Great British moments in Winter Olympic History

Curling, team playing on the ice.
Great Britain are the 19th most successful country in Winter Olympic history | Image: Shutterstock

Think of the all-time great Winter Olympic nations and you’ll conjure up big hitters like the United States, the Soviet Union/Russia, Canada, and Germany. Then there’s the likes of Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, and Norway, who sit atop the combined medals table. Make sure you remember that for any future pub quizzes!

What do all those nations have in common? Mountain ranges. Huge snow-covered mountain ranges. A country that doesn’t have a few of these knocking around is going to find it pretty tricky to secure medals every four years.

Yet, for a country so bereft of large snowy peaks and any real snow at all, Great Britain hasn’t performed too badly in the Winter Olympics. Team GB is only the 19th most successful country in history, picking up a relatively measly 32 medals in 23 games.

We’d like to celebrate some of the gold medals and truly unforgettable moments here. And an honourable mention for one which didn’t end in a medal win, but did provide one of the most legendary stories in sports history.

Torvill and Dean (Sarajevo, 1984)

There’s no suspense here, we’re not building up to a big reveal. There’s only one moment that truly stands out in unbridled Winter Olympics joy for Great Britain. No other single moment has captured the public’s imagination quite like Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean's flawless figure skating performance 38 years ago.

Few Brits can hear Ravel’s Boléro without thinking of Torvill and Dean’s incredible gold medal-winning routine that was watched by nearly 25 million people back home. Overnight icons, the Nottingham duo soon turned professional and, as such, became ineligible to enter further Olympics (although the rules around that have since changed).

It was a perfect performance and saw the pair become the highest-scoring figure skaters of all time for a single routine. They received 12 perfect 6.0s and six 5.9s.

It wasn’t just a huge moment for Great Britain in sports terms, the two became cultural icons. Is that a good or bad thing? Well, that depends on what your feelings are towards Dancing on Ice, we suppose.

Robin Cousins (Lake Placid, 1980)

Oh, how Robin Cousins must have resented Torvill and Dean. Before 1984, he was the most famous figure skater in Britain after his heroics in 1980.

The Lake Placid Winter Olympics featured one of the tensest and most exciting figure skating finals ever. Cousins had to come from behind to overtake East Germany’s much-fancied Jan Hoffman.

Few saw Cousins’ success coming, given that he finished 10th in his only other Winter Olympics showing. A bronze at the World Championships in between those two games meant that the Bristol-born skater wasn’t exactly a no-hoper, but even he may have been surprised at just how well the finals went for him.

Amy Williams (Vancouver, 2010)

While Team GB has always equipped itself with dignity and picked up the odd result, gold medals are something of a rarity. In fact, there was a full 30-year gap between Cousins’ success and the next individual gold.

Amy Williams had always dreamed of being an Olympian. Her original goal was to compete at the Summer Olympics as a 400m runner. After failing to achieve her target, she decided to refocus instead of giving up. Her realigned sights became set on hurtling headfirst down an icy halfpipe on a tea tray at 80mph. For some reason.

It’s a good job Williams did turn her attention to Skeleton. Only in Vancouver in 2010, after failing to qualify for the 2006 Winter Olympics, did she defy the odds and win a gold. In the days and weeks after her dramatic and unexpected gold, Great Britain had never been so interested in bobsledding and the skeleton. DVD sales of Cool Runnings went through the roof.

Rhona Martin (Salt Lake City, 2002)

While the sport of curling is thought to have been invented in Scotland way back in the 16th century, it’s not exactly been at the forefront of British sport since then. That was until 20 years ago when the British women's curling team competed at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah.

Fiona MacDonald, Margaret Morton, Janice Rankin, and Debbie Knox made up the bulk of the team, with captain Rhona Martin as its figurehead. It was skipper Martin who launched the last stone in the final which won Great Britain their first team gold since Torvill and Dean.

During their run to the final, Britain went curling crazy. In the wake of the games, the UK acted fast and invested in the sport, appointing a development team and drawing up plans to build curling centres throughout the home nations. Those plans never came to fruition as the fickle ol’ British public soon forgot about the sport almost as quickly as they got excited about it.

Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards (Calgary, 1988)

Last and by no means least, (although he did actually finish dead last) Michael Edwards. The man who came to be known as ‘The Eagle’, an ironic nickname given to make fun of his lack of flying ability.

The amateur ski jumper qualified for the 1988 games in Canada, becoming the first Brit to compete in the event in 60 years. His showing in the World Championships the year before, in which he finished 55th, was enough to give Eddie a shot in Calgary.

He would finish last and become something of a laughing stock to the rest of the world, but a certified national hero in the UK.

Written by:

Steve Charnock

Steve Charnock is a freelance writer who scribbles all sorts of things for all sorts of people, specialising in the darker side of life and death. He mainly writes features, reviews, blogs, articles and lists. But always forgets to write his mum a birthday card.