British skiing seeks end to downhill trajectory
Picture the scene: it is 1978 and Britain's best skiers, their coaches and assorted well-wishers, were assembling for the most important date in the calendar, the British National Ski Championships in Val d'Isere.
Imagine the embarrassment: the British ambassador to France was on his way to dish out the prizes but the national federation had no money to stage the races.
Enter the benefactor: John Ritblat, in town on his annual skiing holiday, gets wind of the impending crisis, digs into the pockets of his salopettes and pulls out the £3,000 (more than £13,000 in today's money) needed to stage the races.
Plus ca change: Ritblat, now Sir John and a giant of the British property industry, is getting ready for next week's championships in Meribel, the 33rd in a row he has supported financially, morally and vocally.
For a sport that is often criticised for being elitist, British skiing is never far from a cash crisis. The good news is Ritblat, his family and their business contacts are never too far away either.
Thirteen months ago, with the Winter Olympics only weeks off, the British Ski and Snowboard Federation (BSSF) went bust.
Athletes, coaches and support staff found themselves without transport as the bank repossessed their vehicles, travel plans for Vancouver were thrown into confusion and, with no governing body to liaise with the International Ski Federation (FIS), Team GB's racers were faced with the prospect of being barred from the Games.
Chemmy Alcott has been a consistent performer at the highest level for GB in recent years
Thankfully, that humiliation was avoided. But only just. The much-maligned British Olympic Association sprang into action, forming an emergency governing body to ensure the likes of Chemmy Alcott and Zoe Gillings would be accredited in Vancouver. And Ritblat, British skiing's oldest friend, put his hand in his pocket once more to help with the costs.
"Skiing is immensely important to this country's image abroad," Ritblat explained. "Just look at the amount of TV coverage it gets across Europe, where it is a national sport in countries like Austria and Switzerland.
"The French, Italians and Scandinavians take it very seriously too and it is almost unique among sports in that it effectively has its own Olympics. It is a vital shop window."
Shop windows are something of a specialty for the 75-year-old Ritblat, who spent 36 years at the helm of British Land, the owners of Sheffield's Meadowhall shopping centre, 69 retail parks, 99 superstores and 10 department stores.
His time at the company is the stuff of corporate legend and his generosity has provided books for the British Library, paintings for the Wallace Collection and performances at the Royal Opera House. But it is hurtling down mountains on planks that really gets him going.
"Ever since (World War II) there's been a shocking lack of attention to skiing in this country and I don't understand why," Ritblat continued.
"It is a superb sport for young people as it produces exceptional characters and pits man against mountain. The courage these people display is really quite remarkable.
"If you fund these youngsters properly, Great Britain could be terrific at the Winter Olympics. But if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys."
He was on a roll now and my shorthand was struggling to keep up. We raced through a potted history of well-heeled Brits practically inventing the sport in the 19th century to the modern era where millions of more middling sorts (people like me) save for that week on the slopes on a package deal.
It was a thrilling ride and when we were finished I was almost convinced that "by 2018 there should be no limit to our aspirations".
Alain Baxter lost his medal after unluckily failing a drugs test in 2002
But the fact remains Britain will always struggle to win traditional skiing races (snowboarding and newer skiing formats are a different matter) and it is because the sport at the highest level is elitist. Not in the "let's winter in Wengen, darling" sense but simply because our champions start from the disadvantage of coming from a relatively flat and temperate country.
Yes, I know there are mountains in Scotland (I have slid down a few over the years) but they are not the Alps. It is the national sport in Austria for a reason and that reason is cold, craggy and covered in ski lifts.
That is not to say we should not try, though, which is why Ritblat's passion is so refreshing.
What skiing has cried out for, however, is a way of harnessing that have-a-go attitude and supporting it with the kind of attention-to-detail and focus other members of the British Olympic family have demonstrated in recent years.
The man charged with that responsibility is David Edwards, a former naval officer who spent two decades in the financial services sector before taking on an interim chief executive role at Llanelli Scarlets. A solid job there brought him to the attention of Britain's Olympic chiefs and he was given the task of rebuilding at BSS.
Edwards' task will not be easy, though. BSSF's slide into insolvency was embarrassing (and irritating for anybody owed money by the organisation) but it did not leave much lasting damage to the sport.
Far more debilitating was what happened a month before when UK Sport, the agency that funds Team GB's preparations, applied the cold logic of its "no compromise" approach to winter sports as well as summer ones.
This meant Edwards would not have access to the more than £600,000 of public money his BSSF predecessors had in the four years before Vancouver. UK Sport almost tripled its total funding for winter sports in the build-up to Sochi 2014 but that largesse has gone exclusively to governing bodies with real medal potential: curling, skeleton bob, speed skating and women's bobsleigh.
It is difficult to criticise UK Sport for this decision because there is only so much public money to go around and the agency's decisions on how to spend it have been vindicated by 15 years of improving performances across the Olympic spectrum.
But it is also difficult to avoid feelings of sympathy for Edwards, Ritblat and every aspiring British skier and snowboarder. The UK Sport model rewards success and ignores failure: breaking out of the vicious circle into the virtuous one is a devilishly difficult trick, particularly when the Austrian ski team's budget is 20m euros a year.
That said there is a "no compromise" spirit at BSS now and a new sponsor (a property company called Delancey, which is run by Sir John's son Jamie) on board too. And as skeleton bob has so amply demonstrated, the start of something special is only a bronze medal away.