Sport on TV: Lizzy Yarnold is changing the face – and the body – of Britain


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The Independent Online

There were some very loud early mornings thanks to the BBC’s Winter Olympics team this past week. There’s been a lot of lying down in the luge and skeleton, if not in the bedrooms of Britain, but you can’t get jealous – you would be hard-pressed to get much sleep on those contraptions. By Thursday, presenter Hazel Irvine was telling us: “It could be time to take a later train, or even a much later one.” But not so we could have a lie-in, unfortunately. No one told her the trains weren’t running anyway.

Jennie Jones’ slopestyle snowboarding bronze a week ago created consternation in the Sunday morning shires as the Beeb was flooded with complaints about the hysterical histrionics of the commentators. And yet for all the whooping and hollering of the slopestylers, their interviews could be conducted in sign language, such is the rich array of hand signals they use – and given their inability to say anything more meaningful than “it was absolutely insane”.

So after all that twisting and shouting, it came as a relief to watch something much more normal: women hurtling down tunnels headfirst on tea trays. Skeleton really is our favourite winter sport these days (let’s face it, curling is not quite so exciting).

Lizzy Yarnold has been busy championing a new breed of British sporting woman, giving unfettered hope to all those for whom the idea of squeezing into an all-in-one lycra suit is a bit of a no-no. “Lizzy’s got a lot of weight behind her, a big, heavy girl,” said Amy Williams, who won the gold in the skeleton four years ago and who now happens to be her landlady. Presumably she gives Yarnold an extra sausage for breakfast (though does she serve up afternoon tea on the actual tea tray?)

Anyway, it’s ironic that the modern exponents of skeleton actually require more flesh on the bone. Indeed, the American Katie Uhlaender tried to qualify for London 2012 as a weightlifter. It is a modern phenomenon – Williams was some 20kg lighter than Yarnold in 2010 – and it gets the girls down the hill quicker. So long as you don’t bulk up so much that you get stuck halfway down the tube.

But the Kentish farmer’s daughter also seems to be ushering in a new breed of Briton, not just British woman. Like all those screaming slopestylers, she betrays some decidedly un-British characteristics, such as a complete confidence in her own ability. She wrote a dissertation at university about mental toughness and Williams admitted: “She’s got something inside her. She’s made up a little bit different in the head.”

Yarnold even taught herself how to say  “I am the champion” in Russian. Clare Balding was flabbergasted: “You hardly ever hear an athlete say that, let alone a female athlete.” Such supreme assurance is remarkable for a Brit. But learning another language? Now that really is outrageous.

It’s been a funny old week for Elize Christie. Before she was disqualified from the medal rostrum in the 500m short-track final, commentator Hugh Porter had said: “There will be no charitable handouts here, believe me,” anticipating a bit of argy-bargy. What ensued was more of a mugging as she knocked down two of her competitors.

Still, you can make a living out of that sort of thing, and not just by snatching all the change that falls out of their pockets. The Australian Steven Bradbury, who famously won gold when all the other racers fell over in 2002, revealed on the first edition of Alan Davies’ Après Ski (BBC1, Friday) that he now does “motivational speaking” off the back of it. He admitted, however, “that’s not very Australian, is it? Let’s call it corporate entertainment”. It seems the only ice he encounters these days is the stuff in his drinks.