Baxter's Coup

FIRST there were the curlers, then the man who had his follicles fingered by the British Olympic Association produced an astonishing performance last night in the Winter Games in Salt Lake City to earn Britain another medal in their most successful Winter Olympics.

Alain Baxter, who dyed his hair with the Saltire, and was subsequently ordered to remove his tonsorial effort on the basis that he was judged to be making a political statement, ignored all the fuss and let his skis do the talking as he became the first British winner of an Olympic alpine skiing medal.

It was a remarkable achievement by Baxter, who has struggled all season to cope with his new skis. The man from Aviemore known universally as The Highlander belong to a snow-daft family, who include his mother Sue, herself a former international skier, his cousin, Olympic snowboarder Lesley McKenna and his half-brother Noel, who is also a member of the Olympic team.

Sue Dickson – Baxter’s mother has since remarried – just made it home to Scotland in time to watch her son’s winning run.

She had been in France and was delayed on the flight to Glasgow. Facing a choice of hightailing it back to Aviemore in the bad weather or going to the home of Alain’s biggest fan, his Aunt Penny, in Edinburgh, she wisely chose the latter option.

Sue arrived in the house in Barnton as skier No17 made his run. Alain, No20, began his run just three minutes later, and the cheers of 30 friends and family members immediately reverberated around the douce suburb of Edinburgh.

“We are all absolutely ecstatic. I am just so annoyed that I didn’t go over there to see him get that place on the podium,” said Dickson.

“It is all down to Alain’s own hard work. We never pushed him into this, and though we have backed him all the way, he is the man who has given up so much to achieve this.

“He is so proud to be Scottish. He really just did his hair in a Saltire for a bit of craic, but what happened since has been an absolute load of nonsense.

“A representative of the British Olympic Association actually phoned me up to ask if he was making a political statement. I had to laugh, really. They are just a load of old fuddy-duddies.

“The reason he did it is because he is known as The Highlander, and because he is a patriot. We are all off now to have a party. People have been turning up at the door with bottles of champagne.”

Baxter had responded in marvellous fashion to the curling triumph of Rhona Martin’s broomstick squad by recovering from being in eighth position after the first run to collect a bronze medal 1.26 seconds behind the French duo, Jean-Pierre Vidal and Sebastien Amiez.

His feat yielded Britain their third medal of the Games, following the success of Martin’s rink and Alex Coomber’s bronze in the skeleton bobsleigh, and it was a fitting testimony to Baxter’s resilience in turning adversity to advantage.

In blunt terms, for all that the curlers struck gold and have deservedly earned a huge degree of public support, this is the best result in the history of skiing by any Briton, and comfortably surpasses Martin Bell’s eighth finish in the Calgary Games.

And, although Baxter was reluctant to discuss the politics of his statement over his hair, which landed him in the soup and dragged him into an unsought controversy, the unalloyed delight with which he reacted to his podium finish offered a stunning confirmation that here is somebody who has finally dispelled the memories of the hapless Eddie Edwards.

“It’s unbelievable to think I’ve won the first alpine medal for Britain at an Olympics, and I’m sure there will be more to come, but I can’t put into words what it feels like tonight to have done what I’ve done for Scotland,” said Baxter. “All the hard work over the season has eventually paid off, and while I think now that if I had put two really good runs together, I would have won gold, I have to be overjoyed at proving my critics wrong and securing the credibility of British skiing.”

Baxter, who has toiled to regain the form which earned him the nickname The Highlander across Europe last year, has produced the goods when it matters most, and despite skiing conservatively on his first run, he recovered from a sluggish start to master the intricacies of the testing ‘Know You Don’t’ course.

Admittedly, he was helped when home favourite Bode Miller crashed out to assure him of a gong for his exertions, but Baxter’s exploits have suddenly ensured the same amount of feelgood factor as was obvious after Britain’s achievements at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

“I’ve never doubted my ability against the rest of the world’s leading competitors, and that’s why I was convinced that I could prove myself on the international stage,” said Baxter. “But, nonetheless, to be here tonight in Salt Lake City and to hear the shrieks and hollers of the crowd was a fantastic experience. I’ve got such a buzz at the moment I don’t know when I’ll come back down to earth.”

One or two more po-faced observers might argue that the 28-year-old has found his name in the world’s media for the wrong reasons in the past week. However, that simply seems to have spurred him on to the most wonderful outcome in the chronicles of British skiing.

Before his trip to Salt Lake City, the Scot had gained four top-10 finishes in the World Cup, his highest being a fourth place in Are, Sweden, in March 2001. Thus, despite Baxter's faltering lapses en route to the Olympics, there was never any question that he possessed the qualities that saw him voted the Glenfiddich/Scotland on Sunday Sportsperson of the Year in 2001.

“Since I was a little boy, this has been my first love, and skiing is as big a part of my life as anything,” Baxter said recently. “You don’t go into this business unless you are completely focused on your goals and your ambitions, but I have never doubted my capacity to thrive amongst the world’s best, either on the World Cup circuit or at the Olympic Games.”

It is a measure of Baxter’s tenacity that his breeze to the bronze in Utah came four years after his ignominious Games debut in Nagano, where he seemed to be living up to Britain’s reputation as the clown princes of the piste.

Disqualified from his favoured slalom after straddling a gate, Alain wound up 31st in the giant slalom, and although his admirers promised that he was still a force to be reckoned with, the ritual British cynicism insisted that he was merely another in the lengthy pantheon of Blighty’s snow-hopers.

However Baxter confounded the sceptics and disproved the theory that Britons and skiing go together like Liz Taylor and monogamy. “I can remember Alain and Lesley [McKenna] standing in the queue at Aviemore, two tiny figures, but both of them mightily independent from an early age,” recalled Chic McKenna. “They were confident even then and it was obvious that they were extremely dedicated to their skiing. So we are extremely proud of what they have achieved, given the struggle they have had to reach Olympic level.”