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Why GB should expect their best ever Winter Olympics

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Ollie Williams | 06:03 UK time, Tuesday, 9 February 2010

In three weeks' time, after a fortnight of action in Vancouver, Team GB's Winter Olympians are expected to come home with three medals.

It does not matter what colour those medals are - the British Olympic Association (BOA) and UK Sport simply demand that the squad return with three of them to satisfy the £6.5m investment poured into winter sports over the last four years.

To come up with that figure, senior members of the British set-up have taken the obvious step of scanning the team's performances in recent years to determine who stands a chance of winning a medal when the action gets under way this weekend.

The result is a set of "annual performance statistics" published to much fanfare last month - a document which the BOA said "demonstrates the exciting level of potential that has developed in British winter sport".

That sounds very impressive but, in reality, it just involves totting up the number of world championship medals every nation won in 2009, then making them into a big list.

Team GB comes 14th in that list, with two gold medals (the men's curling team and women's two-man bobsleigh) and two silver medals in skeleton.

The inference from those 2009 medals is that we should expect similar in Vancouver, but the BOA has shown itself keen to slightly underplay its hand when it comes to Olympic predictions: it wanted 35 medals from Beijing and got 47. Here it looks as though, with four 2009 world championship medals under its belt, the organisation has decided three Olympic medals will be enough.

But looking at the British squad in detail (see below), I don't think we should be satisfied with that three-medal target, particularly with the caveat that medals may be of any colour. The squad would walk away with three if they simply performed to their current world rankings, rising to four if they reached 2009 world championship levels.

Chemmy Alcott at Team GB kitting-outChemmy Alcott - she's got the mascot, now she needs the medal

However, athletes all aim to raise their game at the Games, and the air has been rich with the sound of optimistic British athletes in recent weeks and months. Chemmy Alcott will tell anyone prepared to listen how sure she is of an alpine skiing medal; the British short track speed skaters are confident; John and Sinead Kerr are well-placed to steal a medal in the ice dance; and Zoe Gillings has long been rated a chance in the snowboard cross.

Five medals in total, two of them gold is the personal target I believe the British team can reach. That would be hands-down the best performance of a British Winter Olympic team, but the BOA has been keen to push its new motto of "better never stops" and now seems a good time to demonstrate it.

Maybe I'm buying into the hype too much. What do you reckon? Even if Britain does bring five medals home, don't start getting excited about the medal table. Assuming two are gold, GB would probably still finish 14th - it would take four golds to have a hope of breaking into the top 10, according to the BOA's own statistics.

Not that working out those figures is the most taxing statistical operation. It's one plenty of people have come up with before, providing a quick method of setting out the lie of the land before an Olympic Games. It ignores athletes who were injured or otherwise engaged at their sport's last world championships and is hence far from perfect, but creating anything more detailed starts to get incredibly involved.

Luciano Barra, former head of the Italian Olympic Committee, has been at this game for years. He issues regular updates for both the Summer and Winter Games - you might recall we spoke to him before Beijing 2008, and his projection was 48 medals for fourth-placed GB.

Britain duly finished fourth with 47 medals, well ahead of their official target and impressively close to Barra's projected tally. But he will be the first to admit there's a large amount of luck involved: many of the British medals came from events where Barra had Britain down to get nothing, and vice versa. These tables are only good as a rough gauge, and they can never precisely predict what is going to happen.

However, it is fascinating that the BOA and Barra, conjuring the same end product from the same figures, have two different nations topping their medal tables.

Barra has the United States down for overall victory with 13 gold medals, whereas the BOA reckons Norway and the US will tie on 11 golds each, with the Norwegians sneaking it on the basis of two extra silvers. (See below for their two tables in full, and an explanation of why the tallies differ.)

That discrepancy alone goes to show you can't sustain much of an argument with these pre-Games projections. But beyond the medal table minutiae, there are some facts and figures from the British team heading to Vancouver which do tell a story.



This is the biggest British team since Albertville in 1992, to which 54 athletes were sent (there were 57 at Calgary in 1988, the biggest contingent in recent history). By comparison with other countries, Britain's squad is the same size as that of Ukraine, and slightly larger than the teams being sent by Poland and Slovenia.

Team GB athletes outside Somerset HouseTwelve of GB's 52 athletes get a send-off outside Somerset House in London

The US has the largest team (216 athletes) while hosts Canada have 201. Twelve countries - Albania, the Cayman Islands, Ghana, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Montenegro, Morocco, Pakistan, Portugal, San Marino, Senegal and Taiwan - are sending a lone athlete to Vancouver. (The full list is on the Vancouver 2010 official website.)


There are 52 members of the British Winter Olympic team, of whom 28 are men and 24 women. Never before has Britain sent so many women to a Winter Olympics - at Nagano in 1998, the British team boasted just seven female competitors, alongside 26 men.


