Countdown to the Winter Olympics: Lions of winter

Britain tends to be frozen out at Winter Olympics, forced to leave the champagne on ice. But some Britons have braved the chill to win the gold against all odds
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Britain. Winter Olympics. The two tend not to go together well. But every now and again, Brits brave the chill to show that they can perform better than anyone else. Honestly. Look.

1936: GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, MEN'S ICE HOCKEY TEAM

The semi-final round proved crucial in this competition, as Britain defeated the favourites, Canada, who had won 20 successive matches. Edgar Brenchley was the man of the moment after scoring a rebound goal in the 14th minute of the final period to give his team a 2-1 win.

A 0-0 draw with the United States ensured the gold for Britain, although afterwards there were protests from the Canadians, eventual silver medallists, when they learnt that the majority of the British players lived and played in Canada.

1952: OSLO, JEANETTE ALTWEGG, FIGURE SKATING

Altwegg had been on course to follow in the footsteps of Kitty Godfree and Dorothy Round in becoming a Wimbledon champion, having reached the final of the junior tournament in 1947.

She chose to concentrate on skating, however, and a year later she reached the final of the Winter Olympics held in St Moritz. On a surface that had been pitted by the previous night's men's gold medal ice hockey match, and which had subsequently been partially flooded, she took the bronze medal in an event won by Canada's Barbara Ann Scott.

Altwegg was on the rise, and three years later she won the women's world title in Milan. By the time she arrived in Oslo, she was also European champion. She lived up to the expectations with a victory that owed much to her almost faultless compulsory figures, which kept her in gold medal position ahead of Tenley Albright, of the United States, and the exotic Jacqueline du Bief, of France, even though she could only place fourth in the subsequent free-skating.

A year after her Oslo triumph, Altwegg was awarded the Olympic diploma of merit "for having refused many professional offers in order to devote herself to underprivileged children".

1964: INNSBRUCK, TONY NASH AND ROBIN DIXON, TWO-MAN BOBSLEIGH

Dixon, a captain in the Grenadier Guards, and Nash, who was in the RAF, had already established themselves as medal contenders, having won bronze in the previous year's world championships.

After the first of four downhill runs at the Igls site, the British pair were leading, but a bolt attaching their runners to the main shell of the sleigh had sheared off. Eugenio Monti, who was about to steer Italy's top entry down the second run, heard of the pair's problem and announced: "Get an Englishman and a spanner to the finish and they can have my bolt." The item was duly removed, ferried to the top and attached to the British bob, which proceeded to record the fastest time of day again.

Two further victories in the next day's runs secured the gold for the British pair, but Monti, who finished in bronze position, was strongly criticised for his actions in the Italian press. "Nash didn't win because I gave him the bolt," Monti responded. "He won because he had the fastest run." The Italian, who had also offered the Canadian four-man team technical assistance, was subsequently awarded the Pierre De Coubertin Medal for sportsmanship, and four years later in Grenoble he won gold in both the two and the four-man bob.

The British pair went on to take gold in the following year's world championships, and added a bronze in 1966 before finishing fifth behind Monti in the 1968 Grenoble Olympics.

1976: INNSBRUCK, JOHN CURRY, FIGURE SKATING

Curry's achievement in becoming the first British man to win an Olympic figure skating gold medal prompted one observer to write that he had done so "with a performance of such artistry that his sport is never likely to be the same again".

His opponents, in a sport that had previously been about athleticism rather than emotion, were demoralised by a performance that included innovative pirouettes and arm movements as well as being technically accomplished. He made sure there was a respectable quota of triple loops, salchows and toe-loops to placate the traditional outlook of the Communist bloc judges.

Curry had taken up skating after his father had objected to him pursuing an interest in ballet. "I wanted to be a ballet dancer," Curry recalled, "but my father thought that was no career for a man. I've never understood why he thought skating was acceptable, and ballet wasn't. But ballet wasn't very big in Birmingham."

After winning the British junior title at 17, he left school and moved to Richmond so he could train six hours a day. His single-mindedness paid off when he won the British senior title in 1970. Three years later he moved again, to Colorado, to train with the renowned coach Carlo Fassi.

A year before Innsbruck, Curry indicated his potential by winning European silver and world bronze, and he added both titles in the months after his Olympic win.

Curry then established a skating troupe in the United States, but returned to Britain in 1991, after being diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1987. He earned much admiration for speaking openly about the disease before dying of Aids in April 1994 at the age of 44.

1980: LAKE PLACID, ROBIN COUSINS, FIGURE SKATING

Having finished 10th behind his victorious compatriot four years earlier, Cousins revelled in the enhanced artistry that Curry's performance had engendered within the event. He recalled recently how, having prepared with Curry at the Innsbruck Games, he had also learnt much about the apparent selfishness required to focus on winning, and felt no guilt at employing the same tactics in Lake Placid.

Like Curry before him, Cousins had also decided to supercharge his career by training under Fassi in Colorado. After finishing fourth in the compulsory figures, he moved up to second after the short programme, and skated so well in the long programme that six of the nine judges put him in the gold medal position.

Cousins later won two world professional championships and was a mainstay of the Holiday on Ice Show until he retired in 2000. He will be commentating on his seventh Winter Olympics for the BBC in Turin this month.

1984: SARAJEVO, JAYNE TORVILL AND CHRISTOPHER DEAN, ICE DANCE

Although the hapless heroics of ski jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards would hit the headlines worldwide at the Calgary Games four years later, the achievements of Torvill and Dean resonated more than any other British winter Olympic performance.

Like Curry before him, Dean wanted to stretch the artistic limits of his event, and the routine which he and his partner performed to the accompaniment of Ravel's Bolero remains a landmark in sport. The judges were as enthusiastic as the crowd, awarding the British pair the first perfect scores of 6.0 in the event's history. Middle England awarded Torvill and Dean its heart and soul.

Ten years on at the Lillehammer Games, the reunited British pairing found the judges less welcoming. Having scraped a victory in the European Championships in what was their first competitive appearance in almost a decade, Torvill and Dean realised that they needed to alter radically their routine and made a number of last-minute changes, bringing in several elements they had employed in professional routines in the interim. Their performance to Irving Berlin's "Let's Face The Music And Dance" had all the old gusto, but it also included a back somersault move that the judges deemed illegal. Their marks provoked a chorus of disapproval in the Hamar arena. After collecting his bronze medal, Dean reflected that the comeback had probably not been the greatest of ideas. But then it is impossible to improve upon perfection.

2002: SALT LAKE CITY, WOMEN'S CURLING TEAM

"That's it," announced Britain's thunder-faced skip, Rhona Martin, after a second defeat in qualifying to a German team that only needed to beat Switzerland to claim the last semi-final place. "We're dead." But, thanks to a Swiss victory, Britain had what Martin described as a "second lifeline". After beating Germany and Sweden to the last semi-final position, victory over the defending champions, Canada, put Martin and fellow Scots Fiona MacDonald, Janice Rankin and Debbie Knox, into the final against the team that had offered the lifeline.

It all came down to the last delivery. As Martin's stone slid down the rink and sweetly displaced the Swiss marker in the centre of the house, the Scottish skip saw history in the making.

Back home, curling, not even an occasional feature on newspaper back pages, was all over the front. The sport, everyone said, stood on the brink of a breakthrough. Four years on, a new rink has been built in Tunbridge Wells.

Comments