Alan Hubbard: British Skating is on precariously thin ice

Wednesday, 12 December 2012
Alan HubbardAfter Britain's glorious Olympic and Paralympic summer it now seems we could be in for a Winter Games of discontent. Prospects for Sochi 2014 seem to be very much as they have been since Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean glided off into the sunset in the nineties. Just bits and bobs.

There isn't the likelihood of a skier or a figure skater getting anywhere near the rostrum. Even curling, in which Britain's women won the nation's first Winter Olympics gold medal in 18 years at Salt Lake City in 2002, is desperate need of a rink renaissance.

Helter-skeltering down the ice tube on the bob skeleton again looks to be the best route.

Bath's Amy Williams, who became the only British gold medallist at the last Winter Games in Vancouver in 2010, has retired but at 31, the redoubtable silver-medallist of Turin 2006, Shelley Rudman is bang on form again, having just won a World Cup event in which promising teammate Lizzie Yarnold was fourth.

Elise Christie at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating ChampionshipsElise Christie at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships

And Scotland's Elise Christie is currently the world number one in short track speed skating.

That's the good news. The bad is that otherwise British Skating, which still trades on the golden memories of John Curry, Robin Cousins and T and D, had all but vanished through a hole in the ice.

The days when Britons ruled the ice rinks of the world are long gone.

The perfect six appeal of T and D may to some still seem a load of old Bolero but it engrossed the nation with one of the biggest-ever television audiences for a sports event, just short of 24 million.

Previously the balletic brilliance of Curry and the sequinned skills of Cousins had seen Britain revel in a golden ice decade.

Alas, subsequently the sport has been skating on the precariously thin substance.

If confirmation of this was needed it came with the news last year that the skating academy at Nottingham's National Ice Centre, where T and D  first began their quickstep to stardom, had to stop exclusive coaching of ice dancers due to cost and a lack of top class coaches.

John CurryJohn Curry was Britain's first figure skating gold medallist since Jeannette Altwegg in 1952

While sporting success often goes in cycles (Curry was Britain's first figure skating gold medallist since Jeannette Altwegg in 1952), the sport has clearly failed to build on its past achievements. Even today 50,000 youngsters follow "learn to skate" programmes every year, yet only 150 take up the sport seriously, one reason being the yearly closure of ice rinks which in  the past decade has topped double figures.

But the sad truth is that, for whatever reason, Britain's elite skaters are simply not good enough.

Lack of success has put the sport at the bottom of the pile for funding handouts from UK Sport – it no longer gets any and putative skating stars say this Catch 22 situation means they do not have the means to make the progress they need to challenge the world's best from Eastern Europe, the Far East and North America.

Lack of television exposure means that British skaters are relatively unknown to the sporting public. How many would recognise Britain's leading individual skater – or have even heard of her?

Yet 26-year-old Jenna McCorkell, from Northern Ireland, has just won a record tenth British title in 11 years. But she is unlikely to get into the top ten at the World Championships in London, Ontario, in March. She finished 14th in the last World Championships.

Jenna McCorkellJenna McCorkell is a ten-times British figure skating champion

Equally, anonymous are Britain's top pairs skaters, Stacey Kemp and David King. Such is the shortage of quality skaters here that when they retained their national title this year they were unopposed, and have yet to acquire the scores they need to qualify for the World Championships.

As does the three times men's champion Matt Parr, 22, from Dundee.

Philadelphia-based ice dancers, Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland, who were fourth in the Europeans in one section in Sheffield earlier this year and dropped to sixth overall are probably the most promising, but they, too, have little hope of world or Olympic medals.

Yet recreational skating remains as popular as ever with school-age kids, especially at this time of year with the opening of temporary seasonal rinks in city arcades and shopping centres.

Plus the escalating popularity of ITV's Dancing on Ice, which starts a seventh series next month featuring Torvill and Dean as mentors to celebrities - among whom this time I can reveal will be a fellow Olympic gold medal winner: the 2012 featherweight boxing champion Luke Campbell, together with former world champion gymnast Beth Tweddle.

T and D say they hope the show will one day lead to Britain producing successors to themselves.

torvilleanddeanJayne Torvill and Christopher Dean feature as mentors to the celebrities on ITV's Dancing on Ice

"Since Chris and I retired from competitive skating there has always been a hope that someone would follow in our footsteps to give the sport the boost it needs," Torvill, 55, told me. "The more people that take it up, the better the chance of developing potential Olympic champions. Our TV show has helped in this respect because people have seen how celebrities who can't skate finally end up looking quite good, and that encourages kids to get on the ice themselves.

"When we did the first show in our opening series people started flooding into ice rinks all over the country and in some cases they were running out of skates."

The duo won Olympic gold at Sarajevo 1984 and bronze at Lillehammer 1994 but no Briton has won an Olympic figure skating medal since.

"I guess some people would say we should lead that new generation to some extent, and we most probably would - if we were asked to," says Dean, 54.

Yet the National Ice Skating Association (NISA) has said it was open to talks with them for "a higher profile" role within skating (even though remarkably they do not hold coaching qualifications) but so far, it hasn't worked out.

Roles available to Torvill and Dean with the British programme would range from mentoring the likes of Buckland and Coomes and acting as figureheads for a drive to increase participation in the sport.

Penny Coomes and Nick BucklandPenny Coomes and Nick Buckland have little hope of world or Olympic medals

But Keith Horton, the association's general secretary has said he does not think their expertise could be easily harnessed. "We'd never turn the opportunity down, but Chris doesn't live here anymore. They'll give time if they're available but they're so extremely busy. It's a nightmare trying to get half an hour with them."

But Dean, who lives in Colorado Springs, maintains: "We are around, and we are available – it just doesn't happen." However as they are being paid £250,000 ($403,000/€310,000) for every Dancing on Ice series the priorities are obvious.

With the retirement of Scottish brother and sister act John and Sinead Kerr, youngsters Buckland and Coomes, both 22, who finished 20th on their Olympic debut at Vancouver 2010 and 16th in the Worlds, are now Britain's leading duo in an event Torvill and Dean once dominated.

They train with Russian coach Evgeny Platov, a former Olympic ice dance gold medallist, in Philadelphia, but in common with other Britons receive no Lottery funding

Governing body NISA believes Buckland and Coomes are "on track to be in the medal zone in 2018".

Alas, terrestrial television coverage of ice skating has all but frozen over, yet it was once a mainstay of winter schedules. Indeed, between 1976 and 1984 ice skaters won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award three times through Curry, Cousins and Torvill and Dean.

"It's sad to see the financial aid isn't there," says Dean. "Figure skating in the UK has peaks and troughs and we're in a trough at the moment." So, to paraphrase Noel Coward for mums of skating prodigies: Don't put your daughter on the ice, Ms Worthington...put her on the beams, the bars, a bike or even in the boxing ring.

Otherwise, she'll end up a frozen asset.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.
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