Imaginations run wild as Chemmy scales the peaks

History teaches us that British performances at the Winter Olympics are best appreciated in relative terms. Thus, while Chemmy Alcott's 11th place in the downhill skiing on the sixth day of the Turin Games might not appear much to celebrate, it actually is.

Although the 23-year-old from Twickenham, south-west London, has already been to the Olympics - she finished 32nd four years ago - her efforts in the Italian Alps represented the best Olympic showing by a British female skier in 38 years.

More importantly, it indicates she has a genuine chance in her strongest event, Sunday's super giant slalom. On a day when Rhona Martin suffered her first defeat in defence of the curling gold medal she won in Salt Lake City, that was just the kind of cheery news Britain's team needed as it settled into a campaign that the chef de mission, Simon Clegg, has predicted will yield one medal. Fortune permitting.

On the eve of yesterday's event, Alcott had sportingly ruled out any possibility of romantic entanglement on Valentine's Day. "No boys in my room tonight," she said. "I need to stay focused."

It seems the strategy worked. Indeed, for a few tantalising minutes the name Alcott stood in second place on the leaderboard at Sestriere, before subsequent performances shifted it down the order. "I should take a picture before it disappears," Alcott commented, wistfully. But by coming to rest where she did, 1.36sec behind the winner, Michaela Dorfmeister of Austria, Alcott convinced many seasoned observers that her days as a charming and dizzy outsider were over.

Newsworthy Britons on skis are few and far between, and the news has rarely been good. Eighteen years ago, the world took the hapless ski jumper Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards to its bosom. In 2002, there was reason to rejoice as Alain Baxter won the slalom bronze, only to have it confiscated after he failed a drugs test.

Alcott's good looks and bubbly personality have meant she is a marketing opportunity waiting to happen. She has made a good living from sponsors including the sportswear manufacturers Witan and Marks & Spencer, for whom she has modelled.

Her full name, Chimene, is that of Sophia Loren's character in the film El Cid. "Everyone said my mother looked like Sophia Loren, so she thought I might turn out like her too," Alcott said. "I feel sorry for my mother because she... thought she'd have a girly girl. Instead, she gets a ski-racing speed junkie."

Britain's winter warmers

1964 Innsbruck: Tony Nash, of the RAF, and Grenadier Guardsman Robin Dixon win gold in the two-man bobsleigh.

1976 Innsbruck: John Curry becomes first British man to win Olympic figure skating gold.

1984 Sarajevo: Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean's ice dance to Ravel's Bolero earns the first perfect scores in the event's history.

1988 Calgary: Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards, the ski jumper, captures the imagination of the British public.

2002 Salt Lake City: Rhona Martin leads curlers to gold with the last delivery as millions watch on television.

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