The Last Word: How skeleton started with just a dream - Olympics - Sport - The Independent

The Last Word: How skeleton started with just a dream

Lizzy Yarnold gold shows what an innovative sport can achieve without lavish funding

The invitation was not immediately alluring, though the sentiments were engaging. Come to the University of Bath for a rubber-chicken dinner thrown by a small sport with big ideas. Prepare to be amazed.

Yesterday, more than nine years later, Lizzy Yarnold was presented with Britain’s first gold medal of the 2014 Winter Olympics. She succeeded Amy Williams, her landlady, as champion. Amazement has been superseded by acceptance.

That dinner was a bit of a chore. I attended, having helped set up the English Institute of Sport. Simon Timson, an impressive performance scientist with a background in sports psychology, had a vision he wished to share.

His sport, skeleton, had won a bronze medal through Alex Coomber at Salt Lake City in 2002 on minimal funding. He was grooming Shelley Rudman for the 2006 Games in Turin with impressive rigour and intelligence. Her friends were doing a sponsored canoe marathon to finance her ambitions.

Unlike many influential figures within Olympic sports, Timson was not afflicted by political vanity and had no interest in impulsive empire building. He wanted a collaborative approach which made the best use of the medical, scientific and strategic support services at our disposal. He did not care who claimed the credit. He was only  interested in results.

He gravitated towards similarly driven coaches in cycling, rowing and sailing. He used their links to Formula One to establish contacts at McLaren Applied Technologies. The days of Coomber’s inspired amateurism – she slid on a tea tray with handles cannibalised from a disabled toilet and wheels taken from a skateboard – were over.

Like most observers, I had pre-judged his sport on a stereotype, as a cross between a wintry version of the Wacky Races and a pastime for drunken undergraduates on Alpine holidays. Why on earth would anyone wish to leap head first on to a glorified baking tray and hurtle down an ice chute at 85 miles per hour with no credible means of steering?

Plenty were willing to try, according to Timson, whose development programme recognised the potential of seeking unfulfilled athletes from other sports. It was just a question of organisation, application and collective imagination.

Rudman won a silver medal and helped launch Girls4Gold, the biggest talent recruitment drive undertaken in domestic women’s sport, from the Manchester Velodrome in 2008. It was a partnership between British Skeleton, the EIS and UK Sport, the funding agency.

Williams was already in the system. Yarnold, a mediocre pentathlete and shot putter at the University of Gloucestershire, was one of 900 hopefuls put through a series of physical and mental aptitude tests.  Having survived, she was assimilated into skeleton’s futures programme.

Timson had moved on, to set up a similar strategic development programme for English cricket. He is now in charge of all Olympic preparations for Rio and beyond.

The system he established in skeleton offers an object lesson for far more exalted, self-possessed sports. Forward planning, now overseen by an equally committed Austrian, Andi Schmid, is remorseless. Yarnold’s medal, won less than five years after her competitive debut in 2009, was the focus of Project Zoloto. Named after the Russian word for gold, it was launched in the same week Williams won gold in Vancouver.

A new talent identification programme, Power2Podium, is being promoted this weekend. Skeleton is seeking “fast and competitive” athletes aged between 17 and 25.

Of course, it is easy to mock. The UK is to winter sport what Mongolia is to cricket. This is a nation under water rather than on ice. But that chicken dinner proved a point. It is amazing what can be achieved when egos are parked and innovators dare to dream.

Hill suite Blues are set for a long stay

Michael Orton was forced to watch Coventry play rugby union yesterday afternoon. His companion Ian Devoy was similarly compromised.

Orton co-ordinates the campaign to return his football club to his city. Devoy is the great grandson of Coventry City’s founder. He scrapped his season ticket after more than 30 years in protest at the enforced move to Northampton.

The postponement of the League One match against Bradford City, the fourth such cancellation this season because of an over-used pitch, prevented them joining other diehards in one of the most poignant rituals of the season.

Fans position themselves on a hill overlooking Sixfields Stadium so they can see a slither of the penalty area that their team are attacking. At half-time they move to the other side and repeat the vigil.

They won’t pay an admission fee to a discredited regime. Meanwhile, the club remain in limbo before a June court case initiated by the owners, SISU, a Mayfair-based hedge fund.

Coventry take up to 7,000 fans to away games, but little more than 1,000 attend “home” games. The team, managed by Steven Pressley, is denied emotional succour. The conscientious objectors refuse to back down.

Fools on the hill? Hardly. They’re heroes.

Coventry manager Steven Pressley Coventry manager Steven Pressley  

Sticky Wicket

The Sport Industry Awards are an exercise in self-aggrandisement, staged for witless marketing types and sports administrators. The organisers this year have nominating the England & Wales Cricket Board as Governing Body of the Year. No further comment.

John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK wedding show jilted
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week