Winter Olympics: Medals elusive in rarefied arena

By David Leggat

It's been 18 years since New Zealand tasted medal success. Can our new stars shine?

Kiwi Olympic snowboarder James Hamilton, from Albany on Auckland's North Shore. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Kiwi Olympic snowboarder James Hamilton, from Albany on Auckland's North Shore. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Annelise Coberger could do with some company.

When the Christchurch skier won the silver medal in the slalom at the 1992 Winter Olympics at Albertville, France, it was the first time a Southern Hemisphere athlete made the podium at a Winter Games.

Eighteen years on and Coberger remains New Zealand's solitary medallist at the "other" Games.

Climactic and historical reasons mean the summer Games tend to dominate New Zealand's thinking when it comes to Olympic matters.

When the Games start this weekend in Vancouver, New Zealand will have a solid presence, with 16 athletes having qualified.

They have done so either by producing A standard performances or by being chosen on the discretionary system - that is, having shown the Olympic selectors they are worth sending because they were very close to the A-standards or because they have shown they will benefit from the trip with the 2014 Sochi Winter Games in mind.

A difference between the two Games is that athletes going to the summer event are chosen with a higher expectation of what they could achieve.

The winter version, dominated as it is by Northern Hemisphere nations, is another story, calling for expectations to be tempered with measure of realism. As Coberger showed, winning a medal from outside the north is desperately hard.

So what chance a New Zealander joining Coberger over the next couple of weeks in Vancouver?

In a word slim, but not totally beyond the realm of possibility.

If you were to pick one athlete who might do it, try Rotorua skeleton racer Ben Sandford.

His father, Bruce, won the world title at Calgary 18 years ago.

Sandford was in Torino for the Games four years ago, when he finished 10th, so he ticks the box on past experience.

He is a regular top-10 performer on the World Cup circuit, and that's without the quota system which limits athletes per country to ensure a spread of nations.

"I really want to be up there fighting for a medal, so my goal for this Olympics is to put myself in a position where, come the second day, I'm in a position to come away with one," Sandford said.

He admitted his form this season suggested he might battle to make the podium, but "one of the good things about skeleton is that it's very track-specific and I think Whistler is a track that suits me quite well".

Tionette Stoddard, New Zealand's first woman skeleton racer and also armed with useful World Cup results, and Edinburgh-based Iain Roberts round out the contingent.

New Zealand has five snowboarders, the country's biggest Olympic contingent, at the Games. All are racing the halfpipe; three - Juliane Bray (16th at Torino), and siblings Mitchell (25th) and Kendall Brown (24th) all second-time Olympians.

There are two cross-country skiers, Katie Calder and Ben Koons, and free skier Mitchey Greig contesting the skier cross event. Again, Greig's results suggest she will at least be competitive in an event in which groups of four race down a course filled with bumps, twists and drops. Think motocross racing on snow.

Two speed skaters, Shane Dobbin and Blake Skjellerup, will bookend New Zealand's involvement. Dobbin, a four-time inline world skating champion, starts the competition on Sunday in the 5000km race; Skjellerup is in the 10,000m on February 24.

Alpine skiers Ben Griffin and Tim Cafe are up against it, facing the cream of European racers. Griffin is in the giant slalom and Super G; Cafe in the Super G only. They are a case in point, where a top 15 finish would be a top-class result.

Canadian-Kiwi Sarah Murphy is New Zealand's first competitor in the biathlon, which combines cross country skiing with shooting. She got her place under the quota system and, with several others, is looking to make the most of her chance with an eye on 2014.

"A number of our athletes have had top-10 finishes in World Cup events, so that means that they're in that top quartile in their competition," New Zealand chef de mission Peter Wardell said.

"And if we get them in the top quarter of their fields that will be fantastic."

The New Zealand team are based at two villages: the snowboarders, skaters and Greig in Vancouver, about 40 minutes' drive from the event location at Cypress Mountain; the alpine skiers, skeletoners, cross country and biathlon competitors at Whistler, about 90 minutes' drive from Vancouver.

There have been major concerns at the shortage of snow at Cypress, which is at a lower level than Whistler.

Wardell said about 5000cu m of snow has been trucked and helicoptered in.

"They haven't been able to make snow at Cypress Mountain since mid-December. I think it's the warmest January on record," Wardell said. "It's like spring, not winter.

"Or, for a New Zealander, picture getting a whole lot of nor'westers when you want southerlies."

- NZ Herald

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