Winter Olympics: Champagne stays on ice for Gooch

Stephen Brenkley talks to the skater with a nagging score to settle in Nagano
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The Independent Online
IT WAS a bold manoeuvre, as outrageous as it was beautiful. Nicky Gooch was skating for Britain in the Lillehammer Winter Olympic Games. It was the final, no less, of the 1000 metres short track event and suddenly Gooch spotted a gap opening in front of him.

He had no choice but to go for it. As he did so a medal and maybe his whole life flashed before his eyes. Then, the Canadian, Derek Campbell, whom he was attempting to overtake appeared to cut across his path. The pair collided and Campbell fell out of the race. Gooch whizzed smoothly on to second place and a nation for which ice largely remains an object for insertion in gin and tonics cheered.

Which shows that the nation either knows little about short track speed skating or was on a surfeit of G&T at the time. There was to be no silver medal. Within minutes Gooch was disqualified. The burden of guilt in a sport of such fine balance and judgement is almost always placed on the man skating up from behind.

Crestfallen and miffed, Gooch, to his immense credit, managed to regroup sufficiently to claim bronze at 500 metres, his weaker distance. But the memory of the collision has stayed with him, probably even concentrated his mind in the past four years since he returned from Norway and began the long preparation for Nagano. He will not make the same mistake again, for mistake it was. What looked a thing of serenity to us as he arched his back to achieve some rapid propulsion was not quite so.

"I thought the referee's interpretation might have been different but the fact is I panicked," said Gooch last week, as Nagano and the chance to rectify matters began to close in on him. "I suddenly felt I had to do that. OK he seemed to block me but the rules are pretty strict. Campbell and I didn't speak for a long time. It's OK now, a bit strained maybe. I don't think I'd like to be racing against him first up this time."

This time will be Gooch's last. He is 25 and at 29 short track skaters have started to wheeze rather than whizz. This is his third Olympics and he is one of the few men in the world to have competed in all of them since the sport was added to the programme. Not that he intends the Games to be finished with him altogether.

So dedicated is he to the whole ethos that he wants to compete in a summer games as well. "I decided that when I was 16 and it's been a goal in my life. Skating came first but that would be really something, going to a summer games too. It'll probably be cycling because I do that for training. I'm not international class yet but I'm serious about it."

This besotted Olympian goes to Nagano 98 with genuine medal prospects, though nobody should assume this puts him among the favourites. A year ago he had a wretched time in the World Championships and finished 18th. When he started this season indifferently he might have thought he was finished.

"The other countries were skating so quickly before we'd warmed up. If they'd continued like that we were in trouble." The turning point for him came in the Olympic qualifying event. This determines how many places countries are allotted though the opponents are the same. Gooch finished third and the formidable Canadian Marc Gagnon skated over to him to say: "Glad to see you're back among us."

That was a touching gesture in a sport which can be rife with confrontation. It may look all smooth and elegant but there can be a lot of jostling and potential for enmity over a tight, curved track of 111.12 metres. Gooch was appropriately lifted by it and last weekend in Holland he built on that success by winning the 1,000 metres European title. True, disqualification in the 500m put him out of contention for an overall medal but he skated with conviction and flair.

"I'd been ill and was feeling pretty rough going into them. When you consider that it's a title I've won twice then maybe I should be disappointed but I know what effort it took. The Olympics are the most special thing of all. At my age the combination of experience and speed should be at their most powerful.

"I've played the races in my mind. So many things in this sport are out of your control. The ice, a loose blade, proximity of opponent can all come into play and you can be out. But nobody fancied me last time. I can win a medal again and it could be gold." For a moment it was as though he had spotted a gap opening up in front of him.