The women are younger than the men, too: the average age of women in the team is 26, compared to 28 for the men. The youngest member of the team is, appropriately, 17-year-old cross-country skier Andrew Young - one-third of a cross-country team entirely made up of teenagers. The other two, Andrew Musgrave and Fiona Hughes, were born within a day of each other in March 1990.

At the other end of the spectrum, Peter Smith, part of the men's curling team, is the oldest member of the squad at the age of 45. Smith was born in 1964, while Young was born in 1992 - the difference between the two is larger than the average age of the squad.

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Five of the six eldest members of the team are curlers, which makes sense given the sport's fairly sedentary characteristics compared with other winter events. The two curling teams have an average age of 34 between them - only three Team GB athletes from other winter sports are older than that. And yet Eve Muirhead, who leads the women's curlers, is just 19.


All 10 of the curlers selected to Team GB are Scottish, and in all there are 18 members of Team GB who were born in Scotland. A further 28 were born in England while figure skater Jenna McCorkell is Northern Irish, snowboarder Zoe Gillings was born on the Isle of Man, and the remaining four were born abroad: men's luge competitor AJ Rosen (US), snowboarder Adam McLeish (Canada), former Wasps rugby star turned bobsleigh entrant Henry Nwume (Zambia) and skier Sarah Sauvey (Australia).

World ranking

In general, the team's Scottish-born members are ranked higher in their sports. Both curling teams are in the top 10 (the men are world number two, the women seventh), and ice dance duo the Kerrs are ranked fifth. The only competitors entering the Winter Olympics at the head of their field are the women's bobsleigh duo of Nicola Minichiello and Gillian Cooke - the former was born in England, the latter in Scotland.

The cross-country skiing team is noteworthy not only for its youthfulness, but also for its world rankings. Skiing's international governing body ranks Andrew Musgrave 192nd in the world, Fiona Hughes 391st, and Andrew Young 409th (making him the team's youngest and lowest-ranked competitor). In general, the British skiing team is not well-ranked. Chemmy Alcott, by far the brightest current skiing talent, is ranked 13th.


Ten of the 52 athletes have prior Olympic experience, four-man bobsleigh competitor Allyn Condon being a special case having competed in athletics' 4x100m relay at Sydney 2000. Marcus Adam, who appeared at Barcelona 1992 and Salt Lake 2002, was the last Briton to complete a Winter and Summer Olympic double (which suggests it takes exactly one decade to make the transition - and both went from athletics to bobsleigh). Shelley Rudman was, of course, the only medallist at Turin four years ago, in the skeleton, and she returns ranked second in the world in 2010.

Seven more athletes can count on the experience of not one but two appearances at the Winter Games: Chemmy Alcott, Kristan Bromley, Nicola Minichiello, Sarah Lindsay, Ewan MacDonald, Jackie Lockhart and Lesley McKenna. Lockhart, of the women's curling team, is the only veteran of Nagano 1998 in the squad at the age of 44.

(Name, gold medals, silver, bronze, total)

Luciano Barra's medal table:
1. United States (13, 5, 10, 28)
2. Norway (11, 7, 7, 25)
3. Germany (9, 15, 4, 28)
4. Austria (8, 7, 3, 18)
5. Canada (6, 10, 13, 29)
6. China (6. 6. 1. 13)
7. South Korea (5, 5, 3, 13)
8. Switzerland (5, 4, 4, 13)
9. Russia (4, 3, 6, 13)
10. Netherlands (4, 2, 2, 8)
11. Finland (3, 1, 8, 12)
12. Japan (3, 0, 4, 7)
13. Italy (2, 3, 3, 8)
14. Great Britain (2, 2, 0, 4)
15. Poland (2, 0, 2, 4)

British Olympic Association medal table:
1. Norway (11, 7, 7, 25)
2. United States (11, 5, 11, 27)
3. Germany (10, 14, 4, 28)
4. Austria (8, 7, 5, 20)
5. South Korea (7, 4, 3, 14)
6. Canada (6, 12, 12, 30)
7. China (5, 5, 1, 11)
8. Switzerland (5, 4, 4, 13)
9. Russia (4, 3, 6, 13)
10. Netherlands (4, 2, 2, 8)
11. Finland (3, 1, 8, 12)
12. Japan (3, 0, 3, 6)
13. Italy (2, 3, 3, 8)
14. Great Britain (2, 2, 0, 4)
15. Poland (2, 0, 2, 4)

Why do the two tables differ?

Barra and the BOA occasionally use different competitions for their data, but I've found one or two apparent errors. (They may be correct - if you can explain them, let me know!)

The BOA has ruled out US Nordic Combined skier Billy Demong's 10km individual large hill world title - Demong was disqualified in the team event, but not the individual, which may have foxed the BOA statisticians.

In short track speed skating, the BOA says it has taken the results from the 2009 World Championships in Austria. The US won the men's 5000m relay title there, but the BOA has given the gold to South Korea - who won at the World Team Championships in the Netherlands, later that month, but not in Austria.


