Making Hay while the sun doesn't shine - BOA winter sports guru aiming high at Sochi 2014
Sunday, 03 February 2013
Mike Hay knows what it takes to perform supremely well at Olympic level. After a competitive curling career in which he helped Scotland win five European titles and two world silver medals, he turned to a coaching career in which, most gloriously, he guided Rhona Martin and her team of Scotswomen to their never-to-be-forgotten performance at 2002 Salt Lake City, where they came from the brink of an early exit to win the first British Winter Games since Torvill and Dean's 1984 ice dancing triumph, making the front and well as the back pages in the UK and attracting a home television audience of more than five million.
Appointed Olympic Performance Manager for Winter Sports by the British Olympic Association in 2006, Hay has played key roles in preparation for the Beijing and Vancouver Olympics, but the task now assuming ever-larger proportions in his field of vision is the Sochi 2014 Games, looming a year away.
Hay, who also played a part in the preparation of Team GB ahead of the London 2012 Games as he managed the preparation camp at Loughborough University, sat in the BOA's well-appointed offices in Charlotte Street and gave insidethegames an Olympian overview on Britain's ambitions for their 22nd sorty into territory which, let's be honest, has always been more comfortable for Alpine nations.
This quietly spoken Scot did not get where he is today by being unrealistic. As he points out, barring a catastrophic climate change, Britain ain't ever going to become an Alpine nation, ain't ever going to get a winter Games home boost to match that afforded to its summer Games competitors last summer. And ain't ever going to be finishing third in the overall medals table.
Winter ambitions are always relative, bounded by the circumstances of geography and lower levels of success begetting lower levels of funding.
That, however, does not preclude the optimising of performance, which is what Hay is hellbent on achieving. And as he looks ahead to Sochi 2014 - albeit the environmental challenges, and that of a hugely funded and motivated home team hellbent itself on repairing the damage to national pride caused by managing only eleventh place at the 2010 Vancouver Games - Hay is thinking, relatively, big.
"The ambition for us would to win three medals," Hay told insidethegames. "We briefly had it in Salt Lake City  before Alain [Baxter] lost his medal [after failing a drugs test]. I think if we could push to win three medals and move on to between tenth and 15th in the Olympic medal table that would be a fantastic result for us. That is absolutely our stretch target to do that.
"We can do better than 18th or 21st in the medal table, we can aspire to win three plus medals at the games. UK sport has invested £12 million (($19 million/€14 million) in us over the latest Olympiad from 2010 to 2014 and they will certainly be expecting us to be in that region.
"That said, Russia will be a difficult environment to operate in culturally and environmentally. Quite a lot of sports don't compete there on a regular basis either so it is quite new to them.
"And once you get over all these things such as trying to get used to the track or whatever facility it is you are going to be competing on, you will have to take into account the strength of the Russian team.
"After the disappointment of finishing eleventh at the 2010 Vancouver Games, they have put massive resources into their team for the home Games and they will make it hard for everyone. Even if they didn't have a history in some winter sports they are starting to appear on podiums.
"If we are going to talk specifically about Sochi I think we are probably looking at women's curling this time. They have been on the world and European podiums the last couple of years.
"The men's team have been world silver medallists these last two years but I have to say haven't shown good form this season.
"The performance directors would probably not thank me for naming medal hopes, but people who have demonstrated that potential this season have been Shelley Rudman and Lizzie Yarnold in the women's skeleton.
"Elise Christie in short track speed skating is ranked number one in the world at the moment and she followed up a couple of medals in the Europeans.
"Whilst the men haven't done so well this year in short track, hopefully by Sochi they will be in medal contention. I think that's all you can ask for. Short track is dominated by China, South Korea and Canada, so it's very difficult to break in there, but certainly Elise Christie represents a good opportunity.
"Bobsleigh has an outside chance as well – their Performance Director Gary Anderson been very successful in talent-transferring people over from track and field. And I don't think he would say that the team personnel is completely settled now – there could still be opportunity for other athletes to join before the final Games preparations get underway.
"And then there are the 12 new events for Sochi. Some of them won't make any difference to us because we don't fulfil the criteria in events like the luge relay or the figure skating team event. And the arrival of the women's ski jump doesn't make any difference to us as we don't have any ski jumpers at the moment.
But the exciting ones for us are the freestyle skiing and snowboarding because right now in ski slopestyle James Woods has won two World Cup events and just got a bronze medal at the X Games so he is ranked number one in the world right now, and Billy Morgan has also been showing outstanding form.
"Also Jenny Jones, who has clearly demonstrated in X Games in the past that she can win gold medals. It could be difficult for her going to Sochi as she is in the twilight of her career – she's probably happy to admit that.
"But still if she is fully fit then hopefully she could be a contender there. So some of the new sports do represent possible medal opportunities."
Such a level of performance from Britain's winter Olympians would represent the most successful British performance at a winter Games since the 1936 Games at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, second only to the total of four medals gained at the 1924 Winter Olympics at Chamonix.
"We are trying to maximise the opportunity for our winter sports people," Hay added. "Clearly we've got to be realistic and we have got to handle expectation. We very much look at how our athletes have been performing in Europa Cups, World Cups, European Championships and World Championships, because, let's be honest, you need to extrapolate results there if you are actually going to be realistic about winning medals at the Olympics and if they haven't podiumed in that type of event they are not going to be thinking they've got a chance of winning there.
"We went into Vancouver with three realistic chances of medals. The men's curling team were world champions nine months previously. They failed to get to the semi-finals, which was hugely disappointing. In the women's skeleton we believed between Shelly [Rudman] and Amy [Williams] we had a real chance of a medal, and a good chance of gold, and we managed to deliver on that.
