Stealing an edge in the cold war

The big freeze cuts no ice with the speed skaters who are happy to show a mean pair of heels
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While footballers, rugby players and jockeys warmed their heels in front of the fire and contemplated replays and rescheduled meetings, one group of British competitors revelled in the winter white-out conditions. It mattered little that the British Short Track Speed Skating Championships were held indoors at the Spectrum Centre in Guildford: the fact that the event could just as well have been held in the car park only added to the ambience.

Around the edges of the brightly floodlit rink competitors and their families chatted between races. The youngest skaters, competing in the Pee Wee class, giggled and squabbled as they put on their 18-inch skates. The senior skaters, among them Olympic contenders past and future, were only a little more aloof. One of the delights of a minority sport is that there is no room for prima donnas.

Speed skating enjoys national popularity once every four years, when viewers are captivated by the strength and grace of the sport in the Winter Olympics. But as soon as the medals are awarded the sport fades from the public consciousness - a matter of great frustration for those who try to keep the flame alive.

"We're a winter sport in a summer sporting country," according to Nicky Gooch, the current European and British champion and, since Wilf O'Reilly's retirement from international competition, the sport's biggest star in this country. "That applies to the Olympics too. When people talk about the Games, they are thinking of the year 2000, not Nagano in 1998, which is my main target."

Gooch already has an Olympic medal - a bronze from the 500m event in Lillehammer - as well as a silver from last year's world championships at 1500m. But the British championships are still important to him. "In the first place," he said between heats, "it is very nice to be able to say `I am the British champion'. And in another way this event is important because it is the first step in a long line of competitions, leading to the European and world championships."

The event also marks a change in routine for the serious competitors who for the last month or so have been concentrating on boring old stamina work: long bicycle rides, runs and lengthy skates. Now they can get back to the enjoyment of regular competition and sharper, more focused training. For Gooch, that means more work late at night on the ice at Guildford, the rink closest to his home in Barnes, south London. He has just been given a new training slot, starting at half past midnight. "It's free, you see," he said with a rueful grin. "I don't have the funds to pay for ice time, so I have to take what I'm given."

In Friday's heats his main consideration was staying out of trouble. One of the problems with a rather shallow pool of talent is that the more experienced racers have to compete against rather less skilled opposition. And in the confines of an 111-metre oval track, with tight eight-metre bends, pile-ups are not uncommon.

The disparity of ability was apparent in all classes (except the veterans, of whom there were three). It was most glaring among the Pee Wees, the 11-13 age group, where the lottery of puberty makes for considerable differences in height and physique between competitors.

This class also provided the most amusingly chaotic starts: arms, legs and skates everywhere in the mad dash to the first turn, and every now and then an undignified departure, bum first into the thick padding around the edge of the rink.

Three Pee Wees all came from the same family: Gavin, Helena and Gerard Williams, all racing in the slipstream of their elder sister Joanna, a former Pee Wee champion now pursuing the juvenile title. Their mother, Sue, was helping out with the results service, and was therefore too busy to see young Gavin skittering into the barriers in the quarter-finals of the 500m event. His sister Helena kept her feet to finish third, but it was unlikely to be a harmonious night in the Williams houshold. No boy likes being beaten by his sister.

Just before the Pee Wee races Gooch had qualified easily in the quarter- final of the senior 500m event, moving swiftly to the front of his quartet and staying there, out of trouble, throughout. His strongest challenger, Matthew Jasper of Nottingham, qualified in equally facile fashion.

Some of the hardest-worked skaters were not even competing, but maintaining the track with frequent applications of water and sweeps of the ice-skimmer, and repeatedly replacing the little corner markers that were constantly knocked out of position by the skaters' hand as they leaned into the turns. In the centre of the rink, blazered officials had a quieter time, skating gently in circles as they kept an eye out for any sharp practice among the competitors.

Beside the track, Nicky Gooch hooked covers on to his skates as another ill-matched line of Pee Wees formed up. "I love watching them," he smiled. "I remember when I was their age racing against a bloke who was much bigger than me. But I beat him in the end."