The Nick Townsend Column: Journey of atonement for the Briton who touched the sky before it fell in

For other sportsmen this could be a moment to demand that the gods restore a semblance of order to the balance of life's fortunes; to harbour a belief that up in the Italian mountains there lies a means of retribution for what took place four years ago. Not so Alain Baxter, the British skier who had his ski-suit collar felt by the International Olympic Committee's drugs police after his third place in the slalom at the conclusion of those Salt Lake City Games, suffered disqualification, had his bronze medal confiscated, won his appeal, but still found himself deprived of a unique honour for a Briton.

If you ask him if it still rankles, he retorts: "Only when it gets brought up." He laughs wryly before adding: "It's still there. It's never going to go away. I've had to deal with it. But anyone who has ever had something precious taken away from them will know how it feels."

Indeed, the whole affair damaged his affection for the Winter Olympics. "It has tarnished my memory," he told me earlier last week from Andorra, where he was competing in the Europa Cup ahead of Turin, his third Olympic Games.

"Now it's just another race for me. Of course, I want to do the best that I can. Of course, I would love to win another medal and I will try my hardest. But if it doesn't happen, I am not going to regret it for the rest of my life. You have to get on with it. You crash in races, in training, every day. It's like that; it's just one of those things."

Except of course, it wasn't. For six incredible, glorious days early in 2002, the Scot, born in Edinburgh but brought up in Aviemore, had believed that an outstanding exhibition on an idiosyncratic piste at Deer Valley, Utah, had made him the first Briton to win an Alpine skiing medal at the Olympics.

Then Simon Clegg, the British Olympic Association's chief executive, told him something rather different: he had become the first to lose one. From "Highlander", his epithet, to sporting low-lifer in just one telephone call.

The IOC disqualified him and demanded the return of the medal because one nanogram of methamphetamine was detected in a routine dope test. Baxter had used a Vick's nasal inhaler, in the knowledge that the European version had been passed by the authorities.

What he did not know was that the American Vick's contained different ingredients. Ignorance is rarely an effective defence. However, he appealed, with the support of the BOA, and was subsequently cleared, though, curiously, the medal was never returned.

Why not? "That's done," Baxter says, with a verbal shrug. "The IOC made their decision. Even though they were nudged the other way, they couldn't see past what happened." So, do you still regard yourself as an Olympic medallist? "Well, I won it..."

The son of two ski teachers admits he had considered quitting the sport towards which he had taken his first tentative steps at the age of two. "Of course I did. If I was going to be banned for two years, I didn't think I would ever get back, losing all my ranking points. It's tough enough as it is. I went from 17th in the world to 30th in the world. It's been a fight, getting back from there. I was fortunate enough to win my case and the ban got dropped to three months. I was able to train and race straight away."

Baxter remains top-ranked in this country, although he is now world-rated 46. "I'm skiing pretty well at the moment," he says. With the same poise as Salt Lake City? "I'll try. I could straddle the first gate. I could fall on my face. Or I could get a medal. There are so many different aspects about skiing that people don't understand."

The BBC are certainly taking no chances of missing the possibility of a Baxter turn-up, or any other British success with their team, even if Clegg, Britain's Olympic snow 'n' ice chief, is as gloomy as a professional mourner. "There is not a degree of consistency in performance that allows me to confidently predict that we will be returning from Turin with a medal." He may employ 25 words to say it, but one would suffice. Britain will, most likely, win zilch in Turin.

Yet does it matter? This is that rare sporting spectacular which permits Brits to relax and simply admire the excellence of other nations. And, believe me, in 600 hours of coverage, if you have access to digital TV (100 if you don't) you will enjoy it from every angle and perspective, aided by the voices of 16 commentators. The Beeb are also employing some new toys, the StroMotion effect and Simulcam effects which have been used in those innovative, imaginative and, no doubt, pricey trailers.

Of course, that perennial get-out clause - "we are not a competitive skiing nation" - should not really be admissible in these days of cheap, easy travel, grants and sponsorship.

Baxter believes that more young British skiers could be competing. "Itisdifficult. It can be expensive. But a lot of our young guys seem to throw the towel in a bit early to get a career or go to university."

Baxter has demonstrated what can be achieved, even if he is, understandably, somewhat ambi-valent about these Games. Still, despite what he says, you suspect that a medal of some hue is not something he would sniff at.

Inevitable slip from glorious Cup to tin-pot tat

Tuesday night at St Andrew's. Silent night. Once, the old ground would have been reverberating with FA Cup fever. The old First Division versus top of the Second Division in a replay. Compelling stuff.

The reality was that Birmingham against Reading was more like Tuesday torpor. When you can hear the players individually and not the crowd collectively, you know the old competition is in trouble.

Steve Bruce's cast list was reduced by injuries and by thoughts of the fight against relegation; the visitors' "second XI" by design of their manager, Steve Coppell, with promotion in mind. Their attitude is far from unique.

If clubs regard the Cup "with contempt", as some decree their approach, why should supporters continue to patronise it? But that does not completely explain the empty seats.

Does anybody really care any more? Hasn't it become just a piece of frippery, engaging enough when the non-Leaguers are involved, but thereafter an unnecessary distraction?

BSkyB have the temerity to spin it as the FAmous Cup. It once was, of course, but since the formation of the Premier League, it has been diminished in significance.

As Coppell said before the fourth round, you can take it as read that one of Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea will win it. He is almost certainly right.

Since 1991, when Spurs defeated Nottingham Forest in the year of Gazza's Knee, only Everton have broken the cartel. Is there any real incentive for the lesser teams?

The return of Wembley, probably next season, may reinject some enthusiasm, but who can blame the philosophy of Coppell and Bruce? Only a fool would sacrifice the vast financial galaxy of the Premiership for a brief starburst.

Arts and Entertainment
Supporting role: at the Supreme Court, Rhodes was accompanied by a famous friend, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch
booksPianist James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to stop the injunction of his memoirs
Sam Allardyce
Steven Gerrard scores for Liverpool
Arts and Entertainment
Bob Dylan
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?