Winter Olympics: 'We've put the Eddie The Eagle image behind us'

The days of heroic losers are over as Britons have realistic hopes of medals

For a nation which has always preferred contact with ice to be confined to the tinkling of cubes in a glass, the opening of the 21st Winter Olympics on Friday and the ensuing fortnight may offer just a little more than the usual cold comfort. Selling the downhill has always been an uphill battle in Britain, where interest in winter pursuits has only really been defrosted by Torvill and Dean, John Curry and Robin Cousins giving us a twirl and by Rhona Martin's curlers, who turned stones into gold eight years ago.

UK Sport's target of three medals for the 52-strong squad, the largest since 1992, may seem ambitious, but on current form it is realistic. Definite medal prospects are bob skeleton girls Shelly Rudman, silver medal winner in Turin four years ago, and last year's world silver medallist Amy Williams; the brilliant bobsleigh pair of Nicola Minichiello and Gillian Cooke, the reigning world champions, plus the men's curling team – also world champions, skipped by David Murdoch.

There are outside chances of podium places for the women's curling team, led by 19-year-old Eve Muirhead, who won the world junior championship last year, Rudman's partner Kristan Bromley, the intrepid madcap who is a former world champion in the men's skeleton, snowboarders Zoë Gillings and Lesley McKenna, and experienced Chemmy Alcott in the women's giant slalom.

However, any slim hopes the 14-strong skiiing squad have were almost buried under a financial avalanche with the collapse of governing body Snowsport GB, which has gone into administration. Fortunately, the BOA have guaranteed their participation, which Gillings describes as "welcome good news".

T&D's successors, the seasoned Scottish siblings John and Sinead Kerr, and also part of a British contingent of skaters, skiers, bobbers, sliders, lugers, snowboarders and biathletes who will tackle the rinks of downtown Vancouver and the slopes of the Rockies. For a non-Alpine nation in which a few snowflakes can stop a railway in its tracks, any single-figure placing would be an achievement. Success is expected mainly on ice, where we have had those skating successes, a bobsleigh gold back in 1964 and the curling triumph in Salt Lake City, where Alex Coomber also bobbed to bronze.

Few will recall that Britain won the ice hockey gold medal in 1936. More likely to be remembered is how The Eagle dared in Calgary, the last time the Games were held in Canada 22 years ago, when the world chuckled at Eddie Edwards as a True Brit buffoon with bottle.

Since the demise of Ski Sunday, the antics of winter sportsfolk have been left for Eurosport's anoraks to savour. These activities are normally watched by one man and his St Bernard but now viewers will mug up on moguls, half-pipes, two-man luge, giant slalom and Nordic combined, and nod knowingly as they debate the finer points of langlauf (cross-country skiing).

The British Olympic Association take winter sports as seriously as those in the summer Games, preparing competitors with a thoroughness that is even the envy of some Alpine nations. The days are gone when these Olympics were strictly for the teeth-chattering classes.

What happens when the Games get under way is unlikely to dominate the February football, comprehensive as BBC2's coverage will be, but for some it will be compelling viewing – millions stayed up to the early hours to watch Martin and her magic broomstick sweep to glory in Salt Lake City.

Because of Britain's lack of facilities, winter sports have always been the poor relations, but an Olympic gold is an Olympic gold, whatever the discipline, argues the Team GB deputy chef de mission Sir Clive Woodward. He says: "The days of producing heroic losers are over. We have put the Eddie The Eagle image behind us now. We want our athletes to deliver their best-ever performance."

Actually, 21 medals (eight golds, three silvers, 10 bronze) overall passes reasonable muster for a lowland nation which grinds to a halt every time Network Rail's points are frosted. There would have been 22 had the skier Alain Baxter not inhaled from a tube of Vicks back in Salt Lake. In Vancouver, we must hope the sniffing is confined to the scent of the odd medal.

In the past, Britain's traditional role has been a lifetime's subscription to the Baron de Coubertin philosophy of taking part. Now, flushed with the success of Beijing, the BOA have splashed out more than £1 million on domestic dry runs and overseas preparations in anticipation of the nation's best all-round Winter Games performance in over half a century.

