The event that kicks ice

When it comes to extreme sport, the Brits get their skates on
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The Independent Online

Take several tonnes of somewhat whiffy ice from the local fish market, shovel it over a cobblestoned street in the centre of Stockholm, compress it into a sort of Bob the Builder's bobsleigh run, with devilishly designed jumps, bumps and banks, stick in half a dozen slalom gates, entice fifty-odd nutters with $10,000 prize money to get their skates on, and you have the latest activity to touch the extremes of zany sporting endeavour. "Crashed Ice", the organisers call it, and you realise why as the bodies sprawl and slither their way towards the finish at the seafront.

Take several tonnes of somewhat whiffy ice from the local fish market, shovel it over a cobblestoned street in the centre of Stockholm, compress it into a sort of Bob the Builder's bobsleigh run, with devilishly designed jumps, bumps and banks, stick in half a dozen slalom gates, entice fifty-odd nutters with $10,000 prize money to get their skates on, and you have the latest activity to touch the extremes of zany sporting endeavour. "Crashed Ice", the organisers call it, and you realise why as the bodies sprawl and slither their way towards the finish at the seafront.

The more orthodox name is Ice Cross, and it made its debut last weekend in the Swedish capital. What's more, an intrepid young Brit finished fifth, further evidence that as a nation we are now moving out of the ice age when it comes to wintry pursuits.

Imagine the slalom, but instead of skis you wear hockey skates and instead of snow you race on ice. But this is far removed from the world of T & D and double axels. The end product is Rollerball meets the Cresta Run; helter-skelter, hell-for-leather, hands, knees and a lot of bumps-a-daisy, though deliberate body contact is supposedly banned.

But when you've got helmeted, thickly padded combatants coming down the twisting hill three at a time and jostling for the lead on a 250metres long refrigerated slide, which suddenly narrows from five to three metres across, mishaps are par for the course. Almost invariably, someone falls and it is a matter of skipping over the stricken before vaulting the final metre-high barrier.

"Crashed Ice" was conceived by Red Bull's Stefan Aufschnaiter. Not content with the 65 or so way-out activities, from cliff diving and paragliding to "dirt alert" moto-cross and underground mountain-biking, that the energy drinks company has dreamed up for the lads and ladesses of extreme sport, he hit on the idea of this amalgam of ice and inline (roller) skating, ice hockey, snowboarding and border cross. It is the most bizarre yet, a sporting cocktail far more potent than anything the sponsor's product is traditionally mixed with. "To do it you need to be an excellent skater and have parts of your brain disconnected," said the Swedish event manager Ulf Mard.

It began in sub-zero morning sunlight and finished six hours later under floodlights, by which time not only the contestants but we frozen-stiff onlookers felt in need of sustenance at Stockholm's most famous brewery, strategically selected as the ice-watering hole midway down the course. Initially all 57, including two women, mainly a mixture of ice hockey players, snowboarders, inliners, skiers and speed skaters, half from Sweden but also from nine other nations as far as South Wales and South Africa, started singly, clad in the requisite ice hockey gear with its ample and much-needed padding, aiming for a qualification time of about 20 seconds or less.

Some were clearly terrified, snow-ploughing their skates like mad, and one or two of the less ambitious thought better of a second attempt. Then the fun really began as 36 made the cut, including two Britons, 18-year-old Jonathan Phillips and Merv Priest, 27, both ice hockey players from the Cardiff Devils. A third Briton, the Swiss-domiciled engineer Simon Sharp, 22, literally fell by the wayside.

When the snowflakes had settled, Priest, British-born but brought up Rusedski-fashion in Canada (he actually plays for Swindon but is the Devils' development officer), had been eliminated in the first run of the finals. But Phillips, a Britishjunior international winger, had chased his way through to the last nine with a series of second-placed finishes. He eventually came fifth, skidding head first over the line in his semi-final, just outside the prize money and heartily cheered bythe approving Swedes as the first foreign competitor home.

Phillips heard of the event through his club when he returned from playing with the British junior team in Lithuania. The organisers had circulated an invitation which read: "Do you know a bad-ass skater who should be in the race?"

"That sounded like Merv and me," grinned Phillips. "But when we first stood on top of the run and looked down, we thought 'What the hell are we doing here?' Neither of us had seen or done anything like it before. But in the end it turned out to be a lot of fun."

Priest said that the first time he went down he was thinking how he might get out of doing it again. "But in the end I'm glad I didn't because it was quite an experience. Most of the guys I spoke to enjoyed it once they got over the initial shock. You've got so much clothing protection you don't really get hurt, and being a hockey player means you are comfortable on the skates, which are shorter and give a better grip on the ice, and you know how to fall. Unfortunately, I caught a jump wrong but I was flying before then."

A couple of black SwedishAmericans filled the first two places. The winner, Jasper Felder, 30, plays bandy (a Scandinavian-style of hockey) and skis, and second-placed Stephan Rimer is a former Division Two ice hockey player, now working in Stockholm as a financial manager. "The secret is not to be put off first time you try it," said Rimer. "You get to know what to expect."

What Ice Cross can expect now is the usual murmuring about finding a legitimate stage. As it happens, the Winter Olympics are actually seeking new sports, in contrast to the Summer Games.

The course probably needs to be twice as long and the rules tightened up, and although slalom-skating down a pile of fishy ice may sound like a load of pollocks, they could do a lot worse than look at something which is far more thrilling and certainly more televisual than some of those oddball events such as the luge, ice dancing and freestyle skiing that we'll be seeing in Salt Lake City. Especially as we seem to be such dab hands at it.

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