Category Archives: Simon Rea

Great Britain on snow and ice – a brief history of involvement at the Winter Olympics

By Simon Rea

Out in the cold: Britain’s medal tally at the Winter Olympics

Great Britain’s recent involvement in the Summer Olympics has been an overwhelming success. It culminated with a third place finish in the medal table winning a total of 65 medals at the London Olympic Games of 2012 and many GB athletes becoming household names.  But how does this compare to Britain’s performances at the Winter Olympics? Ask most British people what they know about the Winter Olympics and they will reply with Torville and Dean, Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards and something about skeleton Bob!

So are the Winter Olympics less relevant for a country that has few mountains where skiing is possible and no sliding facilities? Or is it something to get excited about and hopeful for British success?

Unfortunately, history is not on our side.  Compare the total medal hauls for the Summer and Winter Olympics:

  • Summer Olympics – Total: 780 medals (236 gold, 272 silver and 272 bronze)
  • Winter Olympics – Total: 22 medals (9 gold, 3 silver and 10 bronze)

Whilst acknowledging that these statistics are skewed because there are fewer medals available at the Winter Olympics, Britain has achieved under 3% of its Olympic medals at the Winter Olympics. Added to this Britain’s best performance at a Winter Olympic Games came at the first, held in Chamonix in 1924.  Great Britain secured four medals (1 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronze).  This performance achieved a sixth place in the medals table in comparison to sixteenth in 2010.  Along the way there have been some highpoints for British performers as well as several low-points, which may be best forgotten.

Success on the ice

In the late 1970s and early 1980s British figure skaters were prominent on the podium.  John Curry and Robin Cousins winning gold medals in the men’s singles figure skating in 1976 and 1980 respectively. Then in 1984 Christopher Dean and Jayne Torville won gold in the ice dancing and famously achieved the highest score for a single routine with twelve 6.0s and six 5.9s for their Bolero routine.  This was an all-time Olympic highlight.  They tried to repeat their success in 1994 but pushed the rules too far with a controversial assisted lift and had to settle for bronze.

British athletes have found success in the skeleton event which was introduced at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. This is an event where the athlete lies face down on a small steel sled and hurtles down an ice track at speeds of around 90 mph. British success in the skeleton was started in 2002 by Alex Coomber who won a bronze medal, an amazing feat considering that she had broken her wrist ten days prior to the event!  This was followed up by a silver medal for Shelley Rudman in 2006 and then a gold medal in 2010 for Amy Williams.  Currently, British women top the medal tables for this event.

As the sport of curling has Scottish origins it is one where we may expect that British athletes have found success.  In fact, Great Britain won the men’s event in 1924 and were the holders of the Olympic title until it was reintroduced into the Olympics in 1998.  Continuing the trend Rhona Martin’s team dramatically won gold in 2002 with the last stone of the competition, since then medals have been in short supply.

Frozen in time

With the exception of achievements in speed skating (Nicky Gooch, 1994) and in bobsleigh (Sean Olsson’s four, 1998) medals have been sparse on the ground.  Interestingly, one British failure at the Winter Olympics is remembered as fondly as the successes.  Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards became an all-time Olympic hero in 1988 when he became the first (and still only) British competitor in the 70 m and 90 m ski jumps.  Eddie was a dedicated athlete who had tried to qualify for the British ski team in 1984 but had failed to make the team.  Not disheartened by failure he moved to Lake Placid and began training for the ski jump. However, he had two main problems – he was too heavy and he was long sighted.  In ski jumping it pays to be light because gravity will bring the heavier jumper to the ground more quickly. It also pays not to have to wear glasses as they become steamed up in cold weather.  Unfortunately Eddie came last in both events after which the IOC changed the rules to restrict the competition to ski jumpers who had achieved a certain standard. As a result Eddie failed to qualify for the next three Olympic Games.  Eddie the Eagle is an extraordinary story but spare a thought for the Finnish jumper who won the gold medal and whose victory was over shadowed by a jumper who finished over thirty metres behind him.

Skiing is another sport where British athletes have failed to gain a medal.  It looked like this had all changed in 2002 when Scottish skier, Alain Baxter, won a bronze medal in the slalom.  However, he was disqualified a few days later, when he was back home celebrating in Aviemore, having failed a drugs test.  He was found to have traces of methamphetamine in his body – this is a drug that had been in a Vicks inhaler he had used.  It transpired that the American version of the inhaler contained methamphetamine but the British version, which he usually used, did not.

Sochi 2014: British hopefuls set to break the ice

The lessons here are that if we are looking for British success in Sochi 2014 we should look at ice events such as curling, skeleton, speed skating and bobsleigh.  The attention of British viewers on the lookout for British success should be focused on some of the following athletes:

  • Lizzy Yarnold in the skeleton has won three World Cup races this season and has finished on the podium in every race.
  • Shelly Rudman who is the current skeleton world champion and looking to improve on her silver from 2006.
  • The women’s curling team and their skip, Eve Muirhead, are coached by Rhona Martin and are the current world champions.
  • Elise Christie in short track speed skating who is the current European champion at 1000 m and 1500 m.
  • John Jackson the pilot of the four man bobsleigh that just missed out a World Championship medal in 2013.

British hopes for Winter Olympics medals are usually modest. But this time maybe we can dream of beating our best performance of four medals in 1924 to match our best performance at a Summer Olympics in 2012.