It is a charming idiosyncrasy of British sport that our outstanding chances of gold come in curling, a sort of refrigerated bowls, and by hurling themselves down helter-skelter ice tubes on the skeleton and bob runs at a place called Whistler, treacherous enough without one other natural hazard – it is a playground for the area's dangerous and predatory black bears.

On the piste, the swashbuckling skiing days of Jean-Claude Killy, Franz Klammer, Alberto Tomba, Ingemar Stenmark and The Herminator – Hermann Maier – have gone but the scene is set for the world's fastest skiers, although they may be unknown to most of us, to turn it on.

There's only one thing missing: the snow. They used to say Vancouver has the greatest snow on earth, but it has been rather thin on the ground of late. Apparently there is some panic, and hope that the weather changes; if not they may use helicopters to bring in pallets of the white stuff. Unseasonably warm temperatures have left Vancouver looking more as if it is preparing for a summer Olympics – photos of bare mountainsides and blooming flowers have appeared in the local media – and threatened the quality of the competition in snowboarding and freestyle skiing scheduled to take place at Cypress Mountain. Meteorologists do not expect any significant snowfall before the Games begin either. The fear is that these winter Games may not be quite wintry enough.

However, the heatwave is not expected to affect the skiing events which are scheduled for the Whistler resort farther north of the city, where almost 32 feet of snow has already fallen at a higher elevation.

Organisers and International Olympic Committee officials have insisted they will have the courses ready in top condition, mostly by hauling snow down from higher elevations on a neighbouring mountain. Workers had stockpiled much of that snow by running 35 snow-making guns around the clock since November. They have used snowcats and dump trucks to haul more than 300 truckloads of snow and almost 1,100 bales of straw to the competition venue. These will be used to replace packed snow as a base, and to construct the features on the snowboardcross and skicross courses.

But one thing is certain. The snow show will go on. The quadrennial cavalcade of swooshing, slipping and sliding is about to begin, and there's many a slip between piste and podium. So let's get ready to tumble.

Britain's ice picks... and TV eye-catchers

Nicola Minichiello and Gillian Cooke

How rare is it for a couple of Brits to go into a Winter Olympics in pole position? Driver Minichiello and her brakewoman Cooke, a fellow ex-athlete and relatively new partner she found on Facebook, rocked the wintry world last year by becoming world champions in the two-woman bob. Whether the ice queens can get the gold in Vancouver may depend on how well Minichiello has recovered from recent eye surgery.

Men's curlers

The icemen cometh. Skip David Murdoch and his all-Scottish team are world champions, favourites and determined to end four years of frustration after narrowly missing out on a medal in Turin.

Shelly Rudman

Clattering head-first down a zig-zagging 1,500m ice tube at upwards of 90mph may seem a slippery slope to insanity but, fresh from motherhood after a shock silver in Turin, skeleton bobber Rudman can stay cool against rivals who include fellow Brit Amy Williams.

Chemmy Alcott

Britain's most glamorous winter sportswoman – and the only female skier to compete at World Cup level – knows that it will be an uphill struggle in the downhill and Super G but she has the tenacity and the temperament to spring a surprise.

Zoë Gillings

Britain has never won an Olympic medal on snow but Zoë from the Isle of Man is Britain's snowsportsperson of the year. Her aerial gymnastics in snowboarding, the event they call showbiz on snow, have earned her fifth place in the world rankings.

The Snow Leopard

They call him the Snow Leopard but Ghana's Acheampong Kwame Nkrumah could be the Eddie The Eagle of Vancouver. A UK-based factory worker who moonlighted at the ski centre in Milton Keynes, he first put on a pair of skis in 2002, entered indoor races and had a try-out at Val D'Isère in 2004. He has made his own spotted ski suit and says: "I'm not the fastest out there but will fight as much as anybody."

The Aboriginals

If you thought Torvill and Dean's Bolero was flamboyant, wait until you see the Russian world ice dance champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin's routine dressed as Aboriginals. The judges were impressed in last month's European Championships but the Australian protest groups certainly were not, calling them "offensive".

Skiing blind

Canadian Brian McKeever will make history as the first man to be picked for Winter and Paralympics in the same year. A four-times Paralympics gold medallist, he has less than 10 per cent vision and competes in the 15km cross country without a guide.

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