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Rhona Martin and Debbie Knox belong to a rare breed; they are British and are defending a Winter Olympic title as the 2006 games begin today in Turin. That has not happened since Tony Nash and Robin Dixon climbed into their bobsleigh at Alpe d’Huez, France, in 1968 and attempted to repeat their success on the Igls track in Austria four years earlier, when they had won only the third British Winter Olympic title in history.

Nash and Dixon failed in France, finishing in fifth place. That would be, roughly speaking, where most people would expect Martin’s curling team to end up in the Piedmontese town of Pinerolo, where the event is being held, for the interim years have not been overly kind to the 39-year-old Scot.

Even when she returned from Salt Lake City, trailing clouds of glory, the Scottish selectors, pragmatists to the core, decided she had not done enough to earn selection for the forthcoming world championships, and made her team play off against Jackie Lockhart’s team, a match she inevitably lost. Lockhart, to her credit, went on to become world champion.

For Martin, the applause died quickly. There would be no more major championships until the European event at Garmisch in December, a gap of almost four years. There would be a separation from her husband, financial worries, and mom-ents when the Olympics was the last thing on her mind. But Martin is not inclined to wilt under pressure.

In Pinerolo, Knox will be there alongside her again, to trigger memories of how it was on the rink at Ogden four years ago, but the rest of the team is made up of curlers who are more used to running their own shows, Jackie Lockhart and Kelly Wood being “skips” in their own right. The mixture is one that many are assuming will be less than congenial.

In part because of that fear, Martin has been almost overlooked when possible British medals have been mooted this time. Fellow Scot David Murdoch, whose men’s curling team won a European bronze at Garmisch, has been given a far better chance.

The women’s bobsleigh team of Nicola Minichiello and Jackie Davies, who caused a flutter when they won a silver at the world championships last year, are higher in the pecking order. Skeleton sled racers Kristan Bromley and Shelley Rudman have both had their causes espoused.

Finlay Mickel, who goes in tomorrow’s downhill skiing race, has had his chances talked up too, even though he has mustered just one top-10 place in World Cups this winter, and sits at only 25th in the season’s rankings.

But British performers do not make a habit of winning Winter Olympic titles – just seven golds have been claimed since 1924 and one of them was an ice hockey team full of Canadians – and only two women in the team in Turin know how it feels and what it takes. Martin’s crew have only nine teams to beat, and start on Monday with Denmark, who beat them twice in the European championships. Not easy, but whoever said it would be?

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