Olympics: British success may lead to tougher standards

By Mike Rowbottom
Monday 25 February 2002 01:00

As he sat alongside Alain Baxter, Britain's surprise medallist of the 19th Winter Games, the chef de mission Simon Clegg could not resist a mention of the criticism which his team had suffered in some sections of the media. "Oh ye of little faith," he said with a smile to the assembled press. "Good morning."

Clegg could be forgiven a touch of smugness. Five days earlier, life had looked far less comforting as Britain had reached the final section of the Olympics with barely a smudge of success. The chances of them reaching the target he had set for them of producing their best post-war performance, which effectively meant two bronzes or better, looked slim.

But last Wednesday in the space of a quarter of an hour, Britain's fortunes shifted dramatically as Alex Coomber took bronze in the inaugural women's skeleton event and the women curlers beat the world champions Canada to assure themselves of at least a silver medal.

When the women turned that silver into gold with an inspiring final contribution from the skip Rhona Martin, who secured the title with the last delivery of the match, Britain's stock rose still further. And Baxter's totally unexpected achievement in becoming the first Briton to win an alpine skiing medal meant a total they have only matched twice in the 78-year history of the Winter Games ­ at Chamonix in 1924, when they took a silver and two bronze, and Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936, when they took one of each colour.

"I always said our performance at these Games should be judged on the final day of competition," Clegg said. "We have been subjected to some hostile press comments, which makes our success somewhat sweeter. But there can be no room for complacency and we will be asking serious questions of the athletes who have underperformed here. That may mean in some cases raising the standards required to qualify for future Games."

Clegg said Baxter's final flourish pointed up the need for a greater investment in the skiing programme. "We have been concerned that Lottery funding for sport has been reducing," he said. "I do believe there is sufficient money within the British sporting system now for continued success. But I would expect skiing, which has been Lottery-funded on the basis that it has not delivered success at international level, will now benefit from extra funding."

Britain's head skiing coach, Christian Schwaiger, reflecting on a Games where Britain has also seen two other skiers ­ Chemmie Alcott and Ross Green in the combined ­ achieve top-15 placings, agreed.

"We have some highly promising skiers at the moment, and at the next Games in Turin we may do even better, but after Turin I see a problem coming along. We have to restructure things to make sure we get more kids on to the mountains and educate coaches about what to do with them. I think the team structure has been working very well ­ we have concentrated our resources on the right places and the right time. But we need more funding for the long term."

This is the moment when those involved in the sports of skeleton, curling and skiing have most opportunity to make their voices heard in Britain to seek the funding which can ensure that the successes of Salt Lake are replicated at future Games.

The impact made by the Scotswomen who won Britain's first winter Olympic gold since Torvill and Deanhas been immense, but curling has its own innate difficulties when it comes building on that success.

"Nothing could have put curling more in the public eye than the success the team has achieved here," Clegg said. "But the problem is that they only compete as Great Britain once every four years. At other times they are playing for Scotland. There are devolution problems."

Reports that England might soon see its first curling venue, at Cambridge, have been received with some scepticism. "Would that be like Picketts Lock?" Clegg said yesterday. Now is the hour for curling ­ but it is a sport resistant to change.

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