Team GB at start gate with optimism peaking

British athletes have come to Canada short on numbers and resources, but they believe that they can succeed in the face of adversity
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The Independent Online

Into the well-heated and august setting of a downtown gentleman's club here came Britain's winter Olympians, briefly out of the cold of the mountains and the chill of various ice surfaces.

It might have been the cosiest of formal occasions presided over by the Princess Royal but there was still something raw in the air. What it was, remarkably when you consider the leanness of their budget and the traditional bleakness of their prospects, was something that smacked of the launching of a crusade, or maybe the scrambling of a fighter station.

The flag to be carried into last night's opening ceremony was handed to Shelley Rudman, the skeleton star who won Britain's only medal in Turin four years ago, and also the joint captaincy of the team with curling world champion David Murdoch. No doubt such influence born of achievement had been hard and brilliantly won but what was equally clear was that the defiance of this team in the face of heavy odds, a team that in Turin finished bracketed with Bulgaria, Slovakia and Belarus, was being carried in every corner of the ranks.

No one displayed this quality more fiercely than skier Chemmy Alcott, who with recent top-10 finishes has some reason to believe that she might just intrude into the company of the alpine giants.

She spoke with the passion that comes to athletes when they believe they have reached a pivotal moment of their careers. She also brought a hard perspective to the reigning doubts about the effective appearance of the woman who has dominated skiing for some time, the American Lindsey Vonn.

Alcott said, "I saw her on the slopes today and from the way it looked to me I wonder if a lot of the speculation about her injury isn't just hype. But even though I know how good she is, it really doesn't affect me either way. I'm not here to listen to hype. I'm here to put in the best performance I can – and hopefully it will be the best of my life.

"In the end it really doesn't matter what people are saying about any situation you face. Vonn is a great skier, no one questions that. But you don't think about things like that. You just look at yourself and ask if you are ready to do the best you can. I've done that and I believe I am."

It is a mood currently running like an electric current.

Zoe Gillings is rated Britain's best shot at a podium finish in snowboarding, a cross rider of ferocious commitment who when asked last night about the refinements of her technique laughed and said, "Well, it's mostly about finding a way to get down. You often have to work it out as you go along. I do feel I have a good chance of doing something here – and I do think we are all drawing strength from each other."

Gillings' achievement in arriving here is a not inconsiderable phenomenon in itself. Five years ago she performed a small stunt for a TV advert, the kind of thing a committed winter athlete is required to do to maintain serious hopes of an international career. She jumped over a car. It went disastrously wrong. A doctor reckoned that she had smashed every bone in her foot. "It looks like a bag of crisps," he announced. "You have to do something else with your life now."

"The trouble," she said, "was that I didn't want to do anything else with my life. This was it – and I had to get it back. Now it is quite simple. Now I have made it to the Olympics I've fulfilled not an ambition but a dream and I think everyone else in this room feels the same way. Now it is time to deliver the performances of our lives."

Team leader Andy Hunt told the Princess Royal that he was incredibly proud of the commitment he has found on his assignment. "I'm convinced these next few weeks are going to prove a turning point in British winter sports. We have so many athletes who have shown their ability at the highest level, and now they want to show it to the people back home."

For two days next week, Rudman, the flag carrier and the strongest single hope of British gold, admits that the rest of her life will be shaped. "I have done everything I can to win," she says, "and I know I'm in the best form of my life. So my performance here will determine where I go from here. I believe I can win, you wouldn't do all this if you didn't, but when it is over at the end of next week I will be taking the closest ever look at myself.

"It is a wonderful honour to be given the flag to carry and to be joint captain but none of that will matter when I get to the start. Sport, competition, is in my genes and it had to come out – now it will completely, and I have to be careful about how I analyse the result.

"In Turin I thought I was working towards something, and then I had a silver medal in my hand. So logically, I have to consider how much further I can go, can I get a gold? At the next Olympics, I will be coming up to 33 and my daughter Ella-Marie will be six. There is a lot of sacrifice in this, so you have to make it worthwhile. That's another way of saying deep down I know I have to come here and win."

The run in Whistler is the world's fastest and Rudman likes the feel of it very much. "I got to like it when I came here for some preparation recently, and in one way I'm very lucky in that I can operate more or less on any run, whether it is technical or big on G-force. I suppose my favourite run is St Moritz, but then after all it is the home of my sport. Perhaps I will have a new favourite in a few days' time."

There are echoes of such optimism throughout the team Rudman led into the opening ceremony last night.

Murdoch of the world champion curlers says the opening challenge against the young Swedish European champions will be tough but adds, "You know, we feel we have been around enough now at the top to win through any situation. It is also true that most of our greatest success has come in Canada, we feel confident – and at home."

Even the figure skating siblings John and Sinead Kerr insist they are undaunted by the legacy of such as John Curry, Robin Cousins and Torvill and Dean. "You can only look at that in the light of inspiration," says John. "It is great to arrive and straight away feel part of such a committed team."

It is true that outside the warmth of the gentleman's club some other realities intrude. Big guns like the United States and a bullish home nation Canada have devoted great resources to their private border battle. The leader of the Canadian team has declared, "We will own the podium." From the British outsiders there is no such stridency. However, Rudman does say, "I think there is good reason to believe we will get at least a few pieces of it."

John Kerr's highlight: 'Battle of the Brians'

Forms Great Britain ice skating team along with his sister, Sinead

*My favourite Olympic memory was the famous 'Battle of the Brians' – Brian Boitano of the US and Brian Orser of Canada – in Calgary in 1988. I had just started skating, so to see these two at the top of their game was something to behold. On any other day Orser's performance would have given him the gold, but this was Boitano's day and he produced one of the great performances – eight triple jumps including two triple axels – in Olympic figure skating history. From that point on I was inspired to skate at the Olympic Games.