Alain Baxter Interview | From Winter Olympic Injustice To High Speed Urban Skate Racing
Since the infamous scandal in Salt Lake, the Highlander's career has taken an unusual turn. But as he tells Stuart Kenny, he's still going full speed ahead.
The stage was the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, the discipline the men’s slalom, and the result one of the most infamous and iniquitous in the history of skiing and the Olympics beyond.
Scotland's Alain Baxter was racing against the best in the world, against all odds and expectations, and he was looking damn fast as he did it. He crossed the finish line in second place on his second run and held his breath along with the rest of Great Britain as the final competitors flew down the course.
Norweigan Kjetil Andre Aamodt couldn’t match Alain’s speed, and when home racer Bode Miller dramatically crashed out, it didn’t matter that Frenchman Jean-Pierre Vidal would take the top spot and move Baxter down to third.
Alain had his medal. The first medal in the history of British skiing; the first medal ever won on snow by Team GB. But he didn’t have it for long.
“I still have such great memories of that race – of coming third, of the response back home..."
Three days later, after returning to a hero’s welcome in Aviemore, the skier would get a phone call which would change his life. He had tested positive for drugs and subsequently his medal was to be stripped and given to fourth-place.
The rest, of course, is history. The miniscule traces of methamphetamine found in his urine sample were proved to have come from a Vicks inhaler he bought over the counter in the USA.
“You could spend days talking about this," he tells us. “But with slalom being the last event, the mobile lab had already packed up and left. So my sample went to LA, which was one of three labs in the world at the time that went below 100 nanograms.
“I think the trace of methamphetamine that was in my sample was like 25 or 28 nanograms. And the mobile lab didn’t go below 300, so if it was tested on site like everyone else’s, it wouldn’t have even showed up. I didn’t find that out until a lot later, right enough. But there are just a few things that mean... well, it’s not really fair. Everyone should be tested the same.
“I still have such great memories of that race – of coming third, of the response back home. It was just incredible. It ended badly and it was tarnished, but the support of the people back home got me through that."
Baxter’s name was cleared and his ban entirely overturned in no time at all after the revelation about the inhaler, but the International Olympic Committee refused to budge.
Alain would never get his medal, a decision that many – the majority – of the skiing community still see as a shocking injustice.
He continued: “I went from such a high point to the low of thinking that my career was over. I had no idea where [the positive test] had come from or what I was going to do. I just handed over my wash bag with everything in it I had taken – a herbal sleeping tablet and things like that – and we found out it was the Vicks inhaler. That was about three weeks later.
“When you have no idea and it comes out that it’s something that you’ve bought over the counter in America, compared to what you’re hearing in the news these days... It’s a disaster. The IOC just weren’t budging, even though I had cleared my name they just weren’t budging on the medal. They kept me disqualified and gave the medal to fourth place."
"The IOC just weren’t budging, even though I had cleared my name they just weren’t budging..."
That fourth place would be Austrian Benjamin Raich, and the bitter irony would be that in Alain’s next race, the first of the following season, the Scotsman would again take third while Raich finished in fourth.
The debate over the medal would be drawn out in the following years and beyond, resurfacing often when the Winter Olympics rolls back around.
Over 5,000 people signed a petition for the return of Alain’s medal, including prominent MPs, after the Sochi games in 2014, where Jenny Jones of course took Britain’s first official medal on snow with her bronze in Slopestyle Snowboarding.
Alain laughs wearingly as we talk about how often his face popped up following her medal win – “The press kind of made that into a bit of a hoo-ha really. I’m delighted for Jenny of course and we need more medals!" – and though he may still have some hope of having his medal returned one day, the Scotsman has now moved on not only from the incident but from the sport of skiing as a whole, competitively at least.
Crashing the Party
13 years later, on 27 November 2015, Alain is in the starting gates again, though in a rather different setting than you would normally expect.
Instead of ski boots and planks, he’s wearing ice skates. Instead of the mountains, he’s in the middle of a city; Quebec in Canada. And instead of a snow-covered slalom course lying in front of him, he’s staring down a 480m-long course of ice packed with twists, turns, drops and jumps, with thousands lining the streets watching and three others preparing to ride the course alongside him.
