Britain worth dyeing for, says Baxter

BACK in 1988, when Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards was representing Britain at the Calgary Winter Olympics, Alain Baxter was not too interested in all the hyperbole. Even then, in his mid-teens, he took his sport very seriously, and was not overly impressed by Edwards’ tomfoolery.

It is easy to understand why. Edwards was profiting from the stereotype of British skiing as a joke, whereas Baxter was fighting to dispel that stereotype.

Last Saturday in Salt Lake City, that fight was finally won as Baxter won a bronze medal in the slalom.

He had long ago earned the respect of his fellow-competitors on the World Cup circuit: now the wider public has to acknowledge his talent.

Not that Baxter is exactly attention-seeking. He may not seem shy and retiring when in a partying mood, as he was last night at a celebratory do back in his home town of Aviemore, but in general he prefers to let his achievements speak for him.

This is somewhat forbearing of him, given he must have had to put up with disparaging comments about British skiing for so long.

The Winter Games ended on a high for Britain, and the past couple of days have witnessed the homecoming celebrations of Rhona Martin’s curling team, but for most of the fortnight we were subjected to depressive lamentations.

Were winter sports rubbish? Were we rubbish at them? Or both? Self-criticism may be positive, but when it slopes over into self-flagellation it serves a purpose only for the committed masochist.

Fortunately, Baxter is sufficiently self-possessed to be unconcerned by such breast-beating. His attitude is: why waste time on bemoaning one’s shortcomings, when that time could be better spent out on the slopes, trying to overcome those shortcomings?

There is, of course, some truth in the criticisms, as we are clearly not a major winter sports nation. But Baxter and the curlers have certainly shown that, given the required dedication and enthusiasm, there is nothing to stop Scottish sportsmen and women from succeeding.

Not that he has taken it all in his stride. After flying into Edinburgh yesterday, it was a somewhat bemused Baxter who was asked how it had felt to win an Olympic medal.

He had to admit that he was still not exactly sure. "Yes, I have been asked the question plenty of times since I won, and I still don’t know how to answer it," he said.

"What I can say is that it felt really good. It was a strange race: the guys were going for medals, giving 150 per cent, and that’s when you have to take risks. I had a great week’s build-up to the slalom, and it was a thrill to win bronze."

It was almost as much of a thrill for the other competitors, whom, Baxter said, were glad to see the medals spread around a little bit more than usual.

"After the race everyone was congratulating me and people were coming up and hugging me. They think it’s good to have a different nation on the podium.

"The Saturday night was wild. Some of the guys from Aviemore - ski patrollers and shinty players - came up and we had a bit of a party."

The only trouble was that, when he woke up the next morning, Baxter had a momentary panic on realising he did not know where the prized medal was.

The last thing he remembered was his brother Noel running around with it on. Fortunately, though, it soon turned up; panic over, Baxter was able to get back to enjoying a well-deserved rest.

Baxter’s coach, Christian Schwaiger, was also just as delighted that so much hard work had at last paid off - and just as pleased with the party.

"The training before the slalom had been fantastic," the Austrian said. "I’d never seen Alain skiing so well and so strong mentally. I knew that if he skied like he did in training a medal was possible. What a night of celebration we all had."

Yet, while the immediate preparation for the slalom may have gone well, it has not been the easiest of seasons for the 28-year-old. Problems with his skis held him back for weeks, while a knee injury in the build-up to the Games forced him to abandon plans to compete in his second event, the giant slalom, as well.

He also had to put up with a spot of political controversy after dying his hair in a blue-and-white Saltire pattern. For a member of the Great Britain team to sport the Scottish flag could have been seen as a political gesture, according to British officials, so Baxter had to dye the white cross blue.

Yesterday, the cross was the only bit which remained blue, the dye having faded from the rest. It seemed a farcical end to what had been nothing more than a statement of fact by Baxter - he is Scottish. Diplomatically, though, the skier said he understood why he had been told to change the hairstyle.

"I dyed my hair at first because of my nickname on the circuit, which is The Highlander, and because there was a Norwegian guy at the last games who dyed his hair [in his national colours] and won.

"But when I was told to change it I decided that was fair enough. It’s the rules, we’re racing under the Union Jack, we’re Team Great Britain and I wasn’t going to upset anyone."

So his third-place finish was the only upset, albeit one which could have an invigorating effect on both competitive and leisure skiing in Britain. But what effect will it have on Baxter himself?

"I hope it won’t change my life too much, although some things will be easier now. But I can’t imagine it will change [me] that much - I’ll keep my feet on the ground."

He surely will, even if those feet go over the ground with bewildering rapidity.