Photo: GETTY IMAGES
“This Games could prove to be a real turning point for us as a winter
sports nation.” Simon Timson, UK Sport performance director
Now, a generation on, Timson’s words are engraved in stone: the foundation
stone of the new Wembley Ice Palace.
Britain’s latest temple to winter sports has been built on the site of the old
football stadium, a nod to this country’s sporting past.
The old Wembley has long since fallen into disrepair, a decline dating back to
the Euro 2016 qualifying draw, which threw up a series of uninspiring home
fixtures. A crowd of barely 65,000 for England v Lithuania was the final
straw. Football was yesterday’s news.
Fortunately, there was a new craze ready to take its place. It all began in
Sochi, where Britain announced itself as a winter sports superpower,
claiming an unprecedented four medals, a figure only narrowly trumped by
Belarus (six) and Slovenia (eight).
The terms “parallel slalom” and “pretzel 270 out of the top rail with a corked
450 out” were everywhere you looked. The Great British Winter Sports
Revolution of 2014 was under way.
Such was the wave of interest that Lizzy Yarnold and Jenny Jones were invited
to appear on The Jonathan Ross Show, alongside Jack Whitehall and McBusted.
Now that we are a fully-fledged winter sports nation, and both Yarnold and
Jones are established chat-show hosts in their own right, it is strange to
recall the primitive questioning to which they were submitted.
Ross: Does part of you think, when someone gets concussed: ‘Good!’?
Jones: Honestly, not at all. I’d just prefer them to get a sore bum.
Ross: So you’re hoping for haemorrhoids, basically?
Sceptics derided all this as a fleeting fancy. They cited London 2012, and its
summary failure to turn us into a nation of handball fanatics. But this love
proved to be strong and true. “Short-track speed skating is clearly on the
map in the UK,” said Wilf O’Reilly on the BBC. “That’s something Elise
Christie is now doing.”
Ah, Elise Christie. How we raged when she was persecuted by South Korean
trolls on Twitter (now owned by Facebook). How we raged when she was
disqualified for the third time.
It was enough to move commentator Hugh Porter to ever greater feats of
linguistic elasticity. “I’m absolutely mesmerised here, Clare,” he said.
“For my money, that move has sanitised the opportunity of Christie getting a
In a sense, this was an inexorable part of speed skating’s rise. Like all the
best sports, it consisted largely of moaning about officials.
“You have to respect the referee’s decision, but basically he was wrong,”
speed-skating performance director Stuart Horsepool told the BBC, in a bold
doublethink of which Harry Redknapp, Brendan Rodgers, David Moyes or any of
the great ‘gaffers’ of yore would have been proud.
To this day, the continuing refusal of speed-skating referees to explain their
decisions to the media afterwards remains a hot topic of debate on radio
phone-ins and newspaper back pages.
The transition was swift. Across the country, school playing fields were
cleared to make way for dry ski slopes and bobsleigh tracks. Excitable
commentators Ed Leigh and Tim Warwood were snapped up by Sky Sports as part
of their £3 billion purchase of World Snowboard Tour rights. (Not to be
outdone, BT responded by announcing an exclusive deal to screen Champions
League curling.) Topping the medal table at the Arbroath Olympics of 2038
was the culmination of decades of toil.
Football did not disappear from our screens; it enjoyed its own dedicated slot
on BBC Two on Sunday lunchtime, although most people struggled to recall
anything more than its iconic theme tune.
And so, as Yarnold and Christie cut the ribbon on the Wembley Ice Palace, they
were joined by former footballer Wayne Rooney. Once this country’s most
recognisable athlete, Rooney had faded from view in recent years, perhaps
best known as a judge on ITV celebrity game show Kicking On Grass.
Yet his presence at the new Wembley was somehow fitting: a visual reminder of
a time before the nation’s hearts had been captured, shaken and served on
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