Winter Olympics: The 19 Scots to watch in Beijing and the controversy surrounding the host venue
The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics open officially on Friday. Not since the boycott-riddled Games of Moscow and Los Angeles four decades ago has politics been so readied to overshadow action on the fields of play.
Draconian Covid protocols have built a Great Wall around the showpiece with foreign fans barred and the spectre of lengthy quarantines for a positive test looming large over all in attendance.
Throw in too stonewalled questions over China’s dreadful record on human rights - and indictments of ‘sportswashing’ lobbed towards the IOC.
Calls for a boycott have been resisted but it has maintained the debate over whether these issues should be factored into the choice of hosts for major events. “I'll definitely be aware of it,” noted Andrew Musgrave, one of the trio of cross-country skiers bred in Aberdeenshire. “I think that it is something that needs to be thought about.”
Athletes have been warned that there is no guarantee that the nation’s authorities will not seek to punish, or at least inflict some discomfort upon, those choosing to speak out.
“All we can do is guide the athletes on local laws and the IOC regulations and make sure they're very clear on that,” insists the British Olympic Association’s chief executive Andy Anson. “But, we're not going to be the ones stifling their freedom of expression.”
Principles aside, there is a uniqueness about Beijing as the first city to welcome both a Summer and Winter Olympiad, 14 years apart. Swimming’s Water Cube from 2008 has morphed into the Ice Cube for curling. Oh, and the show is 99 per cent artificial.
However, for the 19 Scots on a 50-strong British team, from 17-year-old debutant Kirsty Muir to fourth-timers such as Musgrave, his colleague Andrew Young and past medallist, curler Eve Muirhead, they will enter the bubble bursting with enthusiasm and hope that the performance of their lives awaits on the biggest stage imaginable.
Double-chasing Bruce Mouat and Jennifer Dodds get the ball rolling – in this case, stone sliding – for the whole British team on Wednesday when the mixed doubles curling begins. World champions last year, the childhood chums both began their journey at Edinburgh’s long-demolished Gogar Park rink but have headed East as favourites.
“Coming into the Olympics, you've almost got a target in your back now that teams know they have to raise your game against you,” Dodds acknowledged. “And they will.”
Useful intelligence will also be gathered on the nuances of the Beijing ice for the subsequent men’s and women’s competitions. “If anyone got told that they could practice for a week, and get information, then they would take it and grab it with both hands,” Mouat underlined.
Recently-crowned as European champions, the British men’s crew of Mouat, Grant Hardie, Bobby Lammie and Hammy McMillan Jr. is a hot tip for a medal. Eve Muirhead’s female foursome had to survive a last-chance qualifier before they too landed the Euro title to re-establish their credentials.
That additional practice under pressure was a plus, said Muirhead, who will be accompanied by Vicky Wright, Dodds and Hailey Duff. The influx of new contenders, including China, makes curling ultra-competitive. But the long-time skip said: “We're sitting ranked fourth in the world and, as a team, we do feel like we are we are in a good place.”
Three years ago, Natasha McKay was working in a TK Maxx in Dundee and was struggling to enter international figure skating competitions in her spare time.
National Lottery funding then financed a choreographer who works with her via Zoom. Now she’s out to inspire the young kids she coaches on Tayside and to earn the right to perform her free dance on her Olympic debut. “I’d love to qualify in the top 24 and to get through to that second day,” she admitted.
Lewis Gibson and his ice dance partner Lilah Fear have risen into the top ten in the world since relocating to Canada. Tipped as potential medallists in 2026 by past champion and BBC pundit Robin Cousins, both are inspired by predecessors Torvill and Dean. “It got me involved and many others,” Gibson confessed. “I hope we can do the same by showcasing ice dance as a sport, and showing people in the UK that we are good at it.”
Kathryn Thomson goes to her second Games as a long shot in the short-track speed skating but will have opportunities in the 500, 1000 and 1500 metres to surpass her first round exits from PyeongChang 2018.
Kirsty Muir is the UK’s youngest Beijing Olympian but the Aberdonian has rocketed into contention in free ski’s slopestyle discipline as well as the Big Air. The teen embraces the creative side of honing her tricks. “I am actually in the air, flying almost.,” she enthuses. “There is a lot of adrenaline, which is quite good.”
Quite the contrast from the trio of Nordic skiers: Musgrave, Young and James Clugnet who will mesh speed and endurance with the two Andrews in peak form and outside bets on a good day. “We have never wanted to be beaten by each other,” Musgrave affirmed. “Which is why I think we have ended up being so good because we have pushed each other from the age of 10.”
Downhills skiers Alex Tilley and Charlie Guest have also squared off since before their teens. Both Olympians second time around, sneaking into the top 15 would be a fine Games outcome.
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