Sport in the snow: Winter University Games

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In view of Ollie Cutting taking part in the World University Winter Games in Trentino next month, your sport editor has asked me to write a preview of the Games themselves.

I am fortunate enough to be covering the event as BUCS Media Officer and I am, as fate would have it, the second consecutive former Saint sport editor to fill this position: Andrew Magee was in Erzurum, Turkey, in 2011. The St Andrews connection continues, and this time we have a participating athlete in the delegation too.

Anyway, what are the World University Games (or WUGs)? They are organised by the International University Sports Federation (FISU), who describe each Games, or Universiade, as ‘an international sporting and cultural festival which is staged every two years in a different city’.

Basically, it’s like the Olympic Games but for university athletes. And WUGs are almost Olympic in scale. The Russian government spent 68 billion roubles on the Summer WUGs in Kazan this year, and almost 10,500 university athletes from 162 countries participated in them.

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And just as there are Summer and Winter Olympic Games, there are Summer and Winter WUGs. The 26th edition of the Winter Games is being hosted by Trentino, a province in northern Italy and home to the Dolomites, one of several mountain ranges which make up the Alps.

It is accustomed to hosting International Ski Federation events, and so is well versed in this sort of event if not the scale (2,600 participants from 59 nations). The scenery is reasonable too.

There are six ‘venue clusters’ spread across the region from Trento and Monte Bondone in the south west to Canazei in the north east. The slopes and stadiums will feature 12 different events, ranging from alpine skiing to speed skating.

Team Great Britain is made up of six squads: Curling (Men’s and Women’s), Ice Hockey (Men’s and Women’s), Cross-Country Skiing and Snowboard Cross. It is also a very British team, a heartening mix of English, Scottish and Welsh (well, three out of four ain’t bad).

Unsurprisingly, it’s a Scottish monopoly in curling – Scots did, it seems, invent the sport and we remain worldbeaters when it comes to sliding stones across ice towards a target – but at least one Scot has also made the cut in each of the other sports.

Strict selection criteria were applied across the board, so those who have made it have already proved themselves up to the task.

They are in esteemed company, too. Jessica Ennis-Hill and Beth Tweddle made their international sporting bows at Summer WUGs, while Winter Olympic medallists Shelley Rudman and Amy Williams both competed at this level in Innsbruck in 2005.

You will be expecting me to drag out that old ‘a star is born’ cliché. In one sense, yes, WUGs are a stepping stone for many athletes onto greater – or at least more well-known – things. But it is also true that these competitors are already at such a high level of performance that I’m constantly forgetting they’re also students.

Four of the five members of the Men’s Curling team, for instance, won gold in the 2013 World Junior Curling Championships in Sochi. Speaking of Sochi, British curling has given rise to one of those incredible family stories.

Gordon Muirhead competed in the 1992 Winter Olympics and won World Championship silver twice. He was also present at the 2011 WUGs, coach- ing a team containing his son Glen. Eve Muