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.

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