Sochi 2014

Winter wonderland

We look at the history of the Winter Olympic Games, the reasons why they can be under-appreciated and Britain's medal hopes in Sochi....


Last Updated: 06/02/14 12:03pm

Britain's ice hockey team take on Sweden on their way to gold in 1936

Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won figure skating ice dance gold in Sarajevo

Elise Christie is the reigning 1000m short-track World Cup champion

The Winter Olympics are often under-appreciated. While the summer Games are known as the 'greatest show on Earth', their winter counterpart rarely receives such acclaim. They are very much the Europa League to the UEFA Champions League.

However, as the athletes make their way in to the Fisht Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony you'd be hard pushed to find anyone who was concerned - and why would they be?

"You can't put all your hopes and dreams down to an Olympic medal with Short Track because you can win medals all year then you can fall over in every distance at the Games and you can't do much about it, you might get taken out"

Elise Christie

These are elite athletes representing their country and competing with the best in the world in their respective sports on the biggest and most historic stage. This is the pinnacle.

The oft-trotted out argument for why the Games in the likes of Sochi, Turin and Salt Lake City aren't seen in the same way as those in London, Barcelona and Sydney is that the Winter Olympic sports just aren't as accessible to the common man.

As a result, fully understanding such events is more difficult - or so the argument goes. However, the affinity the British public has with rowing or more recently track cycling shows a flaw in that reasoning. Very few people can just pop out in for an evening row or nip into a velodrome on the way to work, in the same way that if you fancy playing curling your options are somewhat limited.

In terms of the winter sports being more complicated, that also seems a slightly odd argument given that so many of the events are simple races or time trials, the only difference to the summer sports being they take place on snow or ice rather than an athletics track.

Historically, the summer Games clearly have the edge but that is not to say that the Winter Olympics is lacking in that department.

Britain's ice hockey team take on Sweden on their way to gold in 1936

The Games in Sochi will be the 22nd Winter Olympics, the first of them dating back to 1924. That year Chamonix, France played host to athletes from all over Europe, as well as the United States and Canada.

Norway topped the medal table from Finland, claiming 17 and 11 medals respectively. Great Britain picked up a creditable four to finish joint third in overall medals but sixth on the table. It was the men's curling team who picked up the solitary gold courtesy of two emphatic victories, 38-7 over Sweden and 46-4 against France.

The following two Olympics, in St Moritz and Lake Placid, saw more nations from across the globe involved and Britain's medal tally diminished with one bronze, claimed by David Carnegie the 11th Earl of Northesk in the 1928 skeleton.

In 1936 the Games were held in Nazi Germany with Adolf Hitler officially opening them. The host nation picked up three gold and three silver medals to finish second in the medal table while there was also an upturn in fortunes for the British athletes.

Three medals were won, with the men's ice hockey team recording a shock win over Canada to take gold - Britain's first since 1924 and it would prove to be one of just two in the next 28 years.

Jeanette Altwegg's figure skating triumph in 1952 was the other and both John Curry and Robin Cousins repeated the feat in the men's event in 1976 and 1980 respectively, with Robin Dixon and Tony Nash's bobsleigh victory in 1964 the only other gold medal in that period.

Arguably, Britain's most famous Winter Olympic success came in 1984 when Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean wowed the judges to win the figure skating ice dance gold in Sarajevo. 12 perfect 6.0's and six 5.9's saw them become the highest scoring figure skaters of all-time for a single programme to beat their rivals from the Soviet Union.

Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won figure skating ice dance gold in Sarajevo

In the 30 years since medals of any colour have been few and far between. Torvill and Dean took bronze in 1994 while the women's curlers provided an undoubted highlight in 2002 in Salt Lake City with a dramatic victory, a first British gold for 18 years.

Since then women's skeleton has proved to be something of a surprise national speciality, with Alex Coomber taking bronze in 2002, Shelley Rudman picking up silver in 2006 and then Amy Williams winning gold four years ago.

There is hope of skeleton medal in Sochi as well, with world champion Rudman and World Cup champion Lizzy Yarnold amongst the favourites for the women's competition.

The curlers, both men and women, are also high on the list of British medal hopes, as both are ranked in the world's top three.

Another genuine medal prospect is short-track speed skater Elise Christie. The 23-year-old Scot recently retained her 1000m European title and finished last season as the overall 1000m World Cup champion.

Short-track only came into the Games in 1992 and to date Britain have secured just one medal, the 500m bronze, delivered by current head coach Nicky Gooch back in 1994 in Lillehammer.

However, with Christie competing in all three distances - the 500m, 1000m and 1500m - and being ranked in the world's top 10 in each of them, the chances of adding to Gooch's medal are undoubtedly improved.

Elise Christie is the reigning 1000m short-track World Cup champion

The sport is renowned for its unpredictable and physical nature, though, and coming up against nations with entire relay teams available to them, the Sky Academy Sports Scholar could well find herself targeted.

The South Koreans are far and away the most successful short-track team in Winter Olympic history with 37 medals, 19 of them gold, and could provide Christie with her toughest competition, especially with China's Olympic champion Wang Meng missing Sochi with an ankle injury.

Geraint Hughes caught up with reigning Olympic Women's Skeleton champion Amy Williams who spoke about some of the medal hopefuls at Sochi.

What is clear is that Britain head into these Games knowing that they could realistically record their best medal haul since the Winter Olympics' inception.

The perceived lack of British success at previous winter Games is no doubt a major reason for the lack of enthusiasm in some quarters when they come around.

Of course, every nation will be keen to see their athletes return with medals round their necks, but the world class sport, excitement and entertainment on show in Sochi is the reason sports fans should revel at the prospect of the Winter Olympic Games, regardless of their country's success.

The good news for British fans is that for the first time in many a year they may have their fair share of both.