Sochi 2014: British skaters 'in the shadows' of Torvill and Dean

As Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean celebrate the 30th anniversary of their legendary Bolero routine, we are now at a point where many viewers - and most of the skaters who will be competing in Sochi - were not alive to see it.

Yet Torvill and Dean's gold medal at the Sarajevo 1984 Olympics is the undoubted, unequalled yardstick with which subsequent British skaters have been measured and beaten.

No figure skating article, when a Winter Olympics rolls around, is complete without their names.

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As a country, we've got to realise there is a different way of doing things

Nick Buckland Team GB ice dancer

And until the UK comes up with anyone capable of emulating their achievements, that misty-eyed harkening-back will only continue.

"This era of skating has lived in the shadows of Torvill and Dean a bit," says Nick Buckland, who will partner Penny Coomes in Great Britain's ice dance team at Sochi 2014.

The pair are skating in Budapest at this week's European Championships, their last event prior to next month's Games in Russia.

"People forget that Torvill and Dean's performance was in 1984," adds 24-year-old Buckland. "We're a long way away from that now - I wasn't born until 1989."

Torvill and Dean's performance is figure skating's equivalent of England's 1966 World Cup win in football - astounding at the time, a moment preserved in legend, now threatening to become the albatross around the necks of future generations unable to live up to its memory.

So how close are we to finding Britain's next Torvill and Dean, then, and what has to change?

"The potential for the sport in this country is huge. There are so many things we can do to improve," says Nick Sellwood, who took over as chief executive of Britain's National Ice Skating Association last year.

GB skaters at the Olympics

Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland

Since the Second World War, British skaters have won six Olympic medals:

  • Gold - Jeanette Altwegg (1952), John Curry (1976), Robin Cousins (1980), Jayne Torvill & Christopher Dean (1984)
  • Bronze - Altwegg (1948), Torvill & Dean (1994)

At Vancouver 2010, seven British figure skaters took part:

  • Jenna McCorkell placed 29th in the women's contest after struggling in her free skate and failing to advance
  • Stacey Kemp and David King were 16th of 20 entries in their pairs event
  • Sinead Kerr and brother John Kerr came eighth in ice dance before their retirement post-Games, with Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland (pictured above) 20th on their Olympic debut

"Firstly we must generate more competition internally, so it's tougher to make the team. If we do that, by the time you get to an Olympics, you've had to fight your way to get on.

"That's the major thing: raising the standards we ask of athletes to make it through all the way. We've got to do that, otherwise we are just participants. We want to become winners."

There is a marked contrast between last week's US Championships, where world-class skaters were left sidelined  through their sheer depth of talent, and a British Championships in November which essentially formed a parade for a British team that had long been known.

Jenna McCorkell, who will skate in the women's event at Sochi 2014 and this week's European Championships, has won each of the past 11 British titles.

That suggests a lack of top-class competition - which is, of course, hardly McCorkell's fault. But she will retire after Sochi and her successor is not immediately apparent.

"We need a big push on our youngsters," says Sellwood. "We're looking at 2018 and 2022 in terms of what we've got. We know we've got some good ones in the pipelines - Amani Fancy and Chris Boyadji are skating well, they showed a glimpse of what might be coming through."

Oman-born Fancy and former France competitor Boyadji are enjoying a successful first season together, unseating Stacey Kemp and David King as the British senior pairs champions. Both duos will compete at the Euros, with Kemp and King heading to Sochi.

Across the Atlantic you will find 16-year-old Olivia Smart and Joseph Buckland - the 21-year-old younger brother of Nick.

Smart abandoned her GCSEs to leave the UK and dedicate her life to training in the United States, where time on the ice is much easier to come by than in Britain's few and congested rinks, and where many of the world's top coaches reside.

Coomes and Buckland made a similar decision before them, as did Kemp and King.

Sellwood recognises this transatlantic drain as a long-term issue facing British figure skating. He would rather they stayed in the UK, but how do you turn that around?

"We need to set up national centres within this country," he says, "bringing the best experts in from around the world and developing within this country.

"Investing in one coach gets four or five generations of athletes. If you invest in just the athletes? One generation.

Staying at home

Jenna McCorkell

Not every top British skater moves abroad. Sochi 2014 Team GB member Jenna McCorkell (pictured above) trains in the UK:

"You can't beat the facilities in the UK. I don't need anything more. The coaching team I have now, I'm as happy as can be.

"But I don't disagree with people, if they feel [moving abroad] is what they need.

"I tried training in Belgium but although I got on great with my coach there, on the ice we didn't click. It's who you click with. If my current coaches were in America, then I would probably be in America.

"But money is another issue. Have you got the money to do that?"

"We're going to invest our own money, but we have to prove we have a credible product."

That burden of proof falls on the likes of Coomes and Buckland, Britain's top prospects heading to Sochi, who are looking for a top-eight ice dance finish.

They also believe they can challenge for a medal at Pyeongchang 2018 in South Korea. Does Sellwood believe that is a realistic ambition?

"Yes, it is," he says. "But they've got to deliver this time. There are no bones about this. We need them to deliver a performance at this Olympic Games to prove they are on that track.

"I think they are, but they need to do it in Sochi, in February, to show they are the real deal."

Nick Buckland does not mean to be dismissive when he says Torvill and Dean belong to the past. He understands their influence. But he believes the time has come for something new.

"Skating has moved on," he says. "We have a new judging system, it is a completely different entity.

"People always look back to that era, to 'how you should do it'. So as you're learning the sport, even though the sport's progressing, we're being told how Torvill and Dean did it.

"They were brilliant in their time and still are today, but it's so different now. As a country, we've got to realise there is a different way of doing things."

A medal in 2018 is his ambition.

It would be Britain's first since, yes, Torvill and Dean in 1994. The opportunity to reset the clock is in his hands.