The event is Red Bull Crashed Ice, and it’s one of the wildest, fastest and most ferocious sports you’ll ever see.
“I first came across [Crashed Ice] years ago," says Alain. “I think this is the tenth year at the moment. I saw it when I was at our base in Austria and thought it looked amazing, but I never had the time to try it out."
He’s found that time now. After being invited along to one of the trials for the Scottish Bravehearts team by Red Bull earlier this year, the Olympian impressed by winning all of his heats and booked his place in Belfast a few weeks later.
It does seem fitting that he’s on the ‘Bravehearts’ team given that he also blazed into the headlines in Salt Lake for dying his hair into a Scottish saltire before being told to remove it by Team GB – “I didn’t realise we weren’t allowed to," he laughs. “It was classed as a political statement, but I was just being a proud Scot. As usual I had absolutely no idea it was going to cause so much trouble!"
It’s not only his ski skills that are helping him out on the Crashed Ice course though. The Scotsman is a vigorous athlete in pretty much every sense of the word. It’s in his blood.
Baxter’s parents competed, his auntie was an Olympian, his brother Noel was on the Team GB ski team with him and cousin and snowboarder Lesley McKenna has competed in three Winter Olympics as well. He grew up not only skiing but playing shinty and ice-hockey competitively as well, the latter of which set him up nicely for his latest endeavour.
The Scot missed out on qualifying during that first weekend in Belfast, and narrowly did the same in Edmonton in March, but it’s clear to see that he’s progressing through his results. He’s happy to admit that the past year has been somewhat of a learning curve.
“It takes a little bit of getting used to," he tells. “I was taken quite a bit by surprise in Belfast, but when you get used to the speed it’s fine. I knew how to tackle the course.
“The things that throw me a bit more are the freestyle elements. In Quebec for example, you skated three or four strides and then you had to jump two metres before you hit the next ramp, which was a metre down.
“You have to clear this bit otherwise you land on the flat – and this is the first time we’ve all done it since last season in March. That’s the whole buzz of it though, the adrenaline. You know you have no choice; you just have to step out and go!"
Quebec would prove rather more successful for Alain as well, as he qualified for the elimination stages – though was left unable to compete due to a last minute crash in an otherwise spotless run.
“If you go down hard then you hurt yourself... just like you do in other sports."
He waved away the subsequent injuries with almost comic disregard at first mention, telling us that he “smashed himself up a wee bit", but it’s now going to be touch and go over whether he can make the next stop in Munich on January 8. He’s broken three of his ribs and bruised a lung.
“It is pretty sore actually," he laughs. “We’ll just have to play it by ear. I’m not in as good shape as I once was. I’m 41-years-old, I’ve got three kids and I had a little bit of an illness last year that set me back. But I did okay in Belfast and in Edmonton as well, and this one was going well too.
“If you go down hard then you hurt yourself though, just like you do in other sports. The transition was rough and there were a lot of people getting hurt there. These things happen."
They certainly do. Alongside Alain in the medical room were riders boasting bust ankles and dislocated shoulders. It’s a dangerous sport, and after watching the guys in action, it’s hard not to wonder how the injuries aren’t often more severe.
Baxter remains hopeful for the rest of the season though, aiming to regain his health and strength in the next few weeks and fight back to battle on the ice as soon as possible.
“It’s just about gaining experience all the time, because it’s a very difficult thing to train. The guys that are winning have a lot of experience and that was only my third event.
“Anything can happen in these four-at-a-time heats, though. I know I can qualify and get in there; it’s just how much further I can take it from there. I’m just as competitive as I used to be."
He’s clearly still got the same drive as he always did. He’s confident of his abilities on the ice, of his fitness and his skills, and he speaks in a measured voice that tells of his fervour.
If Baxter doesn’t make it back for Munich, he’ll certainly be back in the line up when Crashed Ice touches down in Finland at the end of January, and for the final of the four-part season in Saint Paul, Minnesota almost exactly a month later.
We’ll be keeping a close eye to see if he can build on his performance in Quebec and defy expectations again. Because when Alain Baxter is involved, you know there’s always another twist around the corner.