Winter Olympics: A real job for the bobbers

Chris Moore says that more than medals are at stake for Olsson's fast men
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WHEN Sean Olsson takes to the ice next week, the prospect of winning Britain's first Olympic bobsleigh medal for 34 years will be of only secondary importance.

Weighing heaviest on Olsson's shoulders is nothing less than the very future of British bobbing. For the nation credited with inventing the sport more than a century ago, that represents the kind of G-force pressure Olsson will be pulling all the way down the aptly named "Spiral" bob- track in Nagano.

It was in St Moritz in 1889 that bobbing was born, after the eccentric Englishman Wilson Smith strapped a rake to the back of his prototype sled. Fittingly, when the sport was included in the inaugural Winter Games at Chamonix in 1924, the British were on the podium after Ralph Broome piloted his quartet to the silver medal. Twelve years later in Garmisch- Partenkirchen Frederic McEvoy won the four-man bronze. But it was not until 1964 that Britain struck gold - for the only time - as Tony Nash drove Robin Dixon to the two-man title in Innsbruck.

It is against that background that Olsson and his Zanussi crew will mount the latest British challenge. In Norway four years ago the British celebrated their best overall Olympic performance for 70 years, with Olsson and Mark Tout both finishing in the top 10 in the two-man and four-man competitions.

All boded well for Nagano until October 1996, when Tout was banned for life by the BBA after failing a routine drugs test. He admitted the offence after testing positive for an anabolic steroid the previous month. It was the first time a British competitor had been banned from the sport. The shock-waves rocked the foundations of the embarrassed British Bobsleigh Association. "That was a massive body-blow for us and it decimated the morale of the entire squad," said Tony Wallington, the BBA's director of performance.

Tout's crew of Dean Ward, Courtney Rumbolt and Lenny Paul were left in limbo without a driver. As Wallington admits, that got Olsson's team "uptight" at the prospect of being eased out by athletes who had suddenly become redundant. "We had to work that very carefully into our programme over the last two seasons," said Wallington. "Since then selection has been done strictly on merit and we're confident that Olsson will have the three fastest men behind him."

Ward, like Olsson a corporal in the Army's Paratroop Regiment, and Northampton "civvy" Rumbolt have made it into the Great Britain 1 Olympic sled, along with Royal Marine Paul Attwood. Together they've been cranking out the second fastest starts all season in the World Cup in which Olsson finished fifth in the overall four-man standings.

They were fastest down the mountain on their second run at Winterberg in November to finish with the bronze medal. They picked up another third at La Plagne. Wallington attributes part of this season's success to a pounds 300,000 award from the Lottery, which the BBA won on the strength of Olsson's fourth-place finish in last year's World Championships in St Moritz.

"More preparation has gone into this year's Olympic build-up than ever, including two visits to the BOA's warm-weather training camp in Florida," he said. "Sports science and physiology has been part of development, and we've gone into everything in far greater detail."

But should Olsson retire after these Olympics, as his army career may demand, British bobbing, in his own words, "could collapse". "The problem we've got at the moment is that unfortunately there is no one behind me to keep it going at the top level," the 30-year-old said. "There are a couple of young drivers in the pipeline. But they're still a long way off the pace which is why the BBA are desperate for me to carry on.

"We need to keep GB 1 in the top two groups of international competition, otherwise we lose that ranking. If you're not among the seeded nations you are always racing on slower ice which is a major handicap. So there is a lot riding on my shoulders in terms of the future of the sport and the finances we receive, including the Lottery money."

Olsson had an open mind at the start of the season about how long he would continue racing. But his recent success has convinced him he wants to carry on until the next Olympics in Salt Lake City. That, however, is a decision that rests with the military. "The bottom line is that it's up to the Army," he said. "When I left my regiment before the summer they were under the impression it was my last season, and I haven't actually spoken to them since. But I'm aware of the implications if I retire because of the danger that the sport could collapse in this country.

"I'd drive myself barmy if I let those thoughts, and the pressure of trying to win an Olympic medal for Britain, get to me. I'm aware of them. But they're at the back of my mind. All I'll be concentrating on in Nagano is trying to drive a bobsleigh down a mile-long tunnel of ice as fast as possible."