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Apprehensive, skint and reasonably good: Team GB for Vancouver

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Ollie Williams | 11:35 UK time, Saturday, 23 January 2010

This is a big week for British athletes hoping to compete for Team GB at Vancouver 2010, at the end of a month many of them may want to forget.

The Winter Olympics are less than three weeks away and, on Tuesday, the British Olympic Association will confirm almost every remaining place in the squad.

Bobsleigh - whose British athletes tore their way to internet infamy last week - will hope their team launch is a more seamless affair.

But Tuesday is largely about Britain's skiers, with the teams for alpine, cross country and freestyle skiing, plus snowboarding, all set to be selected. And what a bleak build-up to the Games it has been for them, culminating in the news last week that their national governing body is on the verge of going bust.

No athlete needs that distraction this close to an Olympic Games, particularly so in the case of Britain's winter sports athletes, for whom the Olympics is by far the biggest event of their careers.

BBC Sport understands various British skiing coaches have gone unpaid, the credit cards of the British Ski and Snowboard Federation (BSSF, otherwise known as Snowsport GB) have stopped working, and training for some British athletes has all but halted as funds dry up.

One noticeable aspect of the organisation's cash crisis is the taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland's decision to withdraw a £30,000 overdraft facility offered to the team, which may grate with some who have followed news of bail-outs and bonuses.

But apportioning the blame for the BSSF's difficulties won't settle any nerves in the team itself, days from their first runs down the Whistler slopes.

Chemmy Alcott, Britain's best-known skier, may be the least nervy of the bunch. Not only is she certain of a place on the team, but she remains - publicly, at least - supremely confident of bringing home an Olympic medal, despite lacking recent results to back that up.

"I know I've got what it takes to win," Alcott told reporters last Friday when asked about her governing body's cash crisis. "So I'm going to find money somehow, even if I have to go begging. Unfortunately I can't sing, because otherwise I would sing at the side of the road and maybe people could give me change."

That sentiment will strike a chord with dozens of athletes pouring bucket-loads of family cash into the funding gap - many of them a whole lot less sure of even reaching the Olympic slopes, let alone picking up a medal.

Ellie Koyander, at 18, is one of the youngest prospective members of Team GB. The Derbyshire teenager competes in moguls, a form of freestyle skiing, and is currently ranked 46th in the world. All the various rankings and qualification criteria suggest Britain has earned one place in the Olympic moguls competition, and Koyander will take it, but she awaits the BOA's stamp of approval on Tuesday.

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"I'm doing really well for someone of my age," she told me when we met up last month. "The average age is 24 and I'm only 18. I'd just be really happy to ski my best and get to those Olympic finals.

"We've had such a long preparation for this. Four years ago, when I was 14, I said to myself I want to be in the Olympics for moguls skiing. I want to gain lots of experience, learn what it's about, then in 2014 in Sochi I'm definitely going to go for gold. I've got about five Olympics left in me."

Koyander, who describes her sport as "Usain Bolt running down the steps of Wembley then pulling a 360-degree spin and a backflip - on skis", spoke to me with her father, Peter, looking on. Himself an accomplished skier, he clearly lives and breathes Ellie's budding Olympic career. They have both had to make sacrifices to find the money for Ellie to compete, and she catches up on her studies from her athlete accommodation while on the World Cup circuit. Tuesday's announcement, they hope, will be the pay-off.

It's important to remember that meeting the International Olympic Committee's qualification criteria in any event is no longer a guarantee, if you're British, that you wiil take part. In the wake of one Mr E. Eagle's attempts at Calgary, the BOA has its own - stricter - rules to ensure the only athletes it sends are ones who can compete at the highest level.

That means Alcott's alpine skiing colleagues such as Dougie Crawford and Ed Drake, cross-country skiers like Fiona Hughes and Andrew Musgrave, and snowboarders including Ben Kilner and Zoe Gillings all expect to find themselves in the team, but can't take it for granted. (It's worth restating that even if their national governing body has collapsed by the time the opening ceremony begins, Britain will field a team at the Games.)

Once Tuesday is out of the way, the only remaining team to be confirmed is the British skeleton squad, due to be announced on Friday. The star there is Shelley Rudman, who won GB's only medal of the 2006 Winter Olympics and has picked up medals on a regular basis this season, but Kristan Bromley (her partner) and Amy Williams are both top skeleton athletes. All three are dead certs to go, but Britain may have earned one or two more places, with the likes of Adam Pengilly knocking on the door.

