Team GB want best Winter Games but 'theatre of jeopardy' promises nothing

After a significant increase in investment, Team GB should shine in Pyeongchang but winter medals can be hard to predict

It was not quite Colin Welland waving an Oscar in the air and proclaiming “The British are coming” to Hollywood’s finest after Chariots of Fire won the 1982 best original screenplay award. But there was no mistaking Lizzy Yarnold’s confidence when asked whether Team GB’s Winter Olympians are ready to shatter records – and age-old preconceptions – over the next fortnight in Pyeongchang.

“You can tell we have a strong team,” replied Yarnold, Britain’s sole gold medallist four years ago in Sochi and flag bearer during Friday’s opening ceremony. “There is relaxed confidence and focus. I can’t wait for this to be hopefully our best Winter Olympics.”

Britain has had only intermittent success as a winter sport nation. Four medals – achieved in Sochi – is as good as it has ever got. This time, however, the British Olympic Association and UK Sport are aiming for at least five medals, and believe they may manage as many as 10.

It is a target Chelsea Warr, UK Sport’s director of performance, describes as “very ambitious but very realistic”. Her message to any doubters is blunt: “If your goals don’t scare you, you’re not aiming high enough.”

At the same time, she acknowledges that when it comes to winter sports, the medal prediction business can be particularly fuzzy. “The best way to describe the Winter Olympics is as a theatre of jeopardy,” Warr says. “It is high risk. It is high reward. It has high stakes. That is what is makes it so exciting – and so very nerve-racking.”

Look at Elise Christie, who could be Britain’s best medal hope at these Games, given she is second favourite for the 500m short track speed skating and the reigning world champion over 1,000m and 1500m. However, it would not be a shock if she came away from Pyeongchang clutching a medal or two – or none at all.

Because, for all her talent and drive, every time Christie goes around a bend she is skating at a 68-degree angle to the ice, at speeds of up to 20mph, while also trying to avoid skaters zigging and zagging next to her. The gap between glory and failure is as thin as the one-millimetre blades on her skates.

You can say much the same about Britain’s park and pipe snowboarding team. James Woods and Izzy Atkin won world championships medals last year, while Katie Summerhayes also has a shot at glory. But when your sport requires you to fly 20 feet in the air, perform a high-risk trick and land upright after falling from the equivalent of a three-storey building, the chances of things going wrong are far higher than running around an athletics track.

Yet Mike Hay, the British Olympic chef de mission, is certain the talent in his 59-strong squad, the largest Britain has sent to a Winter Olympics, is greater than ever. “There are no guarantees in winter sport, but Sochi was a seismic shift forward,” he says. “The target of a best-ever Olympic Winter Games is indicative of just how far the athletes have progressed over the past four years. Great Britain is now viewed as a credible winter nation.”

He cites other medal chances: Yarnold and Laura Deas in the skeleton, the slalom skier Dave Ryding and the cross-country skier Andrew Musgrave. Then there is the women’s curling team, who won bronze at the 2017 world championships, and are seen as a good bet for the podium.

UK Sport points to several factors that have made the difference. Naturally money tops the list. The £32m of national lottery and government funding across eight winter Olympic and Paralympic sports in the Pyeongchang 2018 cycle is more than double the investment in Sochi, which was just over £14m. Some of this has raised eyebrows – is the £5m spent on men’s and women’s curling, say, value for money? – but no one disputes the positive relationship between money and medals.

Warr also points to various training and technological aids that she hopes will give British athletes a jump on the competition.

“We have recently installed a very big airbag – the biggest airbag that any ski nation has ever seen before – for park and pipe athletes,” she explains. “The purpose is to enable the athletes to be far more experimental and to take more risks in developing their new tricks, without the psychological fear that they will crash when they land.

“Because of this, they are able to practise more skills more times in a day, accelerating their learning without the risk of injury.”

Warr insists the increased emphasis Britain’s sporting bigwigs have placed on winter sports is a “bold and ambitious” strategy. Few would dispute that. The only question is whether its athletes can perform on the biggest stage of all – or whether the theatre of jeopardy will swallow them up and spit them out.


Sean Ingle in Pyeongchang

The GuardianTramp

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