The last time Alain Baxter produced a result of any note on the alpine skiing circuit, he returned home to find that his cash card was rejected by his local bank. Baxter's astonishing bronze medal in the slalom on the last day of alpine competition at Salt Lake City should at least keep his bank manager content for the moment. Whether British skiing is ready for the sort of attention Britain's first Olympic skiing medal will prompt is a matter for deeper debate.
Simon Clegg, the head of the British Olympic Association, told us all to wait for the punchline and his assessment was proved right. From being a disaster area, Salt Lake turned into a triumph in the space of two days with gold for Rhona Martin and her curlers, a bronze for Alex Coomber in the skeleton bob and for the man nicknamed the Highlander. Now comes the hard part.
"What happened to all our middle-distance runners after Coe, Ovett and Cram?" asks Konrad Bartelski, the former British number one downhiller. "What happened to our ice dancers after Torvill and Dean? Where are the next generation of Henmans? In skiing now, we have a chance to develop our system and we've got to take it. We don't even have a full-time performance director. The BOA has done its bit, the athletes have done their bit and we have got to get organised and properly funded and make sure we don't lose the momentum that Alain and the others have built up."
Bartelski speaks from some experience. Back in the days when Ski Sunday was a regular part of the Sunday afternoon ritual, he was ploughing a lone furrow down the mountains of Europe. At the time, his existence was more Asbury Heights than professional athlete as he careered from venue to venue in a beaten up VW van with a Union Jack painted on the roof. Equipment was haphazardly procured along the way, which made Bartelski's second place in the World Cup downhill at Val Gardena in 1981, still the best World Cup finish by a Briton, one of the minor miracles of the sport. At the time, Bartelski was ranked 12th in the world, but he had no coach, no ski technician, no radio link, none of the basic support which teams like Austria took for granted.
"That was very hard for an athlete to come to terms with week after week," said Bartelski. "It was why I wanted to get as much support for Alain as possible." Bartelski's emotional understanding of what Baxter went through, the sense of rejection and loneliness, was critical in helping to provide extra funds for the cash-strapped Scotsman. Sponsorship came from Drambuie, auctions at Christie's organised by Bartelski on behalf of the British Ski Federation have raised more than £70,000. Support came from both the Austrian and Swiss ski industries, while the big British tour operators were notably ungenerous. This is one area of potential finance, Bartelski believes, British skiing needs to tap.
"Our first priority now is to get a unified junior programme organised at national level," he says. "We have the talent for the next four years in Alain, Ross Green, Chemmy Alcott and Noel Baxter, Alain's brother, but we need to be looking further ahead. A million people go skiing from this country every season, 70 per cent of those are City people who are on the biggest Christmas bonuses. I'd like them to be commercially more generous to the future of the sport.
"We shouldn't be going cap in hand to the government, we need to get our Lottery funding sorted out because we have improved and we have delivered. We still have to work very tightly and concentrate on a few individuals who have the talent to make it. Just because we've had a little success for once doesn't mean that every Tom, Dick and Harriet should get on the team just because they scream the loudest. But there are no excuses any more, we have to move forward on to a more commercial footing and put a solid system in place."
Quite what part Bartelski could play in that system is another matter. Officially, after a long – and, for British skiing, wasted – period away from the sport, he is the chairman of the selectors; unofficially, he acts as a freelance troubleshooter for British skiing and, because he has competed at the highest level, his judgement is trusted by the skiers. "I should have had a proper support programme when I was competing, but it didn't happen," he says. "When I packed it in, I should have been able to pass my knowledge on. But I went out of the sport for 15 years. I'm passionate about skiing, it was my life. But I'm not a bureaucrat, I'm not a politician and I'm not much of a diplomat."
Attitudes too have to change, he says. "I was on Breakfast TV the morning after Alain's bronze and the presenter read out his cue about ladies with brooms and tea trays, then he stopped and said, 'That's a bit off'. He said that himself, totally off the cuff. It's the sort of belittling and flippant attitude to the sport that really annoys me."
Bartelski, a producer of sports programmes for Octagon CSI, watched Baxter's heroics on television from St Anton in Austria. When Bode Miller fell, securing at least a bronze for Britain, tears streamed down his face. Part of his memory doubtless returned to his own day of grace when, as he put it, "for two minutes you own the mountain". Baxter's brilliance has given British skiing a unique opportunity to extend their property rights.Reuse content