Winter Olympics: The Patriot Games such a Salt Lake pity

Hosts told to tone down the schmaltz as the healing process continues

It's that time of the quadren-nium again. For a nation which has always preferred contact with ice to be confined to the tinkling of cubes in a glass, the opening of the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City on Friday and the ensuing fortnight of well-chilled celebrations by the teeth- chattering classes will offer only cold comfort. Selling the downhill has always been an uphill battle in Britain, where interest in such wintry pursuits has only really been defrosted by Torvill and Dean and Curry and Cousins giving us a twirl.

True, we had a bobsleigh gold back in 1964 and a bronze in Nagano four years ago. Few will recall that Britain actually won the ice-hockey gold medal in 1936. More likely to be remembered is how The Eagle dared in Calgary and the world applauded Eddie Edwards as a True Brit buffoon with bottle. For the majority, little that happens when the chilblain-inducing antics of winter sportsfolk get under way will be allowed to interfere with the February footy, comprehensive as the BBC's coverage will be.

But there are those for whom activities which normally would be watched by one man and his St Bernard suddenly become global fantasies as they mug up on their moguls in front of their TV sets while highly skilled snowpersons engage in such sub-zero exoticism as the two-man luge, giant slalom and Nordic combined, and instant experts in furry ear-muffs debate the finer points of langlauf.

Moreover, these 19th Winter Games have a special significance, not least because the whole Olympic movement was dragged through the mud at the bottom of Salt Lake when the sweeteners-for-votes scandal surfaced almost five years ago. Now, following the events of 11 September 2001 in New York and recalling those of 5 September 1972 in Munich, the world waits anxiously as the curtain goes up on Salt Lake's winter wonderland with its cast of 2,530 competitors.

It is a high-security operation for a high-risk enterprise, yet there have been no reports of drop-outs among the 80 participating nations. At one time the staging of the Games was in doubt because of the threat of terrorist attack, but the organisers have managed to convince the world, and more importantly, the White House, that the mountain-ringed capital of Mormon-run Utah, the oddest, most right-wing of America's states, and the largest place to hold the Winter Games, would be as secure as it is sanitised.

Much of the persuading was done by Mitt Romney, a billionaire businessman and skilled politician who was called in by Salt Lake's embarrassed burghers to sweep away the slush. Much of it may have gone under the carpet, but Romney will have delivered if the Games are conducted safely and successfully. The state governorship, and following his father George as a presidential candidate, are his likely rewards.

Romney, 54, is a Mormon, though not a proselytising one, and under his stewardship for the duration of the Games sober-sided Salt Lake will be lifting her skirts to show a bit of leg. Alcohol will be available at nominated venues, as well as coffee, tea and Coke (the liquid variety), which are otherwise largely unavailable because of their caffeine content. But you can be sure that one of the world's fast-growing religions will not miss the opportunity to spread the gospel.

The greatest propaganda, though, is likely to be in the name of the United States itself, with Salt Lake being used as part of the healing process for the wounds of last September. There is a danger, as the newspaper US Today points out, that what have been dubbed God's Games could turn into the Patriot Games, a platform for America to become even more the jingoistic nation the world knows but does not necessarily love.

Romney has advised to go easy on the schmaltz, and one hopes that jarring nationalism does not dominate a fortnight during which there will be genuine fascination for the world's fastest skiiers and most skilful skaters.

There seems little that cannot be done on snow and ice these days, from ballet to bowling. So much so that there has to be hope left for hopscotch, an event at which Britain would surely succeed.

For a country which grinds to a halt every time Railtrack's points get frosted up, it is not surprising that our performances in winter are hardly lion-like. Britain's traditional role has been a lifetime's subscription to the Baron de Coubertin philosophy of taking part. Yet six golds, two silvers and nine bronze in 90 years passes reasonable muster for a non-Alpine nation.

Unfortunately the days when T and D were the coolest couple to come out of Nottingham since Maid Marian and Robin Hood have passed. Britain's only skaters, Marika Humphreys and her Ukrainian-born husband Vitaliy Baranov, will be lucky to emerge as more than Olympic wallflowers.

Flushed with the success of Sydney, the British Olympic Association have splashed out the best part of £1 million on preparations for a squad of 102 people (albeit that exactly half of them are officials) in anticipation of the nation's finest all-round Winter Games performance in half a century.

Unfortunately the recent form of most of those who had outside chances of a medal has fallen away, and gold prospects now seem to rest on the slim shoulders of Alex Coomber, the women's world champion at bob skeleton.

It is charming idiosyncrasy of British sport (remembering that our only world athletics title last year came courtesy of the hop, step and jump) that in Salt Lake it is all up to an intrepid young woman sliding down along a frozen, dangerously curved tunnel on what is basically a tin tray with knobs on, or rather, runners.

As, like many in the team, most of her basic training has been at a snow-free winter camp at the University of Bath, it is some achievement for any Briton to be heading for Salt Lake in pole position.

So, after a warm Bath, the champagne should be waiting. Ice cold and Alex, you might say.

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