20 January 2002
It is 18 years since Britain’s golden couple reached perfection in Sarajevo. Brough Scott talks to Jayne Torvill about the decline of British skating
This afternoon we will see her skate again. Eighteen years after those nine straight sixes at the Sarajevo Olympics Jayne Torvill will glide across the ice on BBC Grandstand. But there will be no Christopher Dean and Bolero, just a microphone to interview Britain’s lone hopes Marika Humphreys and Vitali Baranov. It needs to be a baton.
For where she and Dean led no one has been able to follow. Their Sarajevo medals remain our last gold and their much-disputed bronze at Lillehammer after that controversial 1994 comeback is still Britain’s last skating medal of any kind.
Play the video and the memories come flooding back – the mauve clad kneeling start to the first beats of Bolero, Jane as the cloak to Chris as matador in Paso Doble, her over-the-shoulder finale in Let’s Face The Music and Dance. Torvill and Dean, the ultimate team. Now Humphreys and Baranov?
Jayne will not join any disparagement of our current pair, who are coached by T & D mentor Betty Calloway’s 85-year-old husband, Roy, and who only got their Olympic ticket after the British Olympic Association reversed a ruling that their 16th place in last year’s World Championships was not a high enough ranking. “They won’t let us down at all,” she says, astutely avoiding any comment on last week’s furore when a Canadian official accused some skaters of holding the ladies in “gynaecological positions”, too explicit for family viewing. “Last year was Marika and Vitali’s first time in the Worlds and the Europeans; they are very talented and you learn so much from competition.”
Indeed, Humphreys and Baranov are themselves a triumph over the adversities which beset skaters in this country. They met when Vitali, a Ukrainian, was in a touring ice show joined by Marika, who in 1992 had become, at 15, Britain’s youngest dance champion. They married in 1999 but a car crash prevented them competing in 2000 and, although becoming British champions in 2001, they subsist now by Marika teaching at her local rink at Deeside and Vitali working as a waiter in a Chester hotel.
Marika was not even born when an 18-year-old Jayne, a Nottingham newsagent’s daughter, first teamed up with Chris, the 17-year-old police cadet, and yet little has changed in opportunities for talent to flourish in the intervening quarter of a century. “I had started when I was eight and only because of a teacher at school,” Jayne said. “Mrs Fitzhugh was her name and she asked if some of us would like to try skating. On the second trip I discovered they did lessons on Saturday mornings and begged my mum to let me have them.”
Even at the height of her meet-the-Queen, paparazzi-at-the airport fame, Jayne always came across as a very ordinary person transformed into something extraordinary when she approached the ice. Now at 44, four years since she and Dean did their final “Stars on Ice” tour together, there is an element of the butterfly gone back into the chrysalis. Life for her and husband Phil Christensen is clearly comfortable enough. There is a Mercedes Estate and an expensive black leather coat, but the figure standing in the Tunbridge Wells garden still has a touch of reticence about how far her skates have taken her.
“Perhaps today’s children sometimes have too much choice,” she says trying to explain what drove her relentless pursuit for ice perfection. “If my parents paid for skating lessons, they certainly could not pay for anything else. I had to make it work but it was still just a hobby.”
As a schoolgirl that hobby had seen her win two National Championships with first partner,
Michael Hutchinson, but when he departed and she left school for a job with Norwich Union, it was only the link-up with Dean that rekindled the flame. The far-sightedness of Nottingham Council brought a four-year sponsorship deal which within 12 months had paid off with victories in both the European and World Championships.
“The sponsorship meant that we could train in Germany,” Jayne remembers. “It was at Oberstdorf, only a little place, but it had two rinks and a ballet studio. There would be good skaters there all the time. We could really concentrate. In 1981 we had thought we would get bronze at best, so to get gold was amazing and the reception back in Nottingham was incredible.”
She and Dean will be back in Nottingham this summer as the Queen officially opens the new twin rink, National Ice Centre. Perhaps it will herald a new era. Its strongest advocate is the ultra-energetic chairman of the National Ice Skating Association, Haig Oundjian, himself a two-time British champion but today a refreshing whirlwind of change in how sport should develop.
“In many ways Jayne and Chris were the last of the amateur era,” he says, “they fitted their skating around ordinary lives and then trained abroad just like John Curry and Robin Cousins had done. We had a great tradition of ice dance and used to win everything, but other countries were introducing development programmes which we are only now thinking about.
“At the 1968 World Championships,” he said, “the Frenchman, Patrick Pera, asked me how often I trained. I told him as I was at school I just trained at weekends. He said, `Why are you not a cadet?’ This was a system they had established way back then whereby a promising schoolboy could do his coaching in the morning and have his schoolwork synchronised around it. That is precisely what we should be doing here.”
Oundjian is a persuasive advocate. “Look around our rinks and other sporting facilities in the morning and they are all empty,” he says. “Our children are all trying to play catch-up. If they go after school, the rinks are crowded so they can’t do jumps and other things. They have to get up at 5 am to train. What kids, what parents want that?”
In another part of his life as vice-chairman of Watford FC, Oundjian has been part of the `Playing for Success’ programme which uses the positive dynamism of football to inspire children and adults through learning courses – 8,000 people have already been through Watford’s special classroom at Vicarage Road. That has got local and national government support and, after visiting No 10, he is confident wider schemes, already piloted, will receive it, too.
“Tony Blair talks of `unlocking the potential’ and that is exactly what sport can do. If a group of schoolkids can come and skate and young Johnny looks as if he will respond to coaching, we would call up his parents and ask if they were willing to put him into a streaming programme for two or three hours a day with their work arranged afterwards. That way the child has a chance to achieve without losing its education. At best it is a pathway for champions, but the discipline it brings is wider than that. Even if you don’t win gold medals, sport offers fulfilment.”
Back in Tunbridge Wells, Jayne Torvill ponders just that. Eighteen years ago hers was just about the most recognised face in the country. Now only the occasional head will turn. Her early commitment and bonding with the genius within Christopher Dean brought her fame and fortune, but it did not change her. Sport can indeed bring fulfilment – even out the other side. “In the end,” she says, “you have to decide if you want to carry on being famous, which means you kind of hide away most of the time, or if you want to join the rest of the world – to be normal again.”