Winter Olympics: Tout out to end 30 years of frustration: Britain's four-man bobsleigh are on the medal trail. Chris Moore on their military strategist

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The Independent Online
AFTER 16 years in the Army, bobsleigher Mark Tout has finally been relieved of his corporal's tag in time to compete in his fourth Winter Olympic Games next week.

The 33-year-old soldier is currently en route for Norway as Sergeant Tout of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment - a promotion that will last for all of three weeks. For, within hours of reaching his day of destiny at the end of the month, as the driver of the No 1 British sled in the Olympic four-man competition in Lillehammer, Tout will be returning to Civvy Street.

'In truth I haven't been a serving soldier for the last six years,' explained Britain's best hope of an Olympic bob medal since Tony Nash drove Robin Dixon to the gold in Innsbruck 30 years ago.

'I've effectively been on full-time leave so that I could keep bobbing for Britain. But you can't keep living on a corporal's wages forever. That's why I applied for redundancy. It's simply time for a career change.'

And that promotion? 'All it means is I can maybe crack the whip a bit louder for the next two weeks] I won't even be getting a wage rise because it was voluntary redundancy.'

But if Tout and his Zanussi-sponsored crew of George Farrell, Jason Wing and Lenny Paul, come up trumps with a medal in Lillehammer, any number of new career doors could open up for him.

At the Albertville Games in France two years ago, Tout and Paul were leading the Olympic two- man competition after the first two runs. But they slipped back the following day to finish sixth, before taking seventh place in the four- man event.

This time, however, Tout is convinced his four-man crew are going to Norway as genuine medal contenders.

They have not been out of the top four in the last six competitions, having won the silver medal in the European Championships at La Plagne, and the bronze in the last World Cup race in St Moritz which also clinched third place in the overall standings.

'There isn't anyone we haven't beaten this season, so there's no reason for us not to go into the Olympics gunning for gold,' Tout said. 'The thing about the four-man event is that it's wide open. There's five or six crews in the frame any one of whom could end up with a medal.

'But you can't just go out there and do it on your own. The draw is always a factor, as is the weather. If it starts snowing on a day when you have a low draw, you can forget it. But give us a decent draw and that little bit of luck you always need under such circumstances, and we can win a medal. There's absolutely no question about that.'

Tout and his compatriots, though, have an unimpressive track record in major events. Something, it seems, always goes wrong on the day.

'The pressure on the bobbers in Albertville was always a burden because there was no one else left in the British Olympic team who had even an outside chance of a medal,' says Nick Phipps, the six-times British champion who retired after those Games.

'But with Torvill and Dean back this year, hopefully the boys will be a lot more relaxed. Mark has obviously been driving as well as anyone this winter, and as I see it, it's a case of now or never for him.

'He's never been better prepared to make that big final breakthrough when it really matters. If the team don't come through with a medal this time, you'd have to wonder whether they ever will.'

Tout accepts that it is all about producing the four most consistent runs of his life. 'But the way I look at it is that any pressure is on my crew,' he reasons.

'They know I can drive, and they know I have been producing good times all season. So it's up to them to give me the starts we need.'

As the crews pack every ounce of muscle, pace and power into the explosive surge off the block, those start-times over the first 50 metres will be critical.

'Like La Plagne, you simply cannot make up time on a faster start on the new Lillehammer track,' Tout said.

'We're only talking about hundredths of a second. But two hundredths per run at the start over four runs equals around three tenths of a second in the final aggregate time. And that was the difference between third and sixth place at the last Olympics.'

For the last three days the 12- man British squad has been undergoing final tests in Oberhof which will decide any late switch in crews for the Olympics. 'You don't want to be making any changes at this late stage, not least because it's bound to affect team morale,' Tout said.

'But the name of the game is getting the fastest four guys on the ice together. If someone else stakes his claim, and you think he can find you an extra two hundredths at the start, then you've got to consider him.'

That 'someone else' is currently John Herbert, Britain's 1986 Commonwealth Games gold-medal triple-jumper. He has forced his way into the No 2 crew, driven by Sean Olsson, less than four months after making his international debut in Calgary.

'He's got awesome potential,' Tout enthused. 'A real hard worker and dedicated trainer who is only lacking in a bit of experience. My guys are well aware of him, and I'm not surprised he's got them looking over their shoulders.'

(Photograph omitted)