Mike Rowbottom: Please let Shelley Rudman have the luck that Wilf O'Reilly didn't get in a third Olympics

Thursday, 27 September 2012
Mike RowbottomThe Sochi Winter Olympics are 498 days away. Which seems a long time – but as we recall from the countdown to the London 2012 Games, time seems to accelerate as big sporting events move nearer, until suddenly they are on us, and we are in them.

This week British athletes have mobilised in two of the events where a nation with lingering memories of Olympic and Paralympic success in London will be expecting further podium performances once the 2014 Sochi Games get underway on February 7. That is, short track speed skating, whose British team members earned seven World Cup medals last season, and skeleton.

With encouragingly broad vision, the British Olympic Association invited almost 40 of the home nations winter sport athletes and coaches to the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics to experience its unique atmosphere and – it was hoped – to draw inspiration from it.

Among those who took the opportunity of visiting the Olympic Village, Team GB House and to various practice sessions was Shelley Rudman, who took Olympic silver in the skeleton at the 2006 Turin Games and finished sixth at the 2010 Vancouver Games before winning the overall World Cup title last season.

Rudman took to the skies over Bath in a balloon earlier this week as the British skeleton squad got their season off to a PR launch – but her comment about seeking a medal at a third Olympics was certainly not hot air.

Shelley Rudman_on_skeletonShelley Rudman will be hoping that is third time lucky for her at Sochi 2014

The 31-year-old athlete from Pewsey in Wiltshire described Sochi 2014 as her "ultimate goal". Before she can get to within challenging distance of it, however, she needs to negotiate a critical season which will start for her and her team-mates with a series of selection races in Winterberg on October 26-27.

Britain's short track speed skaters are in action even more precipitately as they take part in this weekend's opening Invitation Cup meeting at Heerenveen in the Netherlands, where Elise Christie will seek a repeat of her achievements at last year's meeting, where she was declared first in overall classification after winning the 1000 and 1500m events.

Christie says she is feeling confident, and her recent performance in the squad trials gave her every reason to be. If she gets the luck her obvious talent deserves, we could even be talking about her third Olympic appearance in 2022 – when she will still only be the same age that Rudman is now.

If Rudman can steer her way to a third Olympic competition in what is – no matter how often you look at it – a stupendously nerve-jangling and perilous event – let us hope she has more luck than did another cherished British multiple winter Olympian, Wilf O'Reilly.

In one sense, O'Reilly had nowhere to go after winning gold at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games in both the 500 and 1000m events. But the fact that short track was only a demonstration event at those Games sent him searching for further Olympic medals when it became a fully signed up part of the Games – medals he was destined never to gain.

At the Albertville Games of 1992 O'Reilly – who had won overall silver at the 1990 world championships and overall gold at the 1991 Championships – arrived with his confidence high. But the rough-and-tumble of short track meant he missed out on the podium in France as he fell in the 1000m – where he was blatantly shoved in the back - and 5,000m relay events.

Two years later – following the International Olympic Committee's switching of the timetable to ensure Winter and Summer Games were separated by two years – he came to Lillehammer with ambitions still burning brightly, although his young team-mate Nicky Gooch also had well-merited aspirations.

Before the Games started, I asked him how long it had taken him to recover from his misfortune in Albertville. His large brown eyes searched the ceiling for an answer before he responded: "Two days. And a lot of beer."

O'Reilly's chances of making good in the 1000m event ended almost as soon as he had begun, as he clashed with a fellow skater in the opening heat and ended up with a damaged right skate which meant he could not compete properly.

Wilf OReilly_in_collision_at_Lillehammer_1994Wilf O'Reilly had his skate broken in a clash with Australia's Steven Bradbury at Lillehammer in 1994 and was made to take part in the rerun with a broken blade

Rotten luck. But worse was to follow at the start of his 500 metres event heat when a collision involving Australia's Steven Bradbury left him with half an inch missing from one of his blades.

Because the skaters had not cleared the first bend, a re-start was allowed. But the Briton was not allowed to leave the ice to replace his ruined skate blade, despite furious protests from the British coach, Archie Marshall.

Unable to gain proper purchase on the ice, he glid round to an inevitable exit. It was a nightmarish re-run of the Birmingham athlete's fortunes two nights earlier in the Hamar Olympic Hall.

Afterwards, holding his gouged and broken blade in front of him, O'Reilly reflected: "There it is, in all its glory. The blade just wasn't gliding. I can't believe it. When shit happens, it happens..."

O'Reilly regretted the fact that he had not worked harder before Albertville to educate a British public which had been told to expect him to win gold – when he knew that it was in the nature of the event for things to go wrong.

Steven Bradbury_wins_gold_at_Salt_Lake_City_in_2002Australia's Steven Bradbury won a gold medal at Salt Lake City in 2002 when all his rivals crashed

He used the analogy of the Grand National. "If you have 50 starters, the statistical probability is that some horses will not finish. People in Britain understand that."

So O'Reilly – who is now a very successful commentator upon the sport – never did win his official Olympic medals. And eight years after Lillehammer, Steven Bradbury glid, in glorious isolation, to Olympic gold in the 1000m event after every other member of the field had crashed in front of him on the final bend.

As one observer commented with just the shadow of a smile: "That's short track..."

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. 
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