The ghosts of Albertville 92 are twitching. It is 30 years since Great Britain returned from a Winter Games without a single medal and more than 20 since the money taps began to flood across Olympic sport. But suddenly a nation used to every Games bringing ever greater glories – and stories– is starting to notice an alien sensation: potential failure.
Team GB arrived in Beijing confident they would win between three and seven medals. They still might. But as each gold-plated opportunity slips by – a loose curling stone here, a mistimed snowboard turn there – the sense of nervousness grows. Having talked a good game, they increasingly resemble a gambler on tilt, desperate for any kind of win.
On Saturday there was more pain as Britain’s skeleton sliders, who had won a medal at every Games since 2002, were so far off the pace that if it was horse racing there would have been a steward’s inquiry. Brogan Crowley, tipped as a future star, finished 22nd out of 25 competitors while Laura Deas, a bronze medallist four years ago, was 19th.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t deliver something better for you,” said Deas, fighting back the tears. “The speed that I so desperately want is not there, and there’s nothing I can do about that now.”
What made these results even more puzzling is that Team GB athletes consistently made better starts than the German gold medallist Hannah Neise. But a combination of poor driving and a strangely slow sled meant they were soon propping up the rear.
So what is behind Britain’s poor performance? Part of it is simple variance. A small number of medal prospects, combined with many winter events being highly chaotic, is a recipe for unpredictability – good or bad. And in Beijing it has so far been bad.
Some Team GB staff insist that getting a medal under your belt early builds momentum. What if Britain’s world champion mixed curlers had continued their good start in their semi-final against Norway? Or if world No 1 Charlotte Bankes had not made a mistake in the snowboard cross? Britain could easily be sitting on two medals and hearts would be still, not beating uneasily.
The impact of Covid is another factor. Around 60% of Britain’s 50-strong squad spend large parts of their year abroad. Having less time to train on snow and ice due to travel restrictions inevitably hurts.
But for some insiders there is a more troublesome issue: a fear that Team GB has lost its tech advantage. Take skeleton. For years it has benefited from superior helmets, aerodynamic skin suits and fast sleds. But in Beijing their new in-house designed sled has appeared more Lada than Mercedes. Ironically the silver and bronze medallists, from Australia and the Netherlands, were on British-made Kristian Bromley sleds.
Others in UK Sport believe the organisation has never completely replaced Scott Drawer, their former head of research and innovation for more than a decade until 2013. It was Drawer who was responsible for using applied science, medicine and engineering projects to help Team GB – and was far ahead of his time in bringing advanced aerodynamic expertise into Olympic sport.
Notably when Drawer departed the innovation programme was moved out of UK Sport and into the English Institute of Sport with mixed results. The EIS got a lot more cash and staff. However, there have been some notable white elephants. Before the Sochi Winter Olympics, for instance, more than £500,000 was wasted on building a state-of-the-art bobsleigh – with the help of F1’s McLaren – that was not considered good enough to be used for the 2014 Games.
As one squad member told the Guardian, when it was given back to the team by McLaren in October 2013, it had to be re-engineered because it was found to be too small to fit in all four men. Even after that the widespread feeling in the camp was that it was “rubbish” and “substandard”.
The sled used by Britain’s athletes in Beijing is said to be a work in progress. With a few tweaks maybe it will one day fire GB to more medals. However so far the signs are not entirely encouraging. An urgent question for skeleton remains: if GB has no tech advantage to help it win low-hanging fruit, why should it enjoy £6.4m in funding over the Olympic cycle – especially when there are no tracks in the country?
Yet some perspective is needed. A week remains. Team GB can still emerge with medals. On Monday, the brilliant 17-year-old Kirsty Muir goes in the women’s freestyle skiing slopestyle. On Wednesday Dave Ryding, the 35-year-old slalom skier, has his fourth attempt at an Olympic medal. The men’s two and four-man bobsleigh teams could yet win a medal. The men’s curling – and perhaps the women too – almost certainly will.
There have also been performances here – such as Muir and figure skaters Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson – that are surely building blocks for the Milan Cortina 2026 Games.
A setback in Beijing will not be the end of the world. It might encourage UK Sport to ask what it can do better. Finding better ways to tackle the chronic lack of diversity in Britain’s Olympic teams is long overdue. So is deepening the talent pool and finding new ways to define success that goes beyond mere medals.
But perhaps some of this is on us too. As a nation we have gorged on Olympic medal success for so long that we have forgotten what it is like to stumble, to fall short – and, yes, to get back on your feet.