Sir John Ritblat looks back at his 35 years of supporting the British Alpine Ski Championships and British Alpine Ski Team

“I never expected to be still here supporting the Championships thirty five years later,” Sir John Ritblat explained....[emember_protected] as we sat talking in the sumptuous offices of Delancey in London. With the now all to familiar story of an event having been left in the lurch, Sir John Ritblat stepped into the breach back in 1978 and once the organisers had him involved, this was how the relationship started. The financial support has been immense and so too has the relationship support over the years: famous people, nobility and others, have been brought into the frame, to a sport that has promised much yet with few exceptions struggled to deliver.

Back in 1978 Lord Comerford was the Chair of the Ski Federation and 'he had access to good people,' explains Sir John. With the British Ambassador to Paris heading down every year to present prizes at the Championships, travelling down on the overnight train to Val d'Isere. With the late withdrawal of investors who had been lined up to sponsor the championships, there was, Sir John explained ' a double panic when the support came to a full stop; there was no money and the Ambassador arriving, Sir Nico Henderson was a very popular and successful Ambassador. In those days the standing of the British Championships meant that the Girls British Championship Slalom took place on a slope adjacent to the Men's World Cup Downhill in the Meadows section of the OK Course in Val d'Isere.

Much has changed since those early days of the patronage supplied by Sir John, how much change has he seen in the organisation of the sport? “The sport was very amateur and the Ski Fed was packed with aristocrats and people who could afford to ski. Things were much poorer as it was not so long after the Second World War. It was an Upper Class sport; most of the skiers were Scots, who were not Upper Class, they were normal. It was professional in the way that the dedicated amateurs ran it were all very patriotic. The racing was competitive, just as competitive as it is today but it was much more amateur in its style. It was also pre television and the way that the sport is promoted today to an audience of millions. It was also not long after Killy had won everything at the Olympics and that had changed skiing considerably. Many of the skiers were good family skiers and the sport was not supported by the Government.” This was also a time before bodies like UK Sport existed. 'One thing is for sure is that we had no money,' Sir John concluded.

While this aspect of the sport may not have changed, the sport of skiing now 'is thoroughly professional,' Sir John believes that Britain 'does much better than the pure finishing numbers would appear to show. The Europeans hold us in very good esteem; we play a major role in European and World Skiing even though we have not had anybody in recent times on the podium in the Alpine disciplines. So that is a big change. Although it is hand to mouth because of the problems in retaining the managers for long periods we do have good managers and we have good trainers and we have properly equipped skiers in terms of kit and they get medical attention and one or two of them have good mentors travelling with them and looking after them.' When compared to the Austrian team, Sir John realizes that they are a far cry from them but he does acknowledge that 'it is run very professionally bearing in mind it is run on a limited budget.'

Sir John sees the Austrian team as the standard bearers but does recognize that skiing is the National sport in Austria. With the huge budget that the Austrian team has and the resources this brings, it is hard to compare the two teams.

While one can only dream of the resources of the Austrian team, things are getting better for the British team, Sir John feels. 'We had a bad dip when the team ran out of money,' Sir John clarifies this as a mismanagement of money by the executives at the times, rather than running out of money.

Sir John has been a sponsor for thirty-five years now and during that time he has never been involved with the executive side of the sport or the running of the teams. He has, in his own words, 'complained about things at times,' but prefers as the sponsor to remain outside the executive side of the sport. Sir John finds it 'quite flattering to be drawn into discussions by the Chief Executive's of the sport' as they have sought his wisdom over various matters. As a very successful businessman, first with British Land and latterly with his family run business Delancey, Sir John has helped in bringing people that can benefit the sport to the table. 'It has always been important to have key people that can help, come out and be an addition to the success of the occasion,' explains Sir John.

As the conversation moved on to the thorny issue of the venue for the Championships, Meribel has hosted the National Championships for the last ten years. Sir John is a huge fan of the resort and the attractions it affords the racing: the proximity of the accommodation to the slopes as well as the year on year improvements that the slope team have made. Every year the improvements get better he feels and the slope improvements this year, were a huge improvement. The area around 'A Nets' made to accommodate the Women's World Cup also helped the young racers taking part in the Children's Championships. Sir John does not feel that there is cause for change 'unless there are reasons it is becoming less suitable.' Even though the Championships have now been in Meribel for the last ten years, Sir John points out that 'Skiers change. It is not as though there are skiers that are saying that I have been skiing the same track for ten years and there is no challenge now. Meribel,' Sir John feels, 'has been absolutely exceptional with its facilities they have all improved every year.'

