Skiing: Sophie's passport to confusion

Andrew Longmore speaks to the sister and brother who will ski for one country with their sights on another
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The Independent Online
THE decision has been taken, the passport application lodged deep within the French bureaucratic system. When it emerges, Sophie Ormond, the most talented British skier for two generations, will be as French as her Christian name. In the meantime, Ormond will compete for Britain in next month's Winter Olympics alongside her elder brother James and pen a footnote in Olympic history as she goes. In Nagano, the Ormonds will become only the second brother-sister combination to represent Britain, following Moira and David Cargill 18 years ago.

The howls of despair from the British Ski Federation will echo through the Cairngorms. For a sport under severe financial strain, Sophie's talents are mint condition. Now the coinage will be French and, to their credit, the BSF have not exercised their right of veto on the exchange.

Though both her parents are English, Sophie was born in Geneva and learnt to ski on the slopes of Le Grand Bormand, a gift as natural to children of the Alps as kicking a football to the boys from Brazil. Irrespective of her nationality, the local ski club adopted the tender young English girl, supported her and steered her gently into the French development system where victory in the Minimes championships marked her out as a future champion worthy of full-time support. She was British Senior Champion at the age of 15. Had Sophie merely been ordinary, just another talented skier in the pool, this flattering tug-of-war would never have begun. It is a measure of her ability that the French Minister of Sport will personally supervise Ms Ormond's transfer.

The language test would not fall Britain's way either. In conversation, Sophie translates from French into English. Only in rare moments back in the family home does English become the mother-tongue again, and even then the adjustment takes a week or two. "Since the age of nine or ten, I've been racing with the same French girls, training with them and using the same trainers," she said.

"I live in France, all my friends speak French, yet part of me is very heavy-hearted at the decision. I really do feel English and I really do feel French and to give up a part of me is very hard."

Sophie did not have to look outside her family for guidance. Her brother's relationships with the BSF have been far from smooth, in part a reflection of his volatile temperament, in part of the cash shortage within the sport. While Sophie is cosseted by a team of trainers, video specialists, physios, doctors and ski experts, James has relied on the patronage of a family friend and an insatiable appetite for proving his critics wrong. He has twice been thrown off the British team, once for indiscipline five years ago and last year because of his form; the first time he trained with the Andorran team and won the British slalom title, the second time he qualified independently for the world championships and came 25th in the slalom, the first time a British male skier had broken into the top 30 for eight years.

"I was really pushing for Sophie to go French," he said. "She's seen what I've suffered at the hands of the BSF. Her facilities are unbelievable. She even has someone to carry her skis for her. It'll be tough for her because it's so competitive in the French team and there will be times she'll have to hang in there. But she's aggressive and strong enough to cope with that.

"My mother was a little more dubious about it, I think. She quite likes it when Sophie wins everything. With the British, she would be on top and cruising."

The same thought had occurred to Sophie. "It's one of the problems with the British system," she said. "There's no one to push you. With the French, there are 20 girls all pushing really hard every day."

If, at the age of 24, Nagano will be the pinnacle of James Ormond's career, it will be a first foothill for his 18-year-old sister, who has only recently graduated to senior international competition. At the British Championships in Tignes, Sophie swept the board - and won pounds 1,500 prize money to go towards a new car - while James was pipped for the slalom title by Alain Baxter, sure to be a sore subject of conversation round the dinner table next time.

"We're very similar characters," Sophie said. "Both very aggressive and pretty single- minded. It's in the family. When we go skiing together it becomes a bit competitive."

The next move is up to the French passport office, not known for lightning responses. Under the rules of the FIS, the international ski federation, Sophie cannot compete for France in the Olympics for three years. Nor can she change nationality in mid-season. If her passport has not arrived by November, Sophie stays British next season and her place for the 2002 Olympics will be jeopardised. Problems for the future. "At the moment I'm just really happy to be selected for Britain," she said. "To be there with James as well. It's a great moment for the whole family."