"We had world champions in the women's bobsleigh as well, in Nicola Minichiello and Gillian Cooke, although to be fair to them they had a poor season in 2009-2010 and really didn't manage to get close to the podium that year. So ultimately you have to go out there with four or five medal chances if you are really going to deliver.
"I think in an Olympic Games a host nation does have that opportunity to leverage a bit of home advantage, which makes it doubly difficult for our sports to do well.
"When you look at venues such as the bobsleigh track, these are normally built new for the Games and the host nation has the opportunity for a lot more runs than the other nations and so they are able to leverage an advantage over the other nations.
"For safety reasons now they have to make sure they do offer it to national federations for training weeks, which they are doing.
"It's very difficult for our guys as we are not an Alpine country and we don't have the facilities that other countries do and opportunity to train. But you find with guys like Billy Morgan and James Woods that they started training in snowdomes in this country where they could do a lot of things in their event, and they graduated from there.
"So it's one of the sports that we can actually train for without having to go abroad. Because it takes a lot of funding to be able to go abroad and train, whereas these guys have served their apprenticeship in snow domes in this country.
"For sports like figure skating, short track and curling we have good opportunities and good facilities here, and six of our 15 disciplines are pretty well funded by UK Sport to the tune of £12 million ($19 million/€14 million) invested in the most recent winter Olympic cycle."
Hay, who has made several visits to Sochi and will be there for the test events taking place this month, is excited about the experience this start-from-scratch Olympic venue will offer.
"The concept of the Sochi Games has been, effectively, a blank sheet of paper," he said. "the city site will have six ice rinks plus a couple of training rinks, and an Olympic Village right next door to it, which is fabulous.
"As good as Vancouver was, it's a busy city of over million people, and the Games was spread around it. Richmond had the speed skating oval, short track and figure skating were in another part of the city, curling in another, so the logistics of moving people around there and keeping tabs on things were quite difficult. Whereas this is going to be amazing, to be quite honest.
"Normally when you to to a winter Olympics you've got the city and mountain cluster and it's normally going to be two or three hours to get between venues, whereas in Sochi the organisers are saying they hope to have a 50 minute light railway connection to the mountains, which really benefits the spectators.
"It means you might be able to see, say, something in the city in the morning, then go up to the mountains to watch something, then come back and watch a hockey game or some figure skating. That has never really been possible in terms of logistics. This time I think it will be possible."
From the point of view of organisation, that will make life a lot easier for Hay and his colleagues as they seek to co-ordinate their team's movements. Especially if Britain's ice hockey players succeed in winning their group at a qualifier tournament in Latvia later this month which would see the team of around 45-50 boosted by a further 23 competitors.
Hay, however, is wary of the Russian challenge awaiting all comers in Sochi.
"Russia won only won three gold medals in Vancouver and finished 11th, which for a nation of that size and with the history they have in winter sports was appalling. They have made a huge amount of changes, they have certainly recruited all over the world for the best coaches to head up the sports, and we've already seen they have made huge steps.
"I think Russia will be very successful in the medal table what with their home advantage and the fact that a lot of the oligarchs have put a lot of their own money into winter sports. In World Cups this year the Russians are strong across a huge number of the winter sport disciplines. Of course their President, Vladimir Putin, has been a big supporter and I'm sure he was one of the big reasons why they got the Games because he is such an enthusiast. When you consider the city has also got the Formula 1 contract, and will be holding some World Cup matches in 2018, I think you are going to be hearing about Sochi for many years to come."
But getting to Sochi, and securing tickets for Olympic events, is something which Hay fears could be difficult for British supporters.
"From our point of view one of the frustrating things is that it's quite difficult to get to. Normally you have got to stay overnight in Moscow, or you go with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul. But they are only flying three days a week. It adds a lot of expense by the time you have got visas and overnight stays in place.
"It's going to be challenging for spectators and fans to go out there as well. For the families of competitors, too. Tickets are expensive, they don't have the culture of bed and breakfast and taking over people's houses like we did in Vancouver, that just doesn't appear to be the situation, so you've got to go through these package deals where your tickets and hotel come together and it can be quite expensive. Tickets are pretty hard to come by, and the best chance for British followers will probably be the ballot which we will open on February 7 which will operate on the same basis as the ballot for London 2012 tickets."
Trying to sort out a pre-Games holding camp has also proved testing for Hay. While the British team stayed in Calgary, hosts of the 1988 Winter Games, ahead of Vancouver 2010, on this occasion it has proved impossible to find anywhere that suits enough of the teams to work.
"It's very difficult in Europe to find a place for a preparation camp that suits all the sports. You need to get a critical mass of your sports going there, otherwise you might as well say to them 'Go and find your optimal training camp in Europe prior to going out there to the Games.'
"And that's pretty much where we are. We looked at Moscow as a potential holding camp, and we looked at Oslo, we looked at Innsbruck as well, but we couldn't get a critical mass of sports that would buy into that so the preference was to let each of the sports do their own thing, and we are scoping out right now how that's doing to work."
Looking to the future, Hay revealed there could be big changes ahead. "We have investigated a Winter Institute of Sport," he said. "It happens in Australia and has been quite successful in talent transferring athletes to freestyle sports so they have been very successful in aerials and moguls and some slopestyle with talent transfer from sports like trampolining and diving and collaborations set up with places like Park City."
It's a model the BOA might adopt themselves in time as they seek to inch Britain's Olympic performance higher up what has historically been, in terms of difficulty, a wall of ice.
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian.