Britain's hope rides the skates of Robin Cousins

Just as it did with John Curry at Innsbruck four years ago, Britain's only hope for a gold medal in the 1980 Winter Olympics rides on the flashing skates and dazzling artistry of Robin Cousins.

The 22-year-old native of the seaport town of Bristol is favored to carry it off, too, in tonight's free skating showdown against East Germany's Jan Hoffmann and former world champion Charlie Tickner of the United States. If he succeeds, it will not only keep the gold in Great Britain for four more years but will probably be that nation's only medal of any color in these Lake Placid games -- just as Curry's was in 1976.

Great Britain has never been strong in other sports on the Winter Games program, but for some reason it has done pretty well over the years in figure skating. On the surface it's difficult to understand why a country with its relatively mild climate and scarcity of indoor rinks developed this tradition, but the facts speak for themselves.

British women and pairs took a total of four medals in the very first Olympic figure skating competition in 1908, and the nation also won a variety of gold, silver, and bronze medals in these events in 1920, 1924, 1936, 1948, and 1952. The men never did quite as well until Curry came along, although in 1939 the British had both the men's and women's world champions and would have been favored for the gold in each event had there been a 1940 Winter Olympics.

All this form a nation which, as one British journalist noted on a recent trip to Minnesota, has fewer indoor rinks in the entire country than there are in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area alone. But as US speed skaters have proved, it isn't necessary to have a large base to produce world class competitors as long as there are some talented and dedicated people and at least adequate training facilities.

There is also sometimes a case of circumtances taking strange and unpredictable turns -- as for instance the way Cousins himself got into skating. One hot day when Robin was eight years old the family was away from home on a vacation when they spotted a rink and went in to try skating -- more to cool off than anything else. The lad took to it quickly, but that was his only chance for a while since there was not even a rink in his hometown of Bristol. Fortunately, one was built the next year, and soon he was on his way.

At 18 Robin competed at Innsbruck, finishing 10th, then the next year, like Curry before him, he came to the United States to train in Colorado under the famous coach, Carlo Fassi. The move paid off, as he moved up troPlacid drive with the top free skating performance and a second place overall at the 1979 world championships.

Now he is on the threshold, standing a close second to Hoffman going into the free skating the competition, where he is strongest. The East German veteran will be going all out to maintain his lead, however, and he certainly has experience on his side. Although only two years older than Cousins, Jan is appearing in his fourth Olympics. He started as a 12-year-old at Grenoble in 1968, competed at Sapporo in 1972, then just missed a medal with a fourth place finish at Innsbruck.

Tickner, who loomed as the main threat to Cousins here, was second behind Hoffmann (with Cousins only fourth) after the compulsory figures. The American stumbled during his short program the next night, however, receiving severe markdowns from some judges as a consequence and dropping to fourth in the overall standings. Cousins, meanwhile, skated a brilliant short program to move up two spots into second place and a strong challenging position.

Actually, in pre-Olympic speculation this was supposed to be a four-man battle, with 1976 silver medalist and current world champion Vladimir Kovalev of the Soviet Union the other contender. Kovalev place only fifth in the compulsories, however, and was pulled out of the competition amid rumors that he was being punished (as he has been in the past) for breaking training rules.

So it comes down to the remaining three, and if all skate their best, Cousins should overtake Hoffmann, with Tickner possibly forced to battle his US teammate David Santee (currently in fourth place) for the bronze. A big effort by Tickner could still vault him up there, of course, especially if Cousins should falter. Given the way Robin has skated so far, however, and knowing how much the gold medal means to both him and his country, that doesn't appear too likely.

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