Winter Olympics 2014: 'Fridge Kids' aim to scale new peaks for British team
Wider range of disciplines augurs well for GB medal hopes
Thursday 06 February 2014
This evening Jon Eley, a speed skater from Nottingham, will lead Britain's Winter Olympians out in front of a 40,000-strong full house in the Fisht Stadium here on the shores of the Black Sea to take part in the opening ceremony of the 22nd Winter Games – one that, given the money spent on the most expensive Olympics ever, promises something spectacular.
More money than ever has also been spent on sending the 56-strong British team to Sochi and they are unpacking their carefully branded bags accompanied by an expectation. It is payback time.
The curlers arrived in the Olympic Village today – only the bobsleighers, who do not compete until the closing weekend, are absent – and will march tomorrow night as one of the main British medal hopes.
Eve Muirhead and her women's rink and Lizzy Yarnold, the skeleton world No 1 and already setting the benchmark times in training here, are Britain's best prospects of a gold medal, a feat that remains almost as rare as snow in Sochi with its subtropical climate. There have been nine of them in the 90 years of the Winter Games.
But beyond the big two there are more options, possibly more than there have ever been across a wide range of sports. The bar has been set low; since 1948 Britain have only twice won more than one medal. The target set, in return for record funding from UK Sport via the Lottery of £13.5m, is at least three – Britain's best is four in 1924, the very first Games when Ethel Muckelt, a factory worker from Moss Side, Manchester, stood out among the medallists.
Eley, competing in his third Games, believes Britain can get within the targeted range of three to seven. "We have to put in some hard work and stay focused and strong," he said. "If we do we should achieve [the target]. We're coming here to do something quite special, hopefully to win things and break records."
Eley's team-mate Elise Christie is among a second tier of medal hopefuls. If Muirhead and Yarnold are probables to make the podium on the strength of recent records, then Christie joins the likes of Shelley Rudman, James Woods and Katie Summerhayes in being possibles.
There is another layer too: given a prevailing wind, the men's bobsleigh led by the Royal Marine John Jackson – he describes himself as a "moody Shrek lookalike" – who were just 0.07sec outside a medal at the last World Championships; David Murdoch and the men's curlers, and others from among the 13 freestyle skiers and snowboarders, have the ability to make it to their own awards night – all medal ceremonies take place in a special venue in the middle of the Olympic Park.
"I think we have the best-trained and the best-resourced and probably the best set of plans behind the Winter Games ever," said Sebastian Coe, chairman of the British Olympic Association, on his arrival in Sochi, back at an Olympics in Russia 34 years on from his 1500m gold medal run in Moscow.
The introduction of new disciplines in freestyle skiing and snowboarding offers a potential telling boost to Britain's winter prospects both now and for 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The "Fridge Kids", as they are called, having learnt their trades in Britain's indoor snow domes, have a target of one to two medals. If they achieve that, they will have refreshed British Winter Olympic sport, perhaps even radicalised it. It is the most accessible of the winter sports in this country and a medal or two could spark intense interest.
They are sports, though, that are always balanced on a knife edge, and with a subjective element too – slopestyle is judged – they can easily throw up the unexpected. Billy Morgan, who has his own medal ambitions, was marked lower than most onlookers expected in the slopestyle qualifying event.
It provided a prompt reminder ahead of the opening ceremony, and the resumption of competition, of how quickly hopes can be quashed in these Games. These are indeed slippery slopes.
Mike Hay, who coached Rhona Martin to curling gold a dozen years ago and is Britain's chef de mission in Sochi, knows the margins – Martin won on the final stone in Salt Lake City. Hay is also no flag-waver but even in his guarded prediction there is the sense of what might be over the next two weeks.
"I'm a canny Scot so I will err on the side of caution but we have a number of athletes competing at a top-class level," he said. "It does not guarantee anything but I'd rather have athletes of that calibre.
"Without putting any additional pressure on but, across more disciplines and more sports than ever before, we are a strong team. We are confident we will do well."
Hot stuff: Five Sochi stars who could steal Brit limelight
1. Mikaela Shiffrin
Lindsey who? The 18-year-old from Vail, Colorado, is the new darling of US skiing. She claimed World Championship gold in the slalom last year, just two years after collecting the junior version, and already has seven World Cup wins to her name.
2. Tora Berger
The most golds ever won at a Winter Games is five by the US speed skater Eric Heiden in 1980. Berger, a 32-year-old Norwegian, goes for six in the biathlon. She won four golds and two silvers at last year's World Championships. Her recent form has been erratic but she has the help of a strong line-up in the two relays to give her a head start.
3. Noelle Pikus-Pace
The American who could rain on Britain's parade. "The fastest mom on ice" has been Lizzy Yarnold's biggest rival on the World Cup circuit and won the test event in Sochi last year. She is an athlete who takes risks and that can lead to spectacular success, or spectacular failure.
4. Alex Ovechkin
There is possibly no athlete under more pressure than the captain of Russia's ice hockey team. The US-based player is under orders to secure the medal his country wants above all others. Their pool match with the US is one of the highlights of week one.
5. Yuna Kim
The South Korean, 23, has never finished off the podium in her figure-skating career and there is no expectation she will break the remarkable run in Sochi. She won gold four years ago in Vancouver and World Championship gold in London last year. The one to beat and then some.
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