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Alain Baxter by Andrew Ross

Release date: 17th November, 2005
Publisher: Dewi Lewis Media

List Price: £12.99
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Alain Baxter: Unfinished Business
By Andrew Ross
Dewi Lewis Media

4sportsbooks.co.uk price: £9.09 (saving £3.90 on rrp)

Only the eagle-eyed would catch an almost indecipherable footnote which appears on page 460 of the official Olympic history book. It's in the great tome's records section where details of the men's slalom, an event which began in 1948, show that the 2002 gold medal was won by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Vidal who finished nearly three quarters of a second ahead of fellow countryman Sebastien Amiez.

According to the official records, in bronze medal position was Benjamin Raich of Austria, who completed the course in 1:42.41. It is here that reference to the footnote is made. "Alain Baxter (GBR) finished third but was disqualified" it reads, a stark, unquestionable line tucked beneath information which tells the reader that the slalom didn't take place between 1924-36.

How ironic that of all the potential Olympic venues, this particular footnote acts as an addendum to the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, an event saddled with controversy. Apart from some members of the city's organising committee later admitting to having bribed IOC officials in a successful attempt to attract the Games in the first place, Salt Lake City became associated with some of the worst excesses of Olympian corruption and bribery ever seen.

As Unfinished Business concludes, that unmistakeable whiff of irony is still evident because although Britain's greatest-ever skier, Alain Baxter, had actually raced into third place during the Olympic slalom final, he was first disqualified then later cleared of any wrong-doing, yet still the official record books show the Austrian as having finished third. How galling, after what Baxter had achieved, that the history books continue to treat him like a cheat.

'Wronged in sport' may seem an odd theme upon which to base a biography, but Andrew Ross's book also stands as a sorry testimony to the unequal funding of British sport.

The book came about by accident: Ross was due to interview Baxter for a magazine, but when that never materialised, the germ of an idea for a biography emerged. As an initially suspicious Baxter relaxed, so his tale unfolded. It is one of a man driven, through financial necessity, first across Europe, frequently having to sleep in the back of his car, then gradually through the world rankings before finally emerging on the podium at Salt Lake City.

His bronze medal and the accompanying title of 'Britain's greatest-ever skier' should have represented the pinnacle of Baxter's career, but he was stripped of his medal for using a Vicks inhaler. In the wake of Baxter's case, an independent report into doping in sport compiled a list of permitted and banned products: given their branded proximity to each other, it is easy to see how Baxter became an innocent victim. Alka Seltzer is fine, but Alka Seltzer XL is not; Beechams Lemon Tablets are permitted, but Beechams Hot Lemon isn't.

Although Ross rightly positions Baxter's case and his fight to clear his name at the centre of his book, the narrative conveys skiing's wonderful sense of speed to the point where the reader can almost hear the constant swishing sound of waxed skis speeding through the slalom's occasionally impossibly-angled gates. Non-skiers also get to discover what a 'banana gate' and a 'verticale' are with simple, straight forward explanations.

Baxter will be 32 on Boxing Day when the 2006 Winter Olympics will be just a few weeks away. Having made a genuine mistake four years ago, one fancies he will be as motivated as ever to erase the memory of that ugly footnote in Olympic history.


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