MIKE Hay admits that he is nervous. Not nervous in the way he was when he stepped up to throw the last stone of a curling match, or nervous in the way he would have been at the top of a ski jump. But nervous. And excited.
And honoured that he has been entrusted with the responsibility of giving Team GB the best possible chance of a safe and successful Winter Olympics in Sochi next month.
The 50-year-old Perth-born Scot is what the Olympic movement calls a chef de mission, which is “nothing to do with the kitchen”, he stresses, and everything to do with giving the British delegation of around 50 athletes and 70 support staff all the advice, backing and resources they need to fulfil their potential on the shores of the Black Sea.
His job is to ensure that the athletes and those who support them want for nothing, least of all a secure and comfortable environment in which to produce their best, even if that has been cast into doubt by the recent suicide attacks, which killed 31 people in Volgograd, about 400 miles from Sochi.
“Obviously it is a concern for us, but we’re pretty confident that the Russians will be making sure that the Olympic Games are as safe as possible,” says Hay. “We live in the real world – there is no 100 per cent guarantee – but we will be seeking assurances that absolutely everything is being done. And everything we have seen from the Russians to this point would give us a lot of confidence.”
Although a security zone has been created around the city of Sochi, stretching 60 miles along the coast, precautions will also be taken by the British Olympic Association (BOA). Plain-clothed security personnel will travel with the athletes, none of whom, according to Hay, has yet expressed any reservations about participating.
“When you ask most athletes, they are pretty focused on their preparations. They don’t choose where the Games go. They don’t choose what laws govern that country. It’s just their time. If you’ve been training for years to go to a Games, you just want that opportunity to come, and we’re very supportive of that.”
Which is not to say that the BOA’s position would remain unchanged were there to be another act of terrorism. Asked if an attack on Sochi itself would persuade Team GB to pull out, Hay replies: “We’re not really in that territory where we’re considering not going to the Games so I don’t really want to speculate. We are constantly monitoring the situation. We cannot say 100 per cent that we are definitely going to the Games because we need to make sure that everything is safe, but we are not contemplating that scenario at the moment.”
With the opening ceremony less than five weeks away, these Games are shaping up to be a Winter Olympics like no other. Before the security fears, there were calls for a boycott in protest at a new Russian law, prohibiting the dissemination of information about homosexuality to minors.
Hay believes that there is more to be gained from attending the Games than staying away. He recalls how Sebastian Coe, now chairman of the BOA, marched behind the IOC flag at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, despite pressure from the British government to boycott the event. He says that the Olympic ideal needs to be maintained and the Olympic Charter obeyed, together with the laws of a host country, whether we like them or not.
“Having said all that, we are a country that cherishes free speech so it’s really about finding a sensible compromise. It looks like the Sochi Organising Committee is going to provide places where, if athletes want to protest, they can do so within a framework that won’t break any law. As long as our athletes have a sensible approach, we wouldn’t stop them doing that.”
Hay could not have anticipated having all of this on his plate when he won the first of his five European curling titles at the age of 18. He had been a pupil at Perth High School, where his friends included Steve Brown, now the chairman of St Johnstone. These days, Hay lives in London, where he is an Arsenal season-ticket holder but, when he returns north, often in his capacity as a sportscotland board member, he will try to take in a match at McDiarmid Park.
After a career that also included two silver medals at the world championships, Hay was the head coach of Rhona Martin’s gold medal-winning rink at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. He joined the BOA as Head of Winter Sports Engagement in 2007 and was a key figure in the preparation of Team GB ahead of Beijing 2008, Vancouver 2010 and London 2012.
Hay has visited Sochi several times. It is, he says, a summer resort of palm trees, beaches and temperatures that are unlikely to dip below five or six degrees Celsius. Its Games will be noticeably compact thanks to the construction, almost entirely from scratch, of an infrastructure that has cost an eye-watering £31 billion. The journey from mountains to city, which each have their own cluster of venues, will take less than 45 minutes.
Within the Team GB camp, there is an unprecedented level of optimism. Only five times in 21 Winter Games have they won more than a single medal, and the record haul was four – at Chamonix in 1924.
But the introduction of several new events, as well as improved funding by UK Sport, means that the team has what Hay describes as “more strength in depth across more disciplines than we have ever had before”.
That will not necessarily translate into medals but, with five podium finishes in world championships last season, Team GB have a handful of realistic contenders, one of whom is Elise Christie, the short-track speed skater from Livingston.
“She is a real character,” says Hay. “The Chinese and Canadians are extremely powerful, and the worry is that, when these countries get two or three through to a final, they make it difficult by skating as a team. But Elise is more tactically aware than she used to be. Her performance director believes that she can win a race from the back, middle or front.”
Scotland has traditionally been strongest at curling, in which Hay and his family are steeped. His partner is Hanne Woods, the Norwegian who won nine world-championship medals, two of them gold. His father, Chuck, also won a world gold, as did his brother, David, now coach of Eve Muirhead’s team, the reigning world champions who are heading to Sochi with a target on their backs.
“She has probably carried that in the curling world for some time now,” says Hay. “She has been quite a prolific winner of world juniors, then Europeans and Worlds. If you’re going to be an Olympic champion, that’s the pressure you need to carry. She is an outstanding player, with an outstanding team, but she’ll know as well as anybody that it will not be easy.”
Hay’s experience will be important to Team GB, around a third of which is expected to be Scottish.
Many will be new to the Olympics so he is keen to help them with the unique “distractions” of a Winter Games, including the hype, the pomp and ceremony, and an athletes’ village teeming with more than 5,000 competitors.
“The athletes they’re competing against are the same ones they faced in World Cups and World Championships so it’s all about how they handle the extra pressure and the perceived distractions. It’s about embracing the Olympic Games because they’re magical as well.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for any athlete, the absolute pinnacle of their career. We want them to enjoy it.”