Olsson slides into hot seat

Simon Turnbull finds bobsleigh is reacting positively to drugs controversy
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Sean Olsson was the man left in the driving seat when British bobsleighing suffered its jolt from the blue on Monday. It was not a particularly comfortable experience. "I popped into work on Tuesday morning," he said, "and everyone was saying, 'You must be taking it too'. They were only joking. But that kind of thing tells you there is a cloud over the sport."

The cloud was a chemical one. A random drug test carried out by the Sports Council discovered that Mark Tout, Britain's leading bobsleigh driver for a decade, had been powered by stanozolol, the same anabolic steroid that fuelled Ben Johnson on his 9.79-second flight from "hero to zero", as the Toronto Star put it. To a sport still sustained by the Nash and Dixon legend the news came as a crushing blow.

Tony Nash and Robin Dixon were the Britons who struck Winter Olympic gold in the two-man event at Igls, near Innsbruck, in 1964. They did so only because one of their rivals, the Italian driver Eugenio Moati ultimately sacrificed his own golden shot by loaning them his axle after theirs had sheared off. Thus, when Tout steered the British four-man team to fifth place in the Lillehammer Games two years ago and the two-man bob to sixth place, he was not only chasing Olympic gold but following a noble tradition.

For Olsson, it will not quite be the same - as Donovan Bailey discovered, sprinting for Canada in the shadow of Big Ben. A 29-year-old physical training instructor with the Royal Paratroop Regiment, based at Aldershot, Olsson was driver of the Great Britain II teams at Lillehammer. That he steered the four-man bob to eighth place and the two-man sled to tenth confirms his own world-class ability. And by Wednesday, as he prepared for his morning weight-training session, the Sheffield man was coming to terms with the leading role he will play in the run up to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagona, Japan.

"It was a shock," he said. "Mark and I have been rivals for a long time, fighting for the No1 spot. You hear talk about drugs in sport all the time, but it comes as a shock when you find it so close to home. To be honest, my immediate reaction was concern for the sport. I didn't want it to be hurt.

"Bobsleighing is such a close-knit, elite sport it was bound to affect everyone. But in one way it has opened a door for me. I will get the best equipment and the best crew now. It will be easier for me."

The sport's immediate future in Britain has probably been eased by the small mercy of Tout's instant admission of guilt and acceptance of the life ban imposed on him by the British Bobsleighing Association.

Zanussi have decided not to withdraw their backing of the British squad and Tom McNab, the BBA's recently appointed director of coaching and performance, has chosen to press ahead with a recruitment drive which is planned to coincide with the start of the season next month. "We want to launch a big push for drivers in the next six weeks," he said. "What has happened this week won't change that."

McNab's curriculum vitae includes such notable sidelines as authorship of the best-selling novel Flanagan's Run and an advisory role in the making of Chariots of Fire. He remains defiantly optimistic that the future will not be all downhill, in the metaphorical sense, for Britain's ice-borne chariots. "I know Mark Tout very well," he said. "I played rugby with him. It's a great disappointment, but we can ride this. In Sean Olsson we've got an outstanding driver and the spirit among the squad is as good as it was in the England rugby team when I was involved with them. I would take a very positive line."

Mark Tout, unfortunately, took the short-cut line that showed up positive in the laboratory.