Winter Olympics: Team GB are skating on very thin ice

Ice dancing has gone into a sharp decline since the halcyon days of Torvill and Dean in Sarajevo 28 years ago

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The Independent Online

After the glorious summer Olympics, is Britain heading for a Winter Games of discontent in Russia? Prospects for Sochi 2014 seem to be much as they have been since Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean glided off into the sunset in the Nineties. Just bits and bobs.

Helter-skeltering down a tube on the bob skeleton again looks to be the best route as British figure skating, which still trades on the golden memories of John Curry, Robin Cousins and T&D, has all but vanished through a hole in the ice.

The days when Britons were the lords and ladies of the rinks are long gone. The perfect-six appeal of T&D may still seem a load of old "Bolero" to some, but their scintillating gold-medal performance in Sarajevo 28 years ago engrossed the nation, with one of the biggest-ever TV audiences for a sporting event, just short of 24 million.

Previously the balletic brilliance of Curry and the sequined skills of Cousins had seen Britain revel in a golden ice decade. To confirm just how thin the ice has become, it was announced last year that the skating academy at Nottingham's National Ice Centre, where T&D first began their quickstep to stardom, had to stop exclusive coaching of ice dancers due to cost and a dearth of top-class coaches.

Lack of terrestrial TV coverage, once the mainstay of winter schedules, means British skaters are relatively unknown. How many would recognise the leading individual skater – or have even heard of her? Yet 26-year-old Jenna McCorkell, from Northern Ireland, has just won a record 10th British title in 11 years. But she is unlikely to get into the top 10 at the World Championships in London, Canada in March. Last time she came 14th.

Equally anonymous are Britain's top pair, Stacey Kemp and David King. Such is the shortage of quality skaters here that when they retained their national title this year they were unopposed. But because of an injury to Kemp they have yet to acquire the scores they need to qualify for the World Championships. As does the three-time men's champion, Matt Parr, 22, from Dundee.

The Philadelphia-based ice dancers Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland, who were sixth in the Europeans this year, are probably the most promising prospects, that result making them the only British skaters to receive any Lottery funding from UK Sport.

The sport is at the bottom of the pile for funding handouts, a Catch-22 situation which can leave other potential stars without the incentive they need to challenge the world's best from eastern Europe, the Far East and North America.

Yet recreational skating remains as popular as ever with school-age children, especially at this time of year with the opening of temporary seasonal rinks and the return of ITV's Dancing on Ice, which starts an eighth series next month featuring Torvill and Dean as mentors to celebrities. When the series started the duo said they hoped it would lead to a new ice age for Britain. So far it hasn't happened.

"Since Chris and I retired from competitive skating there has always been a hope that someone would follow in our footsteps to give the sport the boost it needs," says Torvill, now 55. "The more people that take it up, the better the chance of developing potential Olympic champions. Our TV show has helped in this respect because people have seen how celebrities who can't skate finally end up looking quite good. That encourages kids to get on the ice themselves."

There is disappointment that T&D have not been used to help develop young British skaters instead of soap stars and footballers. "I guess some people would say we should lead that new generation to some extent, and we most probably would – if we could," says Dean, 54.

Yet the National Ice Skating Association (Nisa) say they have been open to talks with T&D for "a higher-profile" role within skating, but it has not worked out, as the couple don't have the time and the body don't have the finance to pay them.

Keith Horton, until recently the association's general secretary, does not think their expertise could be easily harnessed. "They'll give time if they're available but they're so extremely busy. It's a nightmare trying to get half an hour with them."

T&D did help out with advice for the European Championships, but as they are paid £250,000 for each Dancing on Ice series which, with a nationwide tour, takes up to six months, the obstacles are obvious.

With the retirement of Scottish brother-and-sister act John and Sinead Kerr, who twice finished fourth in the European Championships, Buckland and Coomes, both 23, are now Britain's leading pair. UK Sport's £175,000 windfall enables them to train with a Russian coach, Evgeny Platov, a former Olympic gold medallist, but other British skaters are largely self-funded.

"Every British skater struggles because of lack of financial support but we've been lucky as the association have helped where they could and now this Lottery funding is a boon," says Buckland. "It makes it more of a level playing field. We've also had fantastic families behind us [Coomes's stepfather is a skating coach] and we feel our development can really begin. But it will take a while, and our target is to get a medal at the 2018 Winter Games in Korea. Sochi will be a stepping stone.

"Sadly, skating is no longer a big sport in the UK. It is not like getting a football for Christmas and kicking it around in a field. In the past we have had to beg for ice time and pay for it ourselves, whereas in the States we can train all day. You need world-class coaches to compete with the best and we are lucky to have Evgeny. He's been invaluable. He gives us such confidence."

Buckland says he and his partner are not fazed by being compared to T&D. "We met them for the first time at an Olympics function in June and they said they are following our career with interest, and to let them know if there was anything we needed from them." A guest spot on Dancing on Ice would be nice.

"Figure skating in the UK has peaks and troughs, and we're in a trough at the moment," says Dean. Nisa agree: "We recognise our weakness in figure skating. But we are in a transitional period and have long- term plans for the future of the sport." So British assets remain frozen.

Fast track to Sochi 2014

Bob skeleton Amy Williams, GB's only gold medallist in 2010, retired but 2006 silver medallist Shelley Rudman, the world champion, and Lizzy Yarnold won World Cup golds this season.

Four-man bobsleigh GB are ranked fourth.

Curling Rhona Martin's women won GB's first gold in 18 years in Salt Lake City; successor Eve Muirhead led Scotland to European title last year. Men have been world silver medallists for two years.

Speed skating Elise Christie is world No 1 in 1,000m short track.

Snowboarding Jenny Jones has won three golds in the X Games in slopestyle, a new event at Sochi, and James Woods also won a World Cup event this year.

Alan Hubbard