At a time when the rest of the nation is basking in the Great British Summer of Sport, tucked away in a quiet corner of the west countryside, British Skeleton’s Winter Olympic sliders have only one trip to the seaside on their mind this summer – from Bath to Russia, and the Black Sea coastal resort of Sochi.
While the Lions, Wimbledon, Silverstone, Le Tour, The Open and The Ashes dominate the nation’s consciousness currently, it won’t be long before the sporting entertainment schedule disposes of its 2013 results, and moves on to the next. For Team GB’s Winter Olympic athletes, their moment in the sun has long been planned, with every training intervention now focused on next year and the deadline of February 2014.
Lest we forget, the next Olympics after London are of course not Rio, but Sochi. The Winter Olympic Games will always be in the shadow of its summer big brother, but a bit like the Paralympic Games did last year, be ready for that gap to close.
Team GB will travel to the Winter Olympics with its strongest-ever squad. In recent years, British Skeleton has been at the forefront of this medal charge and has consistently delivered systematic success at the Games - winning consecutive bronze, silver and gold at Salt Lake City 2002 (Alex Coomber), Turin 2006 (Shelley Rudman) and Vancouver 2010 (Amy Williams). The Team GB performance system has evolved however, and we now have genuine medal chances in 4 or 5 winter sports. The evidence for this is British winter sports athletes winning some 10 medals at their key milestone events this season. This included World Championship titles not just for Shelley Rudman in skeleton but also Scotland’s women’s curling team, plus a World bronze for the men’s curling team. Elise Christie became GB’s first ever female world medalist in short track speed skating winning a bronze, and James Woods secured a World silver medal in slopestyle skiing. The men’s bobsleigh team are ranked 5th in the world, and snowboarding’s Billy Morgan claimed bronze at the World Cup in Sierra Nevada.
Britain has only ever won 22 medals in its Winter Olympic history, but factor in the lack of natural resources, facilities and limited funding, and the obvious reality is that any Team GB medal at a Winter Games remains an outstanding achievement. The welcome news just recently however, is that UK government funding of elite sport has been ring fenced from the latest round of Westminster cuts. In addition, UK Sport has more than doubled its funding from the £5.8m for the Vancouver cycle to £14m for the Sochi campaign.
The message is get behind Team GB’s London 2012 winter counterparts. The British Skeleton team itself has won 58 medals in all competitions since Vancouver 2010. It ended last season with 3 athletes inside the Top 10 of the World Rankings – Shelley Rudman (World Champion); Lizzy Yarnold (2012 World Junior Champion); and Kristan Bromley (GB’s most experienced slider and former men’s World Champion). In addition, in his debut season on the circuit, young slider Dom Parsons recorded a top-10 finish at the World Championships. The signs are strong with media coverage higher than ever and an estimated 23.1M – or one third of the UK population – reading or seeing something of Shelley’s gold medal triumph in St Moritz, including coverage in all the Nationals and the Sundays; and specific news pieces on BBC News at Ten and ITV News.
So the obvious challenge is how do we build on the public’s current appetite for Olympic sport from London 2012, and continue the momentum into Sochi next year?
The answer of course is that, at the very top level, all sports are the same in entertainment terms. The passion, intrigue, good fortune and human stories are all there. They just need to be told. And Team GB in Sochi is no exception.
Sochi itself will be the first Russian city to host the Winter Olympics. Particularly fascinating as the proceeding Games in Vancouver were notable for the poor performance of the Russian athletes. From their first Winter Olympics in 1956 to the 2006 games, a Soviet or Russian delegation had never been outside the top five medal-winning nations. In 2010, they finished sixth in total medals and eleventh in gold medals.
The Russian response is a Sochi Games that will be colossal and unique: no other winter Olympics in the world has ever been able to boast such a rich sporting programme, with 12 more medal events than in Vancouver; more than 800 new purpose built venues; 80 countries taking part; a record number of 5,500 Olympic athletes; and even announced last month, the Olympic Torch arriving via space.
For the British sliders the stage is set, and all are ready to enjoy their moment in the sun. The challenge won’t be easy, but as one of the world’s only leading skeleton nations without an ice track, British Skeleton is used to starting up against it, with every event an ‘away one’ for the team. The difference might just be the interest and support the British public invests in the sliders’ incredible stories – once of course we have beaten Australia at rugby and cricket. Support British Skeleton – Follow us, Join us, Sponsor us. #BetterNeverStops
David Henwood is the Non-Executive Director (Commercial) for British Skeleton
Image: World Skeleton Champion, Shelley Rudman, summer training at the Bath Push Start Facility, 18 June 2013