They say in showbusiness that great double acts are the hardest to follow, which is why Ant and Dec, ubiquitous and engaging as they may be, will never have the aura of Morecambe and Wise. So it is in skating. Think Winter Olympics and the evocative memory is of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, Bolero-ing sublimely to a gold medal in Sarajevo. Twenty-six years ago they captivated the nation, bagging a viewing audience of 24 million on Valentine's Day as they broke all the traditional rules of competitive ice-dancing and scored 12 perfect sixes. The irony is that even now they will almost certainly attract more British viewers during the forthcoming Games, which start on 12 February, than the entire BBC coverage from Vancouver, with their new Sunday-night celebrity Dancing On Ice series on ITV, which peaked at 10.2m viewers on its opening night last week.
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 their successors in Vancouver, the Scottish brother-and-sister act of John and Sinead Kerr, are determined to emerge as more than Olympic wallflowers.
Over the past nine years the skating siblings from Livingston gradually established themselves as the outstanding claimants to the Torvill and Dean mantle, winning a bronze medal in the European Championships, but they readily admit that attaining it is beyond them. However, they have danced some way out of the shadows of their illustrious forerunners to be in the mix as Olympic medal contenders after finishing 10th in Turin four years ago.
"That would be fantastic," says John, 29. "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're legends and we really haven't done anything remotely as good as them. 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 Vancouver. To have any chance of that, they must at least repeat their bronze in this week's European Championships in Estonia.
The Kerrs talk as fluently as they skate. "Our relationship is based on shared ambition," says Sinead, 31. "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 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."
Torvill and Dean have always taken an interest in their development. "A few years ago 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."
The Kerrs are part of a 50-strong British contingent of skaters, skiers, bobbers, sliders, lugers, snowboarders and biathletes who will tackle the rinks of Vancouver and the slopes of the Rockies. They hope at least to emulate Britain's last skating medal, the bronze Torvill and Dean won when they made their comeback in 1994.
Funding from UK Sport of around £45,000 a year has allowed them to train full-time in the United States under the Russian coach Evgeny Platov. "In the last year we have changed people's perception," says Sinead. "We've really improved in the technical part of our skating, which can be quite difficult at our age. Now we are not going out just as entertainers but to show people we can really skate too.
"Obviously being in the wake of Torvill and Dean brings pressure, but that comes with the territory. They set the benchmark and we look up to them, but the sport has changed." The Kerrs' free-dance routine will also be some way from the Bolero – more rock than Ravel, as they are skating to a track by the US band Linkin Park.
There is a new scoring system which places more emphasis on technical merit than artistic expression. Indeed, under it T & D might not have achieved those perfect sixes or even won the gold medal. "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 that 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."
Message from an icon: Jayne Torvill
Since Chris and I retired from competitive skating there has always been a hope that someone would follow in our footsteps to give the sport the boost it needs. John and Sinead are dynamic performers and we have always enjoyed watching them. They were third last year in the Europeans and seventh in the World Championships, which should give them a ranking of around fifth. Going into the Olympics in that position is a good place to be, and Chris and I think it is highly possible they will get a medal.
I know Chris has worked with them for one season and I came in on the end of it and was really impressed. They are very creative, a little bit like Chris and I (pictured), always trying to do something new and different.
I think they have been competing at this level even longer than we did and that shows true dedication. They have very pleasant personalities, friendly and outgoing, a really nice couple. Unfortunately that doesn't appeal to the judges as much as good technique. The marking systems are different now. The judges will be looking hard at the technical aspects. If we were competing now, we would have to adapt our style. We were allowed a lot more creativity. These days it is much more of a technical exercise than watching a beautiful programme and enjoying it for what it is.
Ice-dancing is a very demanding lifestyle. You live in a bit of a bubble, and you need to concentrate and be focused all the time. You can't say, "Oh, we'll take six months off". And I admire the Kerrs for staying at that level for such a long time.
It is great that skating seems to have had a bit of a renaissance; the more people that take it up, the better the chance of developing potential Olympic champions. Our TV show (Dancing on Ice) has helped in this respect because people have seen how celebrities who can't skate finally end up looking quite good, and that encourages kids to get on the ice themselves.
When we did the first show in our opening series – we are now on series five – people started flooding into ice rinks all over the country and in some cases they were running out of skates.
The best advice we could give John and Sinead going into Vancouver would be to stay focused, keep fit and healthy, try your best and whatever happens, learn from the experience.
'Dancing on Ice' will be shown tonight on ITV1, 6.45pm and 9.30pm. Tickets are on sale for the Dancing on Ice 2010 UK tour. Tel: 08444 999 955 or visit: dancingonicetour.uk
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