Europe gets its skates on to head for home of the Blades

Czech Republic's Lucie Mysliveckova and Neil Brown
Czech Republic's Lucie Mysliveckova and Neil Brown
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Sheffield may seem an unlikely centre for winter sports but, as Nick Westby reports, it’s fast making a name for itself on the ice.

Eighteen years have passed since Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean turned Sheffield into the centre of the figure skating world.

Britain’s decorated darlings won the national ice dance title there in early 1994 on their much-publicised journey to what was expected to be a glorious swansong at the Lillehammer Olympics that February.

Ten years on from the Bolero in Sarajevo that transformed a teenage pastime into box office draw, Torvill and Dean were set to rewrite history in the Norwegian ski resort.

They had been crowned British king and queen in Sheffield, but Olympic gold eluded them in Lillehammer. They took their bronze medals, courtsied to the crowd and skated into the sunset, returning only when beckoned by the golden hand of Sunday night reality television.

This week, the eyes of the skating world have once again turned to Sheffield. The traditional industrial heartland may have about as much claim to being a winter sports hotbed as Tenerife, but it is at the Motorpoint Arena in Attercliffe where the best ice dancers on the continent have gathered for the 2012 European Figure Skating Championships.

Six years in the planning, 174 skaters representing 37 nations are competing for medals, with the titles in the men’s and women’s event to be decided tomorrow and the ice dance today. The week-long celebration concludes on Sunday with an exhibition from the top performers in each category.

Fifteen thousand tickets have been sold already, with the two sessions tomorrow almost sold out. Another 5,000 children from schools in and around the city have also attended throughout a targeted education programme by the organisers.

If all goes well, as a logistical operation and an entertainment package, it can be regarded as a strong pat on the back for Sheffield’s bid to host the sport’s World Championships in 2016.

“We won’t get the World Championships without a good week here,” says event director Liz Littler. “We had to do three grand prix events just to get the European Championships. Britain had the worlds in Birmingham in 1995 and staged the Euros in 1989, but that’s it.

“A lot of the officials have been really pleased with what we’ve done so far. The championships were held in Bern (Switzerland) last year, where you would expect it to be a really slick operation. But the arena was open air at the top and really cold, so everyone is just hoping we’ll do better than that.

“And I’m sure we will. Sheffield is the national centre for figure skating. We’re well-practised.”

Sheffield residents need not fear another crippling financial legacy, like the one the World Student Games left. Regenerated at a cost of £147m, the lower Don Valley, which includes the stadium, arena, and now iceSheffield and the English Institute of Sport, is something Sheffield taxpayers continue to pay off today, 21 years after the Games.

The European Figure Skating Championships, however, will not leave lasting damage. If anything, the city’s hosting of these championships is a nod to the positives that came out of the area’s regeneration.

The British Skating authority, which runs the event on behalf of the International Skating Federation, receives a grant from the governing body which is funded by key sponsors. Sheffield City Council, Welcome to Yorkshire and UK Sport put up the rest.

Economic projections forecast that the continent’s best skaters will balance the books by ploughing £1.5m into the local economy.

“From our point of view it’s a break-even event,” says Littler. “But there’s the long-term goal of getting the World Championships here that is the real bonus.”

In the immediate term, money will matter not a jot for those who have made the trip to the Motorpoint Arena for the week’s events.

The days when Britons were genuine medal contenders may be a distant memory, but there are outside bets. Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland are the latest ice dance duo to step into Torvill and Dean’s skates, while “home” interest comes in the guise of Britain’s recently-crowned men’s champion Jason Thompson.

The 22-year-old is making his debut at this level but should be familiar with his surroundings, having skated in Sheffield since 1997.

“It’s an honour to skate in the Europeans in my home city,” said Thompson, who qualified for yesterday’s short programme.

“It was fantastic to hear all the people cheering.”