Winter Olympics / Lillehammer '94: Gooch ready for some ruthless racing: Henry Winter on the British speed skater with all the attributes to stay in the pink on the rink

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THE Winter Olympics leave many people cold. Competitors taking on the clock or judge rather than each other head-to-head dissipates the drama for some viewers. But the vicarious rivalry of figure skating and ice dancing will quickly be forgotten in the Hamar Amphitheatre when the short-track speed skaters muscle their way on to the ice.

Hurtling around the tightest of courses four at a time in a ruthless race for the line, there is no room for artistic impression. 'When you have four guys travelling at incredible speeds on a track 111 metres long and only six to seven metres wide and each guy takes up possibly two to three metres of that track, anything can happen,' Alan Luke, a former British champion and current national coach, said.

These toughs of the short-track made their eye-catching official Olympic debut at Albertville two years ago. The 1,000m event immediately seduced television producers with a succession of spectacular upsets: the British teenager Nicky Gooch fell in the heats; Tsutomu Kawasaki, the world record holder, went out in the quarters; Gooch's team-mate, Wilf O'Reilly, the world champion, controversially slid out of the semis after a brush with a rival. An exhilarating final was won by Kim Ki-Hoon - substantial recompense for the months the South Korean had spent in hospital nursing a spiked artery.

'It's not supposed to be a contact sport but it often is,' Gooch said. 'You can get a push when you're overtaking or if someone doesn't time their move right.'

Gooch, born in Roehampton, south-west London, 21 years ago, has certainly timed his move right. The son of an accomplished speed skater, he has matured into champion of Britain and Europe and is considered a strong challenger for success alongside O'Reilly in Norway. 'I hope to be coming home with a medal,' he said.

Skating came almost as naturally as walking to Gooch, who used to follow his father, Ian, around on the ice. 'I never pressurised him,' Gooch snr said, 'but his interest really took off when he was 14. The international scene got bigger, and he used to go to Holland and Belgium, while Wilf O'Reilly was getting big - so he realised the possibilities. Now he's European champion.'

Against the odds. 'The main problem is money,' Gooch said. He receives some assistance from his parents and a small Sports Aid Foundation grant, but is grateful for sympathetic employers at Guildford Ice Rink. 'They are very good to me, giving me time off work to race and train.'

Such patronage, and Gooch's innate ability and constant application, underpins his recent pre-eminence. The honours arrived rapidly: at Humberside last year he claimed the British overall title, followed by a prodigious 1,500m performance of 2min 21.28sec which would have been recorded as a world best but for the fact it was hand timed. Gooch's burgeoning reputation was confirmed in Bruges last month when he returned on the overnight ferry with the European title on board.

Luke believes Gooch's immense stamina, amplified by endless hours of specialised training, will bring further reward, probably in the more exacting 1,000m discipline on 22 February. 'In the 1,000 Nicky's strength is his strength,' Luke said. 'If he goes to take gold in that distance he will do it when others feel the strain on the closing laps. He will be strong then because he has such good stamina.'

To achieve such muscle and lung power, Luke varies Gooch's work-outs. Exercises include cycling, bounding from side to side on a grassed incline and a Groucho-esque low walk, knees dipping close to the ground.

Physical tuning forms only part of the approach. 'We have a race plan and alternative plans if the main one is screwed up by somebody else,' Luke said. 'Nicky also works very hard at visualisation with the squad psychologist, Dave Collins.'

However painstaking the preparation, speed skating can scupper the best-laid plans. 'If you are one of the last to race, the ice conditions can be really poor,' Gooch said. 'When you take a corner at speed, you are leaning over and only have a little bit of blade cutting into the ice. If the ice breaks away there is nothing to hold you up.'

Being constantly aware of the opposition's movements is critical. 'The most you can get away from the others at Olympic level is two to three metres and the others will be waiting to wind you in if you make a mistake, like coming out of a corner too wide or taking a poor line through a bend,' Luke added.

Gooch's short-term, short-track future looks auspicious. But in the distance, he visualises a different track. 'My ultimate aim is to go to the summer Games. Probably in cycling. But it's something I'll do when I've achieved my goals in skating.' One may be realised this month.

(Photograph omitted)