February 17, 2018 / 2:09 PM / 10 months ago

The secret to Britain's skeleton success - no ice

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Lizzy Yarnold’s second successive gold and a bronze for team mate Laura Deas underlined Britain’s extraordinary dominance of Olympic women’s skeleton racing on Saturday - all the more extraordinary as the country does not boast a single track.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics Skeleton - Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics - Women's Finals - Olympic Sliding Centre - Pyeongchang, South Korea - February 17, 2018 - Lizzy Yarnold of Britain celebrates. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

British women have medaled at every skeleton event since the sport was reintroduced to the Games in 2002, with the country’ men finally getting their first in the sport since 1948 via Dom Parsons on Thursday.

Despite the lack of a track in their own country, Britons, as with so many sports, can claim to have been the founding fathers.

The legendary and exclusive “Cresta Run” ice track, spiritual home of the Winter Olympics skeleton event, was invented by bored British gentry staying at a high-end Swiss hotel - though still does not allow women to ride its icy twists and curves.

Somehow, from there to here, Britain, and their women, have become the sport’s major force.

“I got into it by myself - there wasn’t any of the structure that there is now,” said Amy Williams, who won Britain’s first skeleton gold at Vancouver in 2010.

Four years later in Sochi, Yarnold matched William’s gold. On Saturday she reached new heights, becoming the first Briton to successfully defend any Winter Olympic title, while Deas’s bronze means there will be two British medalists on a podium for the first time.

“What took me maybe five years to get to, took Laura and Lizzy one year,” Williams said.

That’s in part thanks to a conscious and calculated effort by British sports officials to find women whose bodies are perfectly suited for the sport via an official “Girls4Gold” recruitment program.

“Girls would rock up on a day, get tested, then be popped into different sports that their body was suited to,” Williams said.

Skeleton races begin with an explosive sprint, with athletes then diving head-first onto a sled which accelerates down the ice at speeds of over 100kph.

Yarnold was a heptathlete with dreams of making it as a pentathlete while Deas had ambitions in eventing but both were found to be naturally suited to the sport they knew nothing about and were allocated training and financial assistance from the UK’s national lottery.

“To know that I’m going to share an Olympic podium with one of my best friends is just incredible,” Laura Deas told reporters after winning bronze on Saturday.


While the lack of a home track puts them at a “massive disadvantage”, it changes the way the federation chooses its athletes, Head of Performance at the British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association Danny Holdcroft said.

“It makes sure that we are detailed in selecting the right athletes,” said Holdcroft, who added that British sliders have, remarkably, only around three hours of actual sliding time on the ice per season.

Instead, they use a roller-coaster like track on which to practice the crucial fast start to shave off time in an Olympic sport measured in hundredths of seconds.

“In Germany you might have started at five years old so you may have got really good at driving but you might never be a really fast sprinter,” said British gold medalist Williams.

Still, even with more access to ice tracks, the fabled “Cresta Run” is not likely to be one of them.

Women had been allowed to run the Cresta until a decision to ban them was taken in 1929 for “reasons that are not clear,” according to the club’s official website.

And although the track occasionally opens its doors to women on rare occasions, two-time gold medalist Yarnold isn’t interested.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics Skeleton - Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics - Women's Finals - Olympic Sliding Centre - Pyeongchang, South Korea - February 17, 2018 - Laura Deas of Britain competes. REUTERS/Edgar Su

“I love the skeleton, that’s the greatest thing about our sport, it’s equal funding, equal support. That’s what I love about Olympics sports,” Yarnold told Reuters after she scored her second Olympic gold on Saturday.

“Cresta’s a different sport, I don’t know if I’d have the balls to do the Cresta”.

(This story has been refiled to change day to saturday in seventh paragraph.)

Reporting by James Pearson, editing by Mitch Phillips

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