The temporary marquees set up around a temporary ice rink next to London’s Somerset House are heaving with a temporary crush of people as the British Olympic Association offers the media a chance to interview key members of its team for the forthcoming Winter Games.

A shoal of reporters switch from sportsperson to sportsperson, in turn signalling feeding opportunities for bigger fish - the TV camera crews, with their glaring lights and furry booms.

Amid the melee, Jon Eley seems right at home. But then, as a short track speed skater, he’s used to hurly-burly.

A few days earlier, this phlegmatic 25-year-old from Solihull found himself colliding with a barrier in company with two other 500 metre finalists at the European Championships in Dresden after France’s Thibaut Fauconnet had taken him out on the final bend of a race which was then won by another Frenchman, Maxime Chataignier.

Although Fauconnet was disqualified for his blatant action, and Eley was awarded a silver to go with the gold he had won in the same event two years earlier, it was nevertheless a hugely frustrating turn of events for the young Englishman.

"It was an inside overtake with half a lap to go," Eley recalls, sitting placidly on a bench as the anxious bodies bustle around him. "I came inside and he grabbed me put his arm across me and it just ended up being a collision going into the corner.

"As he hit me I fell over and I took him out and he’s took the guy behind me out as well, so three of us have ended up in the barriers. It was a bit of a scary moment actually going down with a couple of other people, but once you realise you’re OK it’s just a bit of a rush to get to the finish line.

"It’s not what you want a couple of weeks before the Olympics. But I was by far the fastest guy there, I was really confident, and what I took away from the competition is that there’s no one in Europe that’s going to stop me being in the medals in Vancouver."

Such dramatic shifts in fortune are an essential part of Eley’s sport - as his coach, Nicky Gooch, is ideally placed to confirm to him.

At the Hamar arena during the 1994 Winter Games, the then 21-year-old Gooch thought he had won the silver medal in the 1000 metres event - only to be displaced to seventh position for barging an opponent. Four days later he became the first Briton to win an Olympic speed skating medal as he took bronze in the 500 metres.

"I can definitely draw on Nicky’s experience," Eley says. "We talk through a lot of these things."

But no matter how much Eley speaks with Gooch, he knows that his event is fundamentally schizophrenic - on the one hand, its all about shaving off fragments of seconds through improved technique, on the other, all that can go to hell if someone shoves you, especially if they shove you in a final.

"If it’s a final you can have a problem, because it’s pretty much: the results stands," Eley reflects. "If what happened to me in Dresden had come in an earlier round  I would have been advance to the next round. But when it’s a final it’s pretty much a case of 'come past the line and that’s how you finish.'"

The most extraordinary example of this catastrophe theory occurred at the Salt Lake Winter Olympics of 2002, where a mass collision on the last bend took out every main contender in the 1000 metres final, leaving Australia’s Steven Bradbury with the task of gliding across the finish line on his own to take gold.

"That’s what makes this sport so exciting," Eley says. "You just have to go out there and trust in what you’re doing and make sure that you’re doing everything you can do. When you step on the ice you go out there as confident as possible and not worrying about these things.

"If you go out there and do your best and someone takes you out you’ve got to say, ‘Well, that’s the nature of the sport’. It’s going to be frustrating, but you’ve given it your best. If you go out there and you’re worried about getting hit and you don’t skate to your potential maybe nothing will happen, and you’ve still not raced to your potential.

"So if you’re not the favourite on the day that still means that you can come out and win a medal. It can happen to the top guys, it can happen to the weaker guys, so you’ve just got to throw yourself in there. It could be someone you are racing who is better than you or skating better than you and he is the one that falls over or whatever and you’ve got to step up and take the chance. You can’t skate defensively."

While Eley fears no fellow European, he is well aware of the challenges that lay beyond that continent.

"You’ve got the home nation," he says. "And you’ve got the Koreans, who are very dominating in our sport. I felt the best I have all season at the Europeans, so with a few more weeks sharpening I think I’ve got a good shout at a medal in Vancouver."

At the Turin Games of 2006, the fresh-faced Eley impressed as he finished fifth in his first major championship. But it will be a different Eley who takes to the ice at the Olympic venue of the Pacific Coliseum.

"I’m definitely a better skater than I was four years ago," he insists. "I’ve done a lot of work on technical issues, I’m a lot more of a complete skater , and I’m a lot stronger than I was. I think the improvement I’ve made in the last four years is definitely going to show in Vancouver.

"In Turin, I thought there was a lot of guys that were better than me. I thought the guys who were pushing for the medals were above me, whereas now I feel that I’m one of them. That’s going to give me confidence."

It is a confidence he believes can also benefit Britain’s relay team as they seek a medal to add to the bronze they won at the Europeans.

"I think the performance we put in at Dresden showed that we’re ready for it," Eley says. "And there’s only eight teams in the Olympics so you are definitely all in with a shout. You’ve really got to go out there and lay it down in the first round, which is a semi-final."

At just a shade over 6ft 2in, Eley is taller than your average short-track speed skater - which he reveals can be both a curse and a blessing.

"It means that referees can see me more clearly than most of the skaters," he says with a grin. "Little guys can slip into smaller gaps. But for me, my strength is my start. I’m pretty powerful, and if I can get to the front, being a big guy on a small track, it’s pretty hard to get past me."

The first round draw in the 500 metres will be random, but thereafter rounds will be seeded on previous times, as in athletics, and so the incentive is there for Eley to lay down his challenge from the first moments to ensure he can earn one of the coveted inside lanes.

"I believe if I can get to the front from lane one, nobody can get past me," he says, adding ominously: "If they want to go past me they’ll have to go round the outside. Which is a long way."

Contact the writer of this story at [email protected]

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last 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.