Skiing: Bell's mountainous task to reinvent British skiing

A veteran of five winter Olympics is charged with burying the sport's Eddie the Eagle image.
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The Independent Online
IT IS NOT easy to take competitive skiing seriously in Britain. There is something lacking in the sport's presentation. The image is quite wrong. We think of snow and skis and we think of documentaries of first- timers doing the splits and burying their faces on nursery slopes. We think of snooty chalet girls emptying the bins at a lodge and then filling themselves with alcohol. We think, primarily, of the ski-jumper Eddie Edwards. It's a long way back to gravitas from there.

The man charged with parting the pistes and leading us into a respected land is at least another alpine figure of whom most have heard. Graham Bell (as in Martin and Graham Bell) has recently been appointed as the British Ski & Snowboard Federation's director of performance. It might be quite a job, but at least his business cards will be big and impressive.

Bell is an unlikely administrator, 33 yesterday and possessing a pre- Raphaelite haircut. His appointment is part of the sweep by a new broom. "The old fogeys have been cleared out of British skiing," he says. "The board has changed from the amateurs who were doing it for the love of the sport, some of whom were good with their time and effort, but the whole thing needed a change."

Graham Bell has competed at five winter Olympics, a record for any British athlete. He was British No 1 for three years before his recent retirement. Now he has to produce a figure to better his achievements. As a task it is, in more than one sense, mountainous.

Last year the BSSF received pounds 200,000 of funding from the Sports Council plus another pounds 180,000 from sponsorship and commercial activities. Much of that was provided by the properties company British Land, which is clearly taking a long-term view in return for the investment. By comparison, the Swiss receive pounds 3.1m, France pounds 2m and mighty Slovenia pounds 1.2m. The figure for Austria is off the map.

"We can't compare ourselves with the Austrians or the Swiss," Bell says. "We're not even the equivalent of a small region in Austria. We're more like a village.

"In fact, it might even be a little worse than that because all our talented skiers are dotted around all over the place and not in a village training and competing with one another, bringing each other on. But miracles can happen."

Bell's initial contract is for six months when six years might seem more appropriate. His first major obligation comes on Saturday, when he monitors the beginning of the National Ski Championships at Tignes, one of France's more charmless resorts, denuded of woodland and consequently of character.

The resort beneath the glacier of Grand Motte, one of Savoie's highest peaks, regularly plays host to the British piste-basher, the recreation skier winding wildly down the open snowfields. But, it may be, that one day such a setting will see a young British talent weaving through the savannah of joyriders.

"We have got this huge participation behind us with almost half a million skiers going abroad from Britain each year," Bell says. "I have to make sure there is a clear pathway for a talented 10 or 11-year-old skier to establish themselves as a top senior with the chance of an Olympic medal.

"One day we'll have one, maybe two, incredibly talented skiers coming along and we need to have the system in place to look after them. We can't screw it up."

As he snowploughs this difficult furrow, Bell has in mind the fecund ground for locating a champion. It is pretty much the area he came from himself, parents more with great designs for their offspring than great wealth. The new director has found that the Camillas and Ruperts of the sport can get distracted by the attractions of a hunt ball.

"A lot of our skiers are the product of dedicated parents," he says. "People talk about how parents get too involved and pushy, but in skiing it's the only way.

"My mother, particularly, did everything she could to help us and if that meant getting us up for a morning jog then that's what she would do. It's got to be done.

"We've had a few racers on the team with incredibly wealthy parents but they tend not to do as well as children of middle-earning parents who give total support. There is so much of a struggle and so much of a commitment that you usually find that the really well-off kids just say `sod it, I'm off to do something a little more fun'."

As he goes about this business Graham Bell is forever haunted by a spectre. It is wearing thick glasses and falling out of the sky. Eddie Edwards finished 58th out of 58 ski-jumping at the 1988 winter Olympics in Calgary and received more publicity than the winner. This may have upset the north Americans and their finely honed sense of irony, but it also exposed another nation's rather odd character trait. Eddie the Eagle returned to Britain the conquering hero, a charming clown more feted than any victor would have been.

"Eddie Edwards was a huge, huge mistake made by the British Ski Federation," Bell says. "They didn't set any qualifying level for ski jumping at Calgary. That's why he got there. The alpine and cross-country skiers had to reach a certain standard but he didn't. It should never have happened."

But happen it did, and Graham Bell can change the profile of British skiing only by locating a different sort of headline-maker. "The first thing I have to do is talent-identification - to find out where our real talent lies," he says.

"We've got about half a dozen realistic chances of a top 10 World Cup placing. And you can't chart it much better than that in skiing, because if you have the potential to get in the top 10 you have the potential to win.

"It's a very variable sport. It's unpredictable. You can get a particularly good pair of skis or you can start in an area of the field where a tailwind suddenly picks up or the sun comes out for you and instantly you're one of half a dozen people who have an advantage.

"That can be enough to set off a whole chain of events. You get a good result, your confidence improves and people start to give you a better pair of skis. It can all spiral upwards very quickly. To have a chance of getting into the top 10 of World Cup skiers you have to have started skiing by seven at the latest (and that means years old as opposed to o'clock).

"You have to have started racing aged 10. By 13 you can tell who has got the talent and by 15 you can put the safe bets on about who is going to be a good competition skier.

"But we're going to need coaches for these people and coaching is another problem I have to address. How do you get British coaches to the level of their European counterparts? We can't always survive on buying Austrian coaches, especially as you lose them as soon as they start doing a very good job. That's the catch-22.

"In the history of British skiing there are about 10 occasions when a coach has been whisked off by the Austrian ski federation waving a cheque book."

They don't wave a cheque book in British skiing, it's more likely to be the white flag. Graham Bell has taken on an Everest, but at least when it comes to communications he has the right name.

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