By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – For Dave Ryding next year’s Winter Olympics offers the chance to redress a “travesty” that inadvertently launched him on a path to become Britain’s most successful World Cup skier.
In 2002 Ryding, then 15, sat at home on the sofa watching awestruck as Scotland’s Alain Baxter carved his way to third place in the slalom at the Salt Lake City Games.
It was a lightbulb moment that convinced Ryding the skills he learned on Lancashire’s nearby plastic slopes could propel him on a path would see him finish second in Kitzbuhel in January – Britain’s best World Cup result for 35 years.
As Ryding dreamed, Baxter’s world turned upside down. He was stripped of his medal after a tiny trace of levomethamphetamine turned up in a urine sample – courtesy of an innocent over-the-counter inhaler used to combat a cold.
Baxter won an appeal against a three-month ban set by the International Ski Federation (FIS) but despite almost universal sympathy and being described as an “honest man” by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) his medal was never returned.
Britain’s skiing fortunes plummeted in the years after Baxter’s heartbreak – so much so that when Ryding rocketed to second place behind Marcel Hirscher in Kitzbuhel, Austria there was a collective rubbing of eyes.
But that result at one of skiing’s most iconic venues was no fluke.
Four other top-10 finishes, including an eighth place at the World Cup finals in Aspen, meant Ryding finished the season eighth overall and he should head to South Korea next February as a medal contender.
If that happened, and it is a big if, Ryding said it would be a fitting tribute to trailblazer Baxter who has been a constant source of encouragement.
“I remember it big time,” the 30-year-old Ryding told Reuters by telephone when recalling Baxter’s feat. “I remember sitting hoping thinking ‘wow!’ that’s incredible.
“That was the ignition of the fire that I needed to believe that this was achievable for British people. It was a defining moment for me to decide what I wanted to do,” he added.
“If Alan hadn’t have done that maybe I would never have believed I could, so hopefully when I got the podium in Kitzbuhel it will have a similar effect on kids watching.”
Nothing will ever compensate for Baxter’s loss, according to Ryding who would like nothing better than to give Britain the skiing medal that was cruelly snatched away.
“It’s a travesty what happened to Alain,” Ryding said.
“I don’t think you can ever get over something like that. The circumstances were so unfortunate. The thing that was found in his urine was at such a low level it would not have even shown up if the lab they were using throughout the Olympics had not have been packed away already.
“It was crazy. I don’t think I could ever get over it, especially as he was cleared of any wrongdoing. But they never gave the medal back. When you see others getting away with things in other sports, it was a disaster for British skiing.
“So if I could get a medal it would be cool to say that Alain was the guy that inspired me. But I have to get better first! But at least I have a better chance than last time,” added Ryding, who was 27th in Vancouver and 17th in Sochi.
Late-bloomer Ryding has been playing catch-up with rivals from established Alpine nations all his career.
Until two years ago he still prepared his own skis and admits he felt like quitting after he missed his career aim of top 30 in the standings by a single point.
Since then, with the help of long-time coach Tristan Glasse-Davies and serviceman Alasdair Morton, he finished 22nd last season before catapulting into the top 10.
“I’m still catching up but what excites me over the next few years is that now I’m thinking can I do more?,” he said.
“I never thought I would be in the position to finish a season in eighth. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved this session but now I feel I can push on and set new targets.”
(Editing by Ed Osmond)