Olympics: Facilities upset winter athletes

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BRITISH HOPES in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City will be irreversibly damaged unless swift action is taken to nurture promising athletes, a British Olympic Association report concluded yesterday.

The BOA's Athletes' Commission Report, which was compiled after last year's Winter Olympics in Japan, found that 65 per cent of British winter athletes were dissatisfied with the quality of training and competition facilities in the UK. The report canvassed the experiences of 314 athletes, including the 35 who competed in Nagano.

Among the report's other conclusions were that more should be done to address the issue of unbalanced Lottery funding to athletes, and that the athletes themselves should do more to lobby the Government over subsistence funding.

Outlining the report's findings, Gavin Stewart, the chairman of the Athletes' Commission, said of the Nagano Games: "For a non-Alpine country such as Great Britain to win a [bronze] medal in bobsleigh, and have four top eight places in curling and ice-skating was remarkable, and important lessons need to be learned." He added, however, that athletes' concerns needed to be addressed before Britain can advance beyond limited successes.

Sean Olsson, a member of the medal-winning bobsleigh team spoke at yesterday's report launch of the intense pressure athletes like himself are under in their quest for funding. "We went to Nagano on the understanding that funding would only continue if we came back with a medal," he said. "It was all or nothing," he added, noting that his team's Lottery funding for last year's Olympics was only confirmed a few months before the Games. "We're constantly playing catch-up," Olsson said of British preparations compared to other countries. "Once we get a level playing field, that's when we can start competing with these guys."

Nicky Gooch, a medal-winning speed skater in Lillehammer in 1994 and a member of last year's squad, said that unless funding was provided now for more athletes - including a crop of promising teenagers at present training with the British squad - future prospects are limited. "It takes more than two years to make an Olympic athlete," he said.