Olympics: Baxter's long route to top of mountain

Winter Olympics: Slalom bronze medal is fitting reward for proud Scotsman with bright blue hair and his own Austrian fan club

By Mike Rowbottom
Monday 25 February 2002 01:00

Alain Baxter resisted the temptation to wear a kilt at the medal ceremony for the slalom event. Resisted, too, any notion of a head-bowed, tartan-gloved salute. The strange blue hue of his head testified to the event that the man known on the skiing circuit as "The Highlander" had subsumed his Scottishness in the British cause – the Saltire he had persuaded his local hairdresser to dye onto his head had been obliterated at the request of team management, who were wary that it could have been interpreted as a political statement akin to a Chinese athlete sporting a Tibetan flag, or a Spaniard showing the Catalan colours.

That was not how this 28-year-old from Aviemore saw it, of course. "I did it for the craic," he said. "I had the idea of putting the Scottish flag on my head in the summer, but only if I was skiing well."

Having emerged from the pack to claim a bronze that was Britain's first ever Olympic skiing medal, Baxter has given an excellent impression of a man skiing well. His unlikely achievement, as all but the Frenchmen Jean-Pierre Vidal and Sébastien Amiez – gold and silver medallists respectively – failed to match his two-run time aggregate, will reverberate throughout the close community of international skiing. And nowhere with more resonance than in Austria, where Baxter spends much of the year at the British Olympic Association's facility in Löfer, using it as a base for his European racing.

"Alain, in the last year, has been more famous in Austria than he was in Britain," said the Scotsman's Austrian coach, Christian Schwaiger, who lives just half an hour away from the Löfer facility. "When he competed in Schladming this season there were 50,000 people there and they were cheering for the Austrians, plus Alain. They were going nuts when The Highlander was in the starting gate."

The fact that Baxter can speak fluent German, with the Austrian dialect, does nothing to diminish his name in his quasi-home. His big celebration party is being prepared for at Löfer.

But on the day when he had made British Olympic history, he was happy to mark his medal in a more casual fashion with a couple of drinks at the Dead Goat Saloon downtown, where he sat at a bar in front of a television showing highlights of his race and accustomed himself to the new reality of being an Olympic medallist.

A camera crew roved around him, the light above the lens illuminating the bottle of beer he held in his hand. A young lady celebrating her 21st birthday requested an autograph, which he sensibly elected to put on a beer mat rather than anywhere else.

After the medal ceremony, the evening continued for him in Park City, where he met up with his cousin Lesley McKenna, who competed in the halfpipe snowboarding here, and younger brother Noel, who finished 21st behind him in Saturday's race. It was, by all accounts, a full celebration.

However, had it not been for a showdown meeting between Schwaiger and the company which makes his skis, Head, Baxter would not have found himself standing on a podium in Olympic plaza; would not, most probably, have been in Salt Lake City in the first place.

He had made a breakthrough in the 2000-01 season, finishing fourth in the World Cup finals and ending up 11th in the overall standings, but ski technology moves as fast as Formula One, and when Head produced its latest, shortened product, it simply did not agree with Baxter. It came to a head, as it were, early this year when Schwaiger put the Briton's case.

"That was really important for me," Baxter said. "If that meeting hadn't gone well I wouldn't be here today. It was a hard decision. We had some skis that weren't getting us anywhere fast, and something had to change.

"We got them to change the ones I had so they are much more stable. I finally found some skis that allowed me to ski the way I wanted to ski, and I needed them on this slalom course. It was really hard going, full of ripples. Your skis were chattering all the time."

Baxter's ambitions were almost frustrated by a different factor, however – a week earlier he had come off the slope while training for the giant slalom and had injured his right knee. "I was pretty confident about the way my giant slalom was going, but I got to a steep section in the shade and before I knew it I was being flung around into the trees. The forces on some turns kind of turn you upside down very quickly."

The idea of entering the giant slalom was dropped, but thankfully, although the knee was still giving him some pain, he was able to pursue his main goal here.

Britain's chef de mission here, Simon Clegg, described Baxter as an example of a skier who had succeeded despite the system, rather than because of it. Ever since his parents, both of whom were international skiers, first put him on his own pair of skis at the age two, Baxter has shown unmistakable natural ability.

But his path to Salt Lake has not been a smooth one. Brought up by his mother for some years after his parents split up, he lived in a caravan, and then a council house, and the family had to raise funds through all means, including car boot sales, to finance his continuing commitment to the sport.

Baxter helped support himself by bricklaying, digging holes and erecting fences until he signed a two-year contract with Head, which expires at the end of this season. The renegotiation talks will be interesting.

Six years ago he was nearly lost to the sport as, after a disappointing season, he hesitated over whether to take up an offer from the Perth Panthers ice hockey team in the Scottish First Division. After some discussions, however, he chose to keep his association with the team on a more casual basis.

"I had a decision to make, and my friends and family persuaded me to carry on," he said, adding with a slow grin: "I'm pretty glad they did."

Britain, Scotland and Austria too.

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