Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Viz used to run a feature called "The Man In the Pub - Britain's Most Ill-informed Columnist". This consisted of ludicrous public-bar bullshitting; 'see my mate Billy? Got Arthur Askey's legs in his garage, he has. Straight up!' and 'You know that blonde bird out of Abba? Sex maniac, she was. Honest!' That sport can actualise the improbable surely its most humanly enduring fascination. And never mind losers like Eddie the Eagle or Eric the Eel - think winners like Glenn McGrath, the boar-shooting outback boy who lived in a caravan to prove himself as a fast bowler. Think Don Thompson, the Legionnaire-hatted walker who trained for the heat of a Rome Olympiad with a dozen electric fires in the bathroom of his South London semi. Think Garrincha, who overcame physical handicap to become of football's greatest wingers.

Shelley Rudman, who competes in the world skeleton-bobsleigh championship in St Moritz this week, is one of the more extraordinary phenomena of recent years. She hails from Pewsey, a tiny market town of a few thousand souls on the London-Exeter main line. Its main claim to fame is that - actually, until Shelley, there wasn't one, apart from the fact that it's not all that far from Hungerford. Or Devizes.

Because Shelley's silver medal in last year's Winter Olympics was about as improbable as Steeple Bumpstead turning up a sumo yokozuna or Blandford Forum producing a NFL-class running back. For winter sports tend to be dominated by those from regions either with exposure to low temperatures or that are, well, mountainous, as opposed to rural Wiltshire. Geographically, the nearest bobsleigh run to Pewsey is possibly St Moritz itself, a small matter of 1000-odd kilometres. Now that's what I call a commute.

This might help explain Rudman's relative and undeserved anonymity despite what by anyone's standards is an astonishing success - after all, winter sports simply aren't that British (although this doesn't quite account for the coverage given to the women's curling team of the Salt Lake City Olympics of 2002, and a few sundry ice skaters). Intriguingly, though, there is another angle. Rudman is - how to put it? - more than a little easy on the eye. She has a centrefold's face and figure to sell magazines by the shedload, and (as noted on this blog a few months back) with the post-Kournikova sexualisation of women's sport in the media, one might wonder why we haven't seen more of her. This writer would complain not at all if this were so (research purposes and all that) but must reluctantly speculate that it's possible that Rudman has simply preferred practising to pouting for the camera.

Skeleton bobbers - any bobbers - run such enormous risks of multiple injury one can only surmise that pure luck has kept Shelley looking like a shortlister for Elite Models. Head first or feet first, clattering down a half-pipe of ice at 150kmh on a tin tray must rival playing blindfold pogo-stick chicken on the M25 in rush hour for maiming potential. Possibly the greatest luger of all time, the cheerful Berchtesgadener Georg Hackl, for example, has a face and body that one might best term as just on the 'lived in' side of 'battered to buggery'.

Shelley will be up against it in St Moritz, and the smart money suggests she may not repeat her success of Turin. But anyone non-partisan who is interested in sport's romance and humanity will surely wish her well - and if she gets on a few more magazine covers, so much the better.

I can hear it now. 'You know that tasty bit that gets in here, her with the brown hair? World champion bobsleigher she is. No, straights! This mate of mine told me.' As daft as anything by The Man In The Pub. But it's true. Straight up.

Go Shelley!

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