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The winters may be getting shorter and the snow line inexorably creeping up Australia’s modest mountains but the advance of the country’s winter athletes continues at pace.
So much so that February’s Winter Olympics should be Australia’s most successful – and potentially by some margin.
A team of around 60 athletes will head to the Black Sea city of Sochi in Russia, making it easily Australia’s largest team for a Winter Games.
With big numbers come big expectations.
Gone are the days when Australians were a novelty in the snow and lauded for top 20 finishes; in Sochi five or more medals are expected from a group that runs deep with talent.
There’s those who are either favourites or regarded as amongst the top few in the world in their disciplines: Alex “Chumpy” Pullin (snowboard cross), Torah Bright (snowboard halfpipe and slopestyle), Lydia Lassila and David Morris (freestyle aerials) and Russ Henshaw and Anna Segal (ski slopestyle).
Just as much it’s the depth underneath them that impresses.
Over the last year there are others who’ve made the podium at World Cups: Jarryd Hughes and Belle Brockhoff (snowboard cross), Holly Crawford and Nate Johnstone (snowboard halfpipe), Michelle Steele (skeleton), Laura Peel (freestyle aerials), Matt Graham and Britt Cox (moguls) and Amy Sheehan (ski halfpipe).
Throw in the comeback of moguls maestro and two-time Games gold medallist Dale Begg-Smith and it’s a team that should meet its stated aim of finishing within the top 15 countries.
Much of the success is down to the formation of the Olympic Winter Institute after the 1998 Games in Nagano, where Australia won its first individual medal when Zali Steggall took home bronze in the women’s slalom.
The intention was to have a central body which would specifically oversee Australian winter sport and determine where funding should go.
Headed by former aerial skier Geoff Lipshut, the institute quickly pinpointed disciplines that Australia could excel in based on the country’s limited alpine environment, skill transfers from summer sports and weaknesses elsewhere in the world.
Aerial skiing quickly became a more extensively funded program while snowboarding and skeleton were added.
In recent years there’s been success in new Games disciplines, particularly slopestyle skiing and snowboarding.
All up since the institute was founded Australia has won five Olympic gold medals; nine world championships and more than 200 World Cup medals.
Amongst international athletes at the Sochi Games there’ll be plenty of star turns: Shaun White (snowboard halfpipe) and, assuming she’s fit, Lindsey Vonn (alpine skiing) will be front and centre for the Americans; China’s Wang Meng (short track speedskating) will attempt to add to her three gold medals from Vancouver and Norwegian legend Ole Einar Bjoerndalen (biathlon) goes to his sixth Games searching for an incredible 12th medal.
As much as anything though, these Games are about the Games themselves.
In Sochi’s favour is its spectacular Black Sea coastline bordered by 3500 metre mountains less than 40km from the water.
The facilities, almost entirely purpose-built, promise to be top shelf and the compact nature of the Games will be a huge boon to athletes, spectators and media alike.
But there is also trouble brewing on many fronts.
The excesses of a $US50 billion-plus spend – making these the most expensive Games summer or winter – have earned the ire of many in a country which has an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.
Then there’s spectre of terrorism; the bombings of a railway station and trolley bus that killed 31 people in Volgograd in December and the proximity of the volatile republic of Chechnya has left many athletes, officials and locals on edge.
And president Vladimir Putin has won few admirers in more liberal countries with his edict to ban anti-gay propaganda in Russia, leaving many to claim human rights abuses must therefore follow.
For their part Australians aren’t immune from the controversy.
Openly lesbian snowboarder Brockhoff says she’ll wear a t-shirt to support gay rights and the feisty Bright has threatened to pull out over security fears while also openly challenging the Australian Olympic Committee to try to enforce its rigid social media policy in Sochi.
The Winter Games of the 21st Olympiad will invariably be accused of many things: being dull is unlikely to be one of them.