, Baxter got left behind. The length of skis reduced from a typical 170cm to a speed-enhancing 155cm, but some athletes had trouble getting new equipment or difficulty adjusting when it arrived. Baxter was one of them.

"Ski lengths have gone down before, not because of any rules but just because the shorter skis are faster," Baxter said as he made his final preparations for Salt Lake City. "Last year everything was working so well for me. This year I've had technical problems. But I had to change to shorter skis. If you want to go faster, you need to use the new gear."

While Baxter has been reluctant to place any blame on his ski manufacturer, Head, for his problems, his coach, Christian Schwaiger, has been more candid. "Alain is powerless to return to last season's form until the ski technology advances in line with other suppliers," he said last month. "He knows he has the technical ability." Baxter maintains that his skis, per se, are not to blame, and is hopeful that things will come good.

A troublesome season has not been without glimmers of hope. Baxter finished 16th and 18th in two World Cup races last month and seemed on course to do much better in a third in Schladming, Austria, in his final World Cup race before the Olympics. He was a respectable 17th place after the first run and led at the split on the second but then straddled a pole and recorded his first DNF (did not finish) is two years' full-time World Cup racing. (A straddled pole in Nagano in 1998, incidentally, saw him disqualified from his only previous Olympic competition.)

"The thing for me now is to keep on doing what I'm doing," Baxter said. "My set-up is perfect. I've got a service team, a physio, sponsorship, equipment, funding. Last year I was on a roll and I wanted to stay on it. This season has been disappointing but if last year's success hadn't happened and I'd got to where I am now, that would still have been progress. Things are starting to come together again."

Despite his problems, he remains Britain's best skiing medal hope. "Everything's changed a lot recently," he said. "You've had guys with high numbers [on the first run] coming through. Twice this year someone's come from way back to make the podium. With 30 guys within 1.6 seconds, it's possible."

The men to beat in the slalom, he says, will be the American Bode Miller, a 24-year-old sensation from New Hampshire, and Croatia's Ivica Kostelic, who hopes to be in the shake-up despite a recent back problem. Baxter's younger half-brother brother, Noel, also in the British team, will be another opponent, albeit an outsider.

"If I get it together in two runs, I can come up with a medal," says Baxter. If he does, he will become the first Briton to so do in any alpine event. Britain's best performance was a fourth place by Georgina Hathorn in the women's slalom at Grenoble in 1968. The best finish by a man was Martin Bell's eighth place in the downhill at Calgary in 1988.

Much will depend on confidence, and that, in turn, will depend on the skis. And if they both come good in time, it should be downhill all the way.