Is long track a shortcut to success?
If you build it, medals will come.
That is the message from Sir Steve Redgrave, one of Great Britain's most decorated Olympians. As Team GB's athletes stare longingly up the medal table, Redgrave believes British fortunes at the Winter Games can be transformed by one building.
He proposes creating Britain's first long-track speed skating venue and housing other winter sports within it, following the example set by the American state of Utah ahead of the Salt Lake City Games in 2002.
Speed skating may be a sport all but ignored in Britain, but Redgrave believes it can become the beating heart of a new era in British winter sports. Sponsors have been approached, we are told, and UK Sport is amenable. An embryonic plan it may be, but it sounds far more than a pipe dream.
Is it really that easy? If the British team, which constantly reminds us of the chronic lack of funding for winter sports, managed to build a temple of ice, will their fortunes change? How would it work, and what do athletes stand to gain?
For that matter, why target speed skating? Why not plough whatever funding can be raised into sports where British athletes are already competing at Olympic level, with the intention of pushing them that extra distance into medal contention?
At the moment, Redgrave's suggestion is just that. It is a concept in embryonic form, and it may well never happen. But if one of Britain's finest Olympians, the vice-president of the British Olympic Association, is airing the idea, then it merits discussion.
The long track form of speed skating requires a 400m track instead of the usual-sized ice rinks in which short track is held. It is currently dominated by the Dutch - if not in results, certainly in enthusiasm. Sven Kramer, the Dutch skater who suffered an embarrassing disqualification following an error by his coach earlier in the week, is one of the sport's stars.
When I visited the Richmond Olympic Oval several days ago, the crowd was overwhelmingly Dutch. The Netherlands treats long track as one of its national sports, and fans flocking to Canada have only one destination in mind: the oval.
The Richmond Olympic Oval, minus the usual army of Dutch supporters. Photo: Getty Images
The reason the sport has come to Redgrave's attention is that speed skating is receptive to athletes with transferable skills. Olympic cycling gold medallist Rebecca Romero, a former rowing medallist, has considered long track in the past because it suits her physique. The sport has fewer intricacies than, say, ice hockey or figure skating. Raw speed will be rewarded.
Redgrave believes suitable British athletes are waiting to be swapped - via a talent identification programme - into a sport where they can blossom. "We should concentrate on an area where we can be the world's best," he said. "We were not very good at track cycling until we built the Manchester Velodrome. There are people now who will never, ever get on to the cycling team but who would walk on to any other team. Why not get them to try another sport?"
Redgrave has in mind populating a new speed skating team with athletes from other sports, but his plan would revolutionise the lives of the very few British long track athletes already in existence. I spoke to Phil Brojaka, who competes for Britain but lives and trains in the Netherlands.
"It would change my life completely," he said. "At the moment if you want to train you have to move abroad and go to Holland, Germany or the United States, but it would be amazing to have a venue in Britain.
"It wouldn't just make a difference for me, it'd be great for the whole sport in terms of bringing other people through."
Brojaka ditched short track for the longer form of speed skating in 2007 in his quest to reach the Olympics. He is receiving funding this season as it is an Olympic year "and they wanted to give us that boost", but that funding stops next season, and the 24-year-old has one eye on getting a job at a nearby international school in order to prop up his sporting career.
As things stand, Brojaka may go from being a man about to have his funding axed completely, to a man setting foot on a brand new Olympic oval in his home country, built specifically to accommodate and nurture his talent. But, he cautions, simply building the venue is not enough.
"It's all well and good having a long track training centre, but you need the resources: the staff and the coaches. It wouldn't mean anything without that. In Holland we have highly trained coaches, highly trained staff, everything we need. Sure, I'd come back to Britain if that venue opened, but I would need that too."
British speed skater Phil Brojaka, who lives and trains in the Netherlands
Redgrave says UK Sport has pledged to ensure the venue can be maintained, if he finds the money to get it built. We must assume that this includes the ongoing provision of coaching and staffing to the same level Olympic athletes would expect in other countries, and not just for speed skating - if curling, short track and others are invited to the party, their support staff are going to have to come too. It is an enormous project.
The inspiration behind Redgrave's vision is the Utah Olympic Oval, built in the United States in the run-up to the Salt Lake City Games. That venue houses two full-size ice hockey rinks within a 400m speed skating oval, with the addition of an indoor running track along the perimeter, completing a technologically advanced, climate-controlled hub for both winter and summer athletes. The US speed skating team moved into it a year in advance of Salt Lake City, and have not left.
Should a replica be built in the UK, I wonder if Redgrave realises how many sports will queue up at the centre's door. Ice time in Britain is at an almost ridiculous premium - for example, I have watched women's ice hockey teams train from midnight until two o'clock in the morning on a weekday because they cannot get on the ice any earlier. Those people then have to go to work the next day.
If you open the Sir Steve Redgrave Speed Skating Superdome in, for argument's sake, the West Midlands, you can expect every ice hockey team within a 100-mile radius to form a disorderly line to get on one of those two shiny, new ice pads. Redgrave has the ice in the middle of that speed skating oval earmarked for curling, and wants to house both sets of British curlers alongside the speed skaters to foster their focus and team spirit, but there will be an almighty bunfight for it.
Though he hasn't mentioned them, the short track team would almost certainly want to be involved in a national winter sports centre of excellence, as would some figure skaters, almost all of whom are currently based abroad. Then there is the Paralympic sport of sledge hockey to consider. Before you even think about opening this centre to the public, you could probably book its weekly ice time twice over.
But any negative feeling brought on by the scrap to get on the ice would be more than outweighed by the joy most British winter athletes would feel at having the gift of such an enormous complex. To say winter sports receive a fraction of the funding summer athletes are granted would be to overstate the sum involved. These things do not get built for winter sports. Many organisations spend their time fighting to save ice facilities in Britain, and there is one curling rink in the whole of England.
Wheelchair curling, among many other sports, would anticipate ice time in a new centre. Photo: PA
Moreover, Redgrave's logic surrounding the improvement in Team GB's winter fortunes stands to reason. He said the British Olympic Association used to act as a "glorified travel agency" and athletes would have far closer bonds with rivals in their own sports than British colleagues in others. If British winter athletes met each other on a daily basis - the speed skaters maybe kicking the odd, errant curling stone back into centre ice while the figure skaters warm up on the adjoining pad - it would be hard to avoid becoming a cohesive unit.
But at what, and whose, cost? These are all sports whose financial challenges are many and varied, whose bank balances fluctuate precariously on the precipice, whose performance directors sleep fitfully and dream only of a title sponsor. Redgrave said he is starting to speak to potential sponsors, but Olympic speed skating facilities are neither cheap to build, nor run. Keeping 90,000 square feet of ice cool for 365 days a year is going to cost somebody a pretty penny. The results would have to arrive almost instantly.
I hope it gets built. Britain has nothing like it and the Dutch model is an enticing one. The climate in the Netherlands is nigh-on identical to that of Britain, and they have tackled the "we're not a winter sports nation" mentality by targeting those sports where the ideal conditions - and Olympic success - can be artificially generated.
However, it is worth noting that Britain's only gold medal at the Vancouver Games has come in another sport with no British facility - skeleton. And nobody has suggested building a skeleton track.