Out of the shadows: We are not the new T & D, say the Kerrs - but give them time

Behind the sequins, there's sweat and tears as a family dance act bear burden of history
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The irony is that even in retirement they will almost certainly attract more British viewers throughout the forthcoming Games than the entire BBC coverage from Turin, their ITV Saturday-night celebrity Dancing On Ice series averaging around 10 million.

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 20th Winter Games on Friday and the ensuing fortnight seems destined this time to offer only cold comfort. Selling the downhill has always been an uphill battle in Britain, where interest in winter pursuits has only really been defrosted by T & D, Curry and Cousins giving us a twirl and latterly by Rhona Martin's curlers, who turned stones into gold four years ago.

The days when T & D were the coolest couple to come out of Nottingham since Maid Marian and Robin Hood may have disappeared through a hole in the ice but Britain's only skaters in Turin, the Scottish brother- and-sister act of John and Sinead Kerr, are determined to emerge as more than Olympic wallflowers.

Over the past five years the skating siblings gradually have established themselves as the outstanding claimants to the Torvill and Dean succession, though they readily admit that a medal in Turin is almost certainly beyond them. However, there is a growing belief in what is left of British skating that four years hence in Vancouver they will have danced their way out of the shadows of their illustrious forerunners to be gold-medal prospects themselves.

"That would be fantastic," says 25-year-old John. "Obviously we'd like to get close to some of their achievements in time, but at the end of the day we just want to be John and Sinead Kerr. We are not the new T & D and never have been. We are ourselves. But we don't get annoyed when people compare us because they are legends and we really haven't done anything remotely as good as they did. They were the best ever, ahead of their time. But if having the tag of T & D helps generate publicity for the sport, we're happy. Skating hasn't been a big sport for many years and one of the things we'd like to do is bring it back to the forefront of people's imagination."

That would happen overnight if somehow they sashayed their way towards the podium in Turin. It is unlikely, though. They were eighth in the recent European Championships - a decent enough result - and should finish between 12th and 14th in the Olympics. A top-10 placing would be a real bonus and a springboard for greater things to come.

The Kerrs talk as fluently as they skate. "Our relationship is based on shared ambition," says Sinead, 27. "We get on well because we are similar. We spend most of our time together, which means we can get things done."

"It's actually quite easy," chips in John. "Basically we live in each other's pockets. But the important thing is that while we are brother and sister off the ice, on it it we are simply a working partnership. At the end of the day you are actors. This is not real life. We're out there acting out a role, giving a performance."

This is extended to some off-ice moonlighting as models. They live at home with their parents in Livingston, and you might say they only have ice for each other. Neither have romantic attachments at the moment. "Anyone we might be involved with would have to take second place to our skating so it wouldn't work," says John, who began as a figure skater while Sinead was a school rollerskater who "slipped into ice skating". Both had previous dancing partners before getting their own act together.

Although not exactly mentors, Torvill and Dean have taken a recent interest in their development. "I got hold of Chris's email address and fired off a message without expecting to hear anything," says John. "I couldn't believe it when he replied the next day inviting us to train with him in Colorado. It was wonderful, because as a choreographer he's a genius."

However, their Turin routine may be more bagpipes than Bolero, and the new marking system puts more emphasis on technical merit than artistic expression. Indeed, under it T & D might not have achieved those perfect sixes. "The system pushes you to your limit," says Sinead. "You need to do the hardest possible lifts. It is much more physically demanding than a few years ago. Now no one watching the Olympics can possibly say ice dancing isn't a sport. It certainly isn't for wimps. You take a hell of a lot of bangs and knocks. People just see the glamour, the make-up and the sequins. They don't see the sweat and tears that go into our training."

The Kerrs are part of a 40-strong British contingent of skaters, skiers, bobbers, sliders, lugers, snowboarders and biathletes who will tackle the rinks of Turin and the slopes of the Italian Alps. This time round there are a handful of medal hopes: the bobsleigh (Nicola Minichiello and Jackie Davies, ranked second in the world), the bob skeleton (the indomitable madcap professor Kristan Bromley) and David Murdoch's men's curlers, whose current form surpasses that of Martin's women.

