It was hard not to be charmed by Dave Ryding’s slalom victory at Kitzbühel. His story has a little of everything the British want in their favourite winter Olympians; an unlikely beginning on a dry ski slope in Pendle, a homespun background, training in a shed his father built in the back garden and a mulish stubborn streak that meant he graduated on to the elite skiing circuit when he was 28. That’s the sort of age when most people would be thinking about quitting already, and that, at 35, made him the country’s first World Cup race winner. “Ein Brite? Ein Brite!” was the headline in the next day’s Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Ryding is 50-1 to win the slalom gold medal in Beijing. There is something enjoyably improbable about it all, even now he has already gone and won a race.
Great Britain is one of a handful of countries who have been represented at all 23 Winter Olympic Games. They have won a grand total of 32 medals in them, in figure skating and curling, leisure‑centre sports that can be done indoors, plus skeleton and bobsled racing, a gold in ice hockey, believe it or not, back in 1936, and a smattering of bronzes in snowboarding, freestyle skiing and short‑track speed skating. In alpine skiing, Great Britain have won exactly nothing, nada, in almost a century of trying.
They almost did when Ryding’s GB coach, Alain Baxter, finished third in the slalom at Salt Lake in 2002, a turn-up so unexpected that none of the band of British journalists covering those Games were there to see it happen because nobody figured he had a chance of winning anything. But it was stripped from him because he tested positive for a tiny quantity of methamphetamine he had inadvertently ingested after using a Vicks inhaler. Which, some felt, was such an injustice that a group of MPs tabled an early day motion in parliament calling on the International Olympic Committee to overturn the decision. The IOC did not.
The really odd part of this story, though, is not Britain’s comparative lack of success in the sport (“I’m from the UK,” Ryding said recently, “and we don’t have mountains”) but that if it weren’t for the British the sport would not exist at all. The strange fact is that they invented modern alpine skiing a century ago. Which means it is yet another of those sports the British conceived, organised, formalised and spread, then spent the next 100 years losing at. Most of this can be traced back to the early days of Ryding’s own ski club, the Kandahar, and one man in particular, Sir Arnold Lunn.
Lunn, born in 1888, was the son of Sir Henry Lunn, who founded a travel agency that organised the first winter tours from Britain to Switzerland (the company went out of business in 2005 but – “Lunn Poly, Get Away!” – is still instantly familiar to anyone who lived in Britain in the 1980s and 90s).
Henry never skied but his boy, Arnold, took to it from the start. In those early days, that meant racing cross-country, Scandinavian style, with arduous treks uphill and long stretches of flat terrain broken up by short downhill descents when the racers braked with sticks. The idea was that a man who is fast downhill is still slower than a man who is fast uphill. The descents were for resting.
There were slalom races, but the competitors were marked entirely on style and technique and they were for kids. Until Lunn and a band of British tourists set about reforming, organising and codifying the sport with the devil-may-care zeal and damned‑if‑I‑won’t self-certainty of Edwardian public school boys.
They had set up the first downhill race in the Alps, the Roberts of Kandahar Challenge Cup in 1903. Lunn went further and concocted an idea for a slalom with competitors judged on their time rather than technique. “The object of a turn is to get round a given obstacle losing as little speed as possible,” he wrote. “Therefore, a fast ugly turn is better than a slow pretty turn.”
He organised his first slalom race, the Alpine Ski Challenge Cup a century ago, in January 1922. It was Lunn who set up the gates, staked out the course and devised the format.
Over the next 10 years, he oversaw its growth, through the first championships and its eventual acceptance by the International Ski Federation (FIS) and inclusion in the Winter Olympics in 1936.
The traditionalists did not always take kindly to his upstart efforts. He said it was like an American member of the MCC proposing they ought to play baseball on alternate Sundays. One Norwegian vice-president of the FIS asked him: “What would you think, Mr Lunn, if I tried to alter the rules of cricket?” Lunn replied “I wish you would. If you succeeded we might have fewer draws.”
Lunn became a well-known, and occasionally controversial, thinker and theologian, but remained proud of his achievements in skiing. He wrote: “The group of Englishmen at Mürren responsible for what I have called ‘the Kandahar revolution’ had a greater effect in 10 years on competitive skiing than the rest of the world in 25 centuries.”
He grew to despair of what happened to his sport. He felt it had become too slick and professional, the snow over-prepared and the skiers too familiar with the terrain. But still, you guess he would take some satisfaction in watching Ryding, a Kandahar man, and another outsider, race for gold.