Skiing: Baxter's long ascent to top

Drug test may bring bleak future for Britain's skiing hero
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The Independent Online

Alain Baxter was proclaimed an overnight hero after becoming the first Briton ever to win an Olympic medal on snow, but he was always destined for a life on the slopes.

His parents, Iain and Sue, were both skiers at national level, and named him after the French skiing legend, Alain Penz. He was raised in Aviemore in the Scottish Cairngorms and was introduced to the sport as a young child. By 17, he was a member of the British skiing team. Most significantly, he has dedicated the past 11 years to his sporting dream, often in the face in economic and personal hardship, never veering from the belief that he would one day make it to the upper echelons of his chosen sport.

When he did so so emphatically – and so gloriously for Britain – at last month's Winter Olympics by winning a bronze medal in the medal's slalom, it seemed that he had finally been rewarded for the years of promise and graft. But now the celebrations are on hold, stopped in their tracks by the news that he tested positive in Salt Lake City for the prohibited substance methamphetamine, commonly known as "speed".

Although Baxter's medal was one of the major surprises of the Games, he was far from unknown on the international circuit. True, he had spent 10 years toiling from country to country, living in a Volkswagen van while fretting over where his next funding cheque was coming from. He even helped support himself by bricklaying, digging holes and erecting fencing until sponsors – including the sports equipment manufacturer, Head, and the whisky liqueur company, Drambuie – noted his potential and came in with endorsement deals. Last season, his first full year with decent funding and back-up, the 28-year-old known as "The Highlander" started making good.

He recorded four top-10 finishes in the élite World Cup slalom series, including a fourth place in the season's finale in Sweden. That was the best result by a British skier in 19 years and confirmed him as the best-ever Briton in his discipline, slalom. Baxter rose to No 11 in the world, becoming, as he says, "an overnight success after 10 years' hard work".

With the success, came the plaudits, not least in Austria, the home nation of his coach, Christian Schwaiger, where it is not unknown for 50,000 fans to chant every bit as loudly for Baxter – who speaks German with the local accent – as for their home-grown heroes.

With the ascent up the rankings came the attendant immersion into the world of the international skier, a transient lifestyle punctuated by fiercely competitive competition and, on occasion, lively partying to celebrate when the skiing is over. If you earn a living hurtling down a mountain, the rationale goes, then a night on the tiles to wind down is quite acceptable. Baxter, a genial and charming Scot, is no different in having been known to do the same.

This season, in the run-up to the Olympics, things did not run as smoothly for Britain's No 1. Summer 2001 saw a revolution in ski manufacturing and, in short, Baxter's equipment was not proving adequate. "Alain is powerless to return to last season's form until the ski technology advances in line with other suppliers," Schwaiger was even forced to concede in January. "But he knows he has the technical ability."

On the slopes last month, when it mattered, Baxter showed that to be true. On a difficult course in poor conditions, he excelled to finish the first run in eighth place. As higher-ranked opponents faltered, he stayed upright to finish his second run and then watched in disbelief as he held on for bronze.

After the medal ceremony, he was to be found in the Dead Goat Saloon bar, watching the highlights of his feats on television surrounded by cheering locals and British media alike, and nursing a cold beer, illuminated by a roving camera crew. It was, everyone agreed, a moment of deserved triumph, with even the British Olympic Association acknowledging it had been achieved in spite of the British sporting system, not because of it. They, and many others, will be hoping this morning that Baxter's career is not downhill all the way from here.