  • Comment number 1.

    Sorry, but you are believing the hype! This is the Winter Olympics our track record is not good.

    I'm going for two medals. A silver in the Curling and a bronze in the Skeleton. Pessimistic- yes, but if we do better then a pleasant surprise.

  • Comment number 2.

    Can the BBC please raise the bar this time and refrain from showing photos of athletes in the hackneyed "biting the medal" pose? We know it's not real gold, it's never been real gold, so just put the thing around your neck you simpleton, smile at the camera, and keep it out of your mouth.

  • Comment number 3.

    #1 read the comments from 08 when Barras report came out, they sound like you. And were wrong

  • Comment number 4.

    It's a shame our best Winter Sports athlete - Jenny Jones - competes in an event that is not yet in the Olympics. The snowboarder from Bristol has just won her second Winter X games gold medal in a row - something no other Brit has ever achieved. It's a travesty she won't be in Vancouver.

  • Comment number 5.

    These tables seem a little flawed. Sweden doesn't figure in either of them. Has someone forgotten to include them? I live in Sweden and there is a lot of optimistic noise emanating from the local press. I find it hard to believe that the Swedish Olympic team will not finish in the top 15.

  • Comment number 6.

    It doesn't matter to me how well we do. What does matter is that all our athletes, both able bodied and disabled, show that we as a nation are passionate about competing.
    I cheer more for the tail enders who put in 100% than the leaders - probably because I can identify with that.

    Would be more interested in what percentage of athletes from each country can do a personal best in the games.

  • Comment number 7.

    Fingers crossed for the Paralympic and Olympic sides.

  • Comment number 8.

    we need another eddie the eagle just to create media mania in this country,its a shame the ioc wont allow those type of characters anymore.

  • Comment number 9.

    Sweden won 7 golds at the last games but according to the BOA and Luciano Barra they won't make the top 15 in Vancouver. They have the top ranked female biathlete and another in the top 5( Who is a defending champ) and could medal in both relays also. Thats just one sport which they could win possibly two golds. They have strong chances in Alpine Skiing, Ice-Hockey,X-C skiing and Curling amongst others. Both predictions have an over-reliance on the previous seasons worlds, medals in the major champs tend to go to the form athletes of that season not champs in the previous season.

    Thats why I think that 5 medals for GB is too optimistic, especially considering the Kerr's could only finish 5th in the European's, although the skeleton team do seem to be coming into form. Nicole Minochello will extremely well do repeat her feat of last season, given her interuppted season but best of luck of them.

  • Comment number 10.

    I don’t like the prediction game when it comes to medals. As on the day there are way too many variables to decide, I think a medal tally of 5 is optimistic by any standard and as pointed out above are we honestly saying Britain will beat Sweden in the Medal tally at the Winter Olympics??

    One quick point over selection and comments about Eddie the Eagle above... actually the British Olympic Standards are much higher than the IOC standards so it is more the BOA that prevent future Eddies than it is the IOC, although standards across the board are getting higher.

    The British team is not just about medal counts, some of the team is about the long term future of the Winter Olympic team, such as the cross country skiers, who will be nowhere near the medal table but will be benchmarking themselves for the 2014 and 2018 Olympics, well if I taught them anything they will be!

  • Comment number 11.

    I agree this ranking is biaised as there are many countries missing such as France, Slovekia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Sweden, etc. Some of those countries would definitely come before England in the number of medals in the Winter Olympic Games.

  • Comment number 12.

    Curling should not be classified as a sport and definitely not an Olympic sport. If I go to a pub in England, almost certainly there will be a game of darts, billiard or curling on TV. Curling is the winter equivalent of petanque or bowling. It is a game, not a sport.

  • Comment number 13.

    I am troubled by Charles's accusation that curling should not be considered a sport. To say so cheapens the effort and commitment demonstrated by the ten athletes taking part in the Winter Games.
    There are many different skills required of the curler - not least the ability to stand up on ice with two different surfaces on each foot! The delivery of the top curler involves athleticism and fitness; sweepers - and they can make a difference of 6 - 8 feet on a stone, depending on the ice surface - need to be strong, agile and fit. Finally, there is the judgement involved in getting a stone weighing 42 lbs to stop "just so" anything up to 45 tards away down a slippy surface.
    What gives Charles ammunition is maybe the fact that the top exponents of the sport just make it look so easy. It is anything but!
    Perhaps Charles should pop down to his local ice rink and give it a go. Curling is an inclusive sport that welcomes all - even the doubting Thomases! He would soon find out that it is nothing like the pub games that he mentions. Come the following day, I guarantee that he will find walking difficult, he will be that stiff from the effort of using muscles he didn't know that he had.
    Darts it ain't!

  • Comment number 14.

    Charles also seems confused about the English team that is going to the Winter Olympics, funnily enough it is the British team not the English team!! From someone born in England and raced for Scotland and Great Britain at skiing!!


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