With the news that Meribel will host the World Cup Finals in 2015, this further emphasizes the fact that the courses will remain a challenge for the vast array of racers that attend the British Championships at all its levels. Add this to the fact that it is also in France and France being cheaper than Switzerland, Sir John remains a huge fan of the resort and its snow team.

Sir John believes that the achievement of David Ryding in winning the Europa Cup Slalom series was a 'fantastic feat'. The support of Delancey certainly helped fund his programme. The other three remaining top racers of the British team, Chemmy Alcott, Dougie Crawford and TJ Baldwin, all remain outside the official British programme. “Chemmy is different,” Sir John, explains, “anyone with any less will power would have given it up. She has gone out to do it on her own and that is different. Chemmy is still a great talent.”

It is talking about racers, as they get older that you realize just how much knowledge Sir John has gathered from his years involved in the sport. Sir John firmly believes that it is not the muscles deteriorating as athletes approach their thirties but the deterioration in the elasticity of the eye that affects the racers performance. It is the fact that racers take longer to react due to the deterioration of the elasticity around the eye that affects their performance he explained. It is the delay in focusing and the subsequent delay in that information is being transmitted around the body that causes the racers to slow down.

Sir John has supported many racers during his time in the sport, but who have been his favourites: “I thought Finlay (Mickel) was great on his day, he was a lovely skier,” he starts out with. Sir John thinks carefully before adding “I thought Martin Bell was very good, a very solid skier with plenty of guts.” Further back he also lists Gina Hawthorn (now Sopwith) and Davina Galitza. Stuart Fitzsimmons also appealed through his character and excitement. Talking of that type of excitement, Sir John feels that the racers of today have lost some of that appeal: “the flamboyance has gone out of it, it is a hard thing now.” As we talk about some of the

current crop and how the likes of Darcie Mead were encouraged into the sport by the exploits of Chemmy Alcott, Sir John comments that Alain Baxter was also one of his real stars.

With the benefit of his years involved in the sport, how would Sir John like to see the sport evolve? “I think it is terribly simple: We have got to bring more finance into the sport. You cannot build a long termed and sustained number of skiers unless you provide them with facilities when they are young. You have got to do it. How young is young though? From the age of twelve or thirteen you have got to provide them with tip top facilities. You have got to provide them with money to help them with their education, help with their travel and make sensible funds available. We also need to have continuing good managers; good trainers and we do not just recruit them year-by-year. We need to be able to say to the athletes that the coaches will be there for the long term and that we have medical facilities for them and that we will look after them when they are travelling. From this you will then breed a series of young people that will not give up in their teens as so many do. They give up for three reasons:

“One, that they find that they are not up to it, this is normal; secondly, they are concerned about their careers and what they are going to do. We have to cover that and look after them. Thirdly is the human condition: the racers discover the opposite sex. This is all normal and you are going to get wastage. You have got to have enough in the system so that distil the talent that also has the ambition and not the distraction. It is not more complicated than that. If you have got the facilities, then you will reduce the drop out and the distraction.”

With the history of Delancey being involved in the building industry, does Sir John feel that the facilities he talks about is more indoor slopes in the UK being built? “It is about skiing on snow but it is the whole package. The ideal would be to have a ski school with school and skiing combined, that would be the ideal.” While there are Academies already set up within the British winter sports market, like the British Ski Academy, Sir John feels that a purpose built academy is the way forward and “if you cannot run to that then we must find a way in providing for these youngsters with scholarships that are full scale bursaries because we have to look after them for the whole year.”

Sir John feels that the current set up with the Academies running full time programme December to April, is OK yet ”when they start to get strong, at 14 or 15, then I think that it is a nine month a year effort.”

With all the support Sir John has already put in over the last thirty-five years, how much longer does he see himself being involved? “The short answer is this I am sure that Delancey will continue to be interested in skiing, that I am sure. Skiing is a real national sport and there are not many things that you can sponsor that do not cost millions in the way that sponsoring some of the others sports does.”

The frustration Sir John feels at the lack of support from the government is very evident when he looks at what others sports have achieved with the UK Sport backing. While the UK Sport backing is governed by a 'no compromise' approach in terms of support for results, support is needed more, many would argue, when the results are not there to guarantee the funding. It is a catch twenty-two situation. With the restrictions in funding from UK Sport in place, with out the financial support from Delancey and the continued support from Sir John, British Alpine ski racing would be in a fair poorer state.


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