Olympics: No exuberant celebrations please, we're British

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The Independent Online

Britain's Winter Olympians have been returning to hearth and home this week, and – where appropriate – receiving praise and honour for their successes.

One of the most charming things about all those who brought a medal back to these shores from an event where Britons have shone so rarely was their discomfort at the attention their achievements provoked.

Alex Coomber knew beforehand the kind of fuss that her participation in Salt Lake was going to kick up. Her involvement in the bob skeleton event, where she represented Britain's only faintly likely gold medal prospect, was previewed to pieces by virtually every sporting publication in the land.

Her marriage, her family background, her prediliction for challenging sports, even her pet dog Fogarty (named after the superbike champion Carl Fogarty) were emblazoned in the public domain.

As a 28-year-old RAF Intelligence officer and an Oxford University graduate, Coomber clearly has a smart head on her shoulders, even if she does risk it on a regular basis by taking it for 80mph rides two inches above an ice floor.

She knew the amount of scrutiny she would be under. She knew that if she failed, she would be execrated individually, and most probably held up as representing the final, climactic failure for an under-performing British team.

Not normally a demonstrative individual in public – her mantra, "control the controllables", clearly put her own emotional responses into the latter category – she went slightly crazy once she realised she had done enough to win at least the bronze medal, despite, it now transpires, having concealed a broken arm.

"I just put up with it and thought I would wait until I got home," Coomber said yesterday. "It was not so much stiff upper lip as I wanted to race and my coaches would not have let me race if we'd known it was a break."

Her manifest relief afterwards indicated the pressure she had been operating under for the previous year from the point where the media had registered the fact that she was the dominant world force in her event.

She accepted the fact that as a gold medal favourite at the world's biggest competition she could not avoid being subjected to a certain amount of attention. But she made it clear that, if she could have competed for a medal without all the attendant fuss, she would honestly have preferred it. As she said it, you didn't doubt that it was true.

It was Coomber's good fortune that four other women were mobilising in pursuit of a winter medal at exactly the same time as she was, and ultimately to even greater effect as they managed to win Britain's first winter Olympic gold since Torvill and Dean in Sarajevo 18 years earlier.

The manner in which Rhona Martin and her Scottish team-mates Debbie Knox, Fiona MacDonald and Janice Rankin managed to win a curling competition where they had had to take the low road back into contention via two repêchage matches was remarkable. It was a dour testimony to the traditional Scottish virtue of obstinate courage. But the manner in which the Scottish quartet greeted the surge of interest and support their victory engendered was even more striking.

Nobody delivered pre-rehearsed speeches. Nobody broke down in tears. Nobody was delirious with joy. They were simply four quietly thrilled individuals palpably looking forward to going home and rejoining their husbands and children.

In the immediate aftermath of a victory that had been watched back home by a television audience of 12 million, Martin and her team-mates went to the side of the ice to hug the supporters who had flown over to support them in Ogden.

As the victorious captain posed obligingly for pictures alongside a couple of American spectators, I took the opportunity of asking her about the final delivery of the final end with which she had secured the gold medal in an atmosphere of unbearably deep silence.

"Rhona. Congratulations."

"Thank you."

"That last shot... I don't know how you did it. It looked like a perfect shot. Was it?"

She weighed up the proposition, as if she were surveying the lie of the land at the other end of the ice before releasing a crucial stone. "Just about," she said, with the trace of a smile. In the whole Games, it was the closest she ever came to boasting.

The morning after the victorious night, the subject of commercial opportunities was raised with the gold medallists. They all looked faintly embarrassed, as if someone had asked about their bra sizes.

The news that Safeway had expressed an early interest in employing their services threw them into even greater confusion. Knox, with an uncertain giggle, asked: "Will that mean we get free shopping?"

Looking at them, sitting awkwardly on the podium, you registered enormous thankfulness. Here were champions over whom no inhibiting suspicion lingered over possible drug abuse, or commercial motivation.

How wrong those who question curling's place at the Winter Games are. These were Olympians that Pierre de Coubertin would have recognised.

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