From that point on, the scene shifts to Canada. Team GB are due to reach their training camp in Calgary in the first few days of February - around the same time as the first BBC staff reach Vancouver to prepare for our coverage of the Games.

Twenty-four athletes have already been selected to the team, a number expected to rise to 50-odd once this week is complete. But even among sports whose teams have been chosen, this month has been far from plain sailing. The British women's curling team, who won gold in 2002, have had to deselect Karen Addison in mysterious circumstances, with all concerned remaining tight-lipped.

British curling's Eve MuirheadBritish curling's Eve Muirhead - much to ponder, aged just 19

Addison may only have been the alternate (curling-speak for reserve, or substitute), but it won't help skip (curling-speak: captain) Eve Muirhead, just 19, focus on the task ahead. Annie Laird has been brought in to replace Addison - Laird is highly-experienced and has a World Championship winners' medal from 2002 but, if she is called upon in Vancouver, it will mean the British fielding four women who have never all played on the same team. That's a bit odd for an Olympic competition.

Funding catastrophes, curling strife and splitting spandex - British preparations for Vancouver could have been better. But, if it's any consolation, the venue itself has been under the weather of late.

Vancouver has seen so much rain in January that one Olympic slope had to close early ahead of the Games to preserve what little snow remained. The city's weather forecasters are rapidly becoming international celebrities with appearances on global TV news, while organisers are falling back on stockpiles of snow on higher ground.

Moreover, casting a glance at Canadian broadcaster CTV, the mood of their Olympics coverage feels decidedly sombre. Headlines include "Commuter challenge", "Scramble for security guards", "Border security concerns" and even an article on the threat posed by the Norwalk vomiting bug.

Yet despite all this, if they manage to find some cash (and some snow), avoid diarrhoea, get through border control and keep their suits in one piece, Britain could come back with a record medal haul.

The best a British team has ever managed at a post-war Winters is two medals (on three occasions, the most recent being Salt Lake City in 2002). So talk of "records" may not mean too much, but the talent is there. Rudman, the two-woman bobsleigh team, both curling teams and snowboarder Zoe Gillings have genuine medal aspirations, while there are other sliders, speed skaters and ice dancers with an outside chance.

If just one or two of the above come good, it will be a worthwhile return on a difficult, turbulent winter.


  • Comment number 1.

    Do you know what time the skiing squad will be announced on Tuesday?

  • Comment number 2.

    Glad to see cross country skiing has finally got a mention on the BBC!
    The GB teams website has info about the skiers hoping for places and also says the BOA have scheduled a press conference for 5.15pm tomorrow.

  • Comment number 3.

    Upon reading this article I am utterly disgusted with the behaviour and timing of the Royal Bank of Scotland. I have set up a facebook group called "Save British Skiing", please join for added support and am in the proccess of setting up a petition on the government's e-petition site.

    This is not only bad for british sport, it's embarrasing for the home nations!!!!

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi all, the BOA will be announcing luge, bob, biathlon, all kinds of skiing and snowboarding athletes for the Winter Olympics at 1715GMT on Tuesday. I'll be going along for the BBC Sport website. The skeleton team will be revealed on Friday.
    Also today UK Sport says Brit should win three medals, whoch would be best Winter Olympic haul since 1936... no pressure there then??

  • Comment number 5.

    So RBS wants to pull the plug just before the Games? I presume that they will also pull the plug on receiving any publicity that they might otherwise expect from British successes. One would like to know who is responsible for the financial mess in the first place, but RBS has a lot to learn about timing.

  • Comment number 6.

    RBS want to pull the plug? I guess we, the taxpayer, will have to do likewise, and absolutley insist that the bankers live on rations or become shop workers.

    Oh I forgot, it doesn't work that way. We do as they say, pay billions of pounds as they feel like it, and let them line their pockets as they see fit. That doesn't give us the right to suggest that they do their jobs properly.

  • Comment number 7.

    North-North, no one has a divine right to an overdraft if they are bust and a bank is entitled to pull the plug if it sees no way of getting its money back. However, this is neither the time, nor the way to do it.
    I venture to speculate that foreclosed or not, RBS will not be slow to take advantage of medalists in its publicity.

    Otherwise I agree totally with your comments that this is a selfish, mean-spirited move from a collective that has not exactly covered itself in glory recently and was begging for handouts themselves not so long ago and expected to get them.


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