But for a non-Alpine nation in which a few snowflakes can stop a railway in its tracks, any single-figure placing would be an achievement. True, we have had our skating successes, a bobsleigh gold back in 1964 and the curling triumph in Salt Lake, where Alex Coomber also bobbed to bronze. 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 chuckled at Eddie Edwards as a True Brit buffoon with bottle.

Since the demise of Ski Sunday the seasonal chilblain-inducing antics of winter sportsfolk have been left for Eurosport's anoraks to savour, but now those activities which normally would be watched by one man and his St Bernard suddenly become global fantasies as viewers mug up on their moguls, half-pipes, two-man luge, giant slalom and Nordic combined, and nod knowingly as instant experts in furry ear-muffs debate the finer points of langlauf.

These days the British Olympic Association take winter sports as seriously as those in the summer Games, preparing competitors with a thoroughness that is even the envy of some Alpine nations.

"Because of our lack of facilities, winter sports have always been the poor relations, but an Olympic gold is an Olympic gold, whatever the discipline," argues the Team GB chef de mission, Simon Clegg.

Actually, seven golds, and 19 medals overall in 94 years, passes reasonable muster for a lowland nation, and there would have been 20 had the skier Alain Baxter not inhaled from a tube of Vicks back in Salt Lake. In Turin, we must hope the sniffing is confined to the scent of the odd medal. The quadrennial cavalcade of swooshing, slipping and sliding is about to begin. Let's get ready to tumble.

REPLAY: 1984

On Valentine's Day at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo a former insurance secretary and an ex-police cadet skated out to perform their free dance routine in the ice dance competition. Four minutes later, they had achieved indelible fame.

Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean's choice of music, Ravel's "Bolero", already had steamy connotations thanks to Dudley Moore's attempted seduction of Bo Derek to its strains in the movie 10. The Nottingham couple's intensely sensual interpretation did nothing to dispel this image, and obviously found favour with the judges, who awarded them an unprecedented nine straight sixes for artistic impression, plus another three for technical merit, as the admiring crowd of 8,500 in the Zetra Stadium carpeted the ice with flowers in homage to Britain's gold-medal winners.

"Tonight we reached the pinnacle," Dean said afterwards. "I don't remember the performance at all, it just happened."

Back home, 24 million had watched on television, their inter-est increased by the enigmatic nature of the couple's relationship: were they an item or weren't they? There was never a definitive answer to the question, though in later years both married other partners (twice, in Dean's case).

A year after Sarajevo they turned professional, before rejoining the amateur ranks for the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer after a change in the eligibility rules. But they could only manage third place, ending a list of unbroken success in competition that had stretched back to 1981 and a record of 107 perfect marks .

They went back to touring with ice shows before retiring as a partnership in 1999, though both continued to coach and choreograph separately. Their return to the limelight came earlier this month as coaches for the television reality show Dancing on Ice.

Simon Redfern

SIX ICE PICKS

1 GIORGIO ROCCA: Is this former Italian cop the new Alberto Tomba? His slalom domination gives hope of a golden glow for the hosts. No playboy, the late-developing family man from Livigno may lack the Tomba touch but Rocca's on a roll.

2 BODE MILLER: The most colourful character on the white stuff. The US downhiller and world's best all-round skier has admitted sipping something stronger than Powerade when facing a day on the piste and even advocates drugs use. He can anticipate a testing time in Turin.

3 SASHA COHEN: If anyone can break Russia's icy grip on the skating events it is the 21-year-old California girl who is the US champion and is coached by British-born John Nicks. Fourth in Salt Lake, this former gymnast has the sort of flexibility which could catch the judges' eyes.

4 JANNE AHONEN: Forget Eddie the Eagle. To the Finns, ski-jumping is serious, and no one does it better than the world champion who, in addition to flying high, is the national drag-racing champion.

5 ZOE GILLINGS: If there is to be a shock British medallist it could be the snowboarder from the Isle of Man. Still only 20, she finished fourth in last year's World Cup, winning one of the series, and might spring a surprise in the event they call showbiz on snow.

6 GEORG HACKL: In the oddball world of luge the 39-year-old German is as big as Beckham. He dominates the sport and is the only athlete to win a medal in the same event in five consecutive Olympics. Going for fourth gold to prove he is not on the slide.

Alan Hubbard

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