Winter Olympics: Lothians hopefuls at Sochi 2014

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SNOW? Okay there’s currently more at Scotland’s ski centres, but . . . check. Controversy, gaudy outfits and strange characters? Check. Hotels half built, no hot water and shower curtains in short supply? Oh yes, definitely check.

It can only be the start of the greatest winter sports show on earth. Sochi 2014 slid into gear yesterday, with the Russian organisers keen to shake off rage over their approach to gay rights – basically, they don’t reckon there is such a thing – and complaints about accommodation in favour of focussing on speed, stunts and slippery action.

Elise Christie can reach speeds of 30mph on the ice. Picture: Reuters

Elise Christie can reach speeds of 30mph on the ice. Picture: Reuters

The opening ceremony today heralds 17 days to come, involving a certain amount of spectacular falling over, some big air snowboard stunts, breakneck skating and, if Team GB’s hopes come true, the best medal haul we’ve ever had from a winter Games.

More money than ever before has been ploughed into the 2014 Team GB squad. And with Scots helping to lead the medal charge, hopes are high that we might come home with, if not a few medals – each featuring a chunk of the meteorite which fell to earth last year – then at least with heads held high.

Leading the charge is Livingston speed skater Elise Christie. The poster girl for the 2014 squad, she steps on to the ice on Monday to begin her challenge in the short track 500m, with sights set on the final on Thursday.

She’s back on the ice next day competing in the short track 1500m heats and, hopefully, finals. And then comes her favourite discipline, the 1000m, on February 21, her best hope of picking up a medal.

The 23-year-old, now based at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham, is being touted as Britain’s best hope following a thrilling performance to retain her European 1000m title in Dresden last month.

Elise, who reaches speeds of 30mph on the ice, insists that despite her good form, winning gold may still be beyond her control. “I was injured earlier in the year but it just made me bounce back stronger. I am performing better than I have ever performed. But it is going to come down to what happens on the day and I can’t control that.”

What it lacks in speed and injury-defying stunts, curling makes up for in pinpoint accuracy and nail-biting climaxes. Team GB ladies team is also flying the Saltire, with 23-year-old Eve Muirhead as skip and a mainly Scottish team that includes Edinburgh’s Vicki Adams, 24. The medals will be decided on February 20.

Great Britain has never won an Olympic medal on snow (we’ll skim over a slalom bronze withdrawn following a drug test) but don’t let that put you off throwing your support behind Edinburgh’s Murray Buchan when he chucks himself around the Sochi half pipe. Murray, 23, kicks off his challenge on the 18th.

But first, Edinburgh University chemical engineering student Callum Smith, 21, will trade his usual training ground of Arthur’s Seat for Sochi this Sunday in the skiathlon – a mix of cross country and classic skiing – followed by a 15km cross country race on Friday the 14th.

It could, if all goes according to plan, be downhill all the way from here . . .

Competitors take their lives in their hands

THE speed and stupidity of sliding down an icy track on your back in the luge, the tricks of the freeskiers, the elegance of the ski jumpers and the ridiculous speed of the downhill racers, all make the Winter Olympics compulsive viewing.

Unlike many other sports in which a dropped wallet is as serious as it gets, Winter Olympians – many of whom have trained on sheets of matting or at indoor slopes where howling gales and whiteout conditions are rarely an issue – take their lives in their hands every time they set off.

If anyone’s in any doubt how dangerous it can be, rewind four years to the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian killed in a luge accident just before the Vancouver Games. The battle faced by Michael Schumacher and the tragic death of actress Natasha Richardson are further evidence of the risks strapping on a pair of skis presents. Perhaps that’s why winter sports always seem packed with larger-than-life characters – Eddie the Eagle, for one.

This time we can look forward to watching Tonga’s entire team in the shape of a luge competitor who changed his name to Bruno Banani, the name of a German underwear label. Edinburgh’s Murray Buchan, sponsored by local undies firm Bawbags, may want to avoid going down that particular slippery slope.

Almost as strange is news that violinist Vanessa Mae will be competing in the giant slalom for Thailand despite being ranked 3166 in the world. Another potential star will be Mexico’s sole competitor, Prince Hubertus von Furstenberg-von Hohenlohe-Langenburg. Aged 54 and limbering up for the slalom, he’ll wear the Games’ most bizarre ski suit, a black and white Three Amigos-style costume.

Biggest cheer at the opening ceremony could go to the Stateless contingent, three Indian athletes including luge competitor Shiva Keshavan who due to lack of funding built his own luge. The Indian Olympic Association was suspended from the Games amid corruption claims.

Amid all that, it sounds routine to point out that the Jamaican bobsled team will be there, even though they arrived in Sochi minus the vital runners for their sled.

Competitors

JAMES ‘WOODSY’ WOOD: The Sheffield 22-year-old slopestyle skier is one of Team GB’s biggest hopes for a podium place.

LIZZY YARNOLD: The 25-year-old from Bath only started participating in skeleton five years ago. She finished the 2012-13 season ranked ninth in the world.

KATIE SUMMERHAYES:

Just 18, she’s a team- mate of Edinburgh slopestyle skier Anna Vincenti, who lost out on her place in the Games by a whisker.

CHEMMY ALCOTT: The 31-year-old golden girl of the ski team was a controversial addition to Team GB, having been forced to sit out nearly two years of competition following a horrific leg break in 2010.