Winter Olympics: Cool Britannia Runnings

Britain finally have a bronze to savour as the bobsleigh four refuse to let their chance slip away; Mike Rowbottom in Nagano watches Team Olsson slay the demons for a medal
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SEAN OLSSON has dealt with a fair amount of pressure in his life. This, after all, is a man who has patrolled the streets of Northern Ireland as a corporal in One Para. But what he went through yesterday in steering his four- man bobsleigh team to a bronze medal - Britain's only tangible reward of the Games - was something he had never previously experienced.

Two driver errors in the first of the day's two runs had dropped his team from their overnight position of second to joint third. And at the back of his mind, the 30-year-old from Beverley had the less than comforting thought that if he finished outside the first four, the National Lottery funding for British bobsleigh would drop significantly from its present level. The SAS motto - "Who Dares, Wins" - required some practical application.

"I have never felt such pressure before in my life," Olsson said. "The last 24 hours have probably been the worst of my life. I never want to go through that feeling again. I'm just so glad it's over.

"Hopefully I've stayed calm and relaxed, but inside it was all burning up and it's not a pleasant feeling when you know you are so close and yet so far away. I'm so happy. But if it wasn't for the three guys who pushed me, we wouldn't be here."

Having finished only 10th in the first run of the day, Olsson responded to the challenge with the third fastest time in the second run, 53.71sec, to finish joint third with France behind the gold medallists, Germany 2, and silver medallists, Switzerland 1.

It was Britain's first Olympic medal in the event since 1964, when Tony Nash and Robin Dixon won the two-man bob at Innsbruck. No wonder Olsson and his team-mates - Dean Ward, also a Parachute Regiment corporal, Paul Attwood, a Royal Marine officer, and Courtney Rumbolt, a computer consultant who has run 10.48sec for the 100 metres - broke open the vintage champagne.

Helping the team to lower the levels in their bottles of Laurent Perrier was Professor Peter Terry, a sports psychologist from Brunel University who has worked with the British bobsleigh team since 1989.

"This has been on ice for nine years," said Terry, with tears in his eyes. "It tastes good."

He had been with the team members throughout the day, and had his work cut out during the two-hour wait for their second run.

"I said to them, 'If someone had asked you before the competition whether you would have been happy to be third at this stage, what would your answer have been?' And they said 'Yes'. So I told them that that was exactly where they were, and there was everything still to play for."

In the event, neither of the other teams level with Britain earned anything. Switzerland II, who preceded them, were slower by 0.02sec, and United States I, who followed them, fell short by a similar margin despite being in clear bronze medal position through the first three checkpoints.

"Watching the Americans, I thought we had lost it," Olsson said. "They obviously had a nightmare run at the end."

As the American's driver, Brian Shimer, put his head in his hands, the entente cordiale flourished as the British and the French - earning their first ever bobsleigh medal with the fastest of the last runs - embraced.

France's jubilant coach cavorted in the sub-zero temperatures, clad only in boots, a woolly hat and a pair of black, Calvin Klein underpants. Oddly enough, it was for a bet.

Olsson, his face flushed, seemed overcome by what he had achieved less than two years after taking over the British steering following Mark Tout's life suspension for drug abuse.

"After the first run of the day, where we had two knock-and-slides, I have to admit my confidence was down," Olsson said. "If I had got any feeling of 'Sod it, Sean's lost it' from the other guys, that would have finished me off.

"But they were great. They said they had absolute confidence in me, and that inspired me. We said to each other, 'This is it, this is our big chance. We can't let this go now.' When I went to the block again I was ready to give it 110 per cent."

Having laid his head on the block, Olsson walked away - his broad shoulders unburdened merely of his obligations to the sport.

Attwood shared his driver's feelings of relief. "I don't ever want to feel like that again in my life," he said. "Knowing that there were three of us in the bronze position, the pressure was enormous. But Sean was brilliant. He knew what he had to do on the final run, and he came through."

It was a hugely emotional moment for a quartet which had had to practise their starts all summer over a rusting 60 metres track set up on wasteland at the back of the Thorpe Park amusement centre in Surrey.

To race on ice, they have had to travel, although National Lottery funding of almost pounds 300,000 for the season has enabled them to do this. Through their efforts, that level of funding should now continue - the immediate future of the sport has been secured.

The day had begun with an earthquake in the Nagano area measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale, but thankfully not causing human injury. By the end of the day, the earth had moved once again for the British Olympic team as the prospect of finishing without a medal in three of the four Winter Games since 1984 was avoided.

Puerto Rico's chances of avoiding the 32nd and last position disappeared when one of their team went overboard at the start of the final run. Sadly for them, there was no medal on offer in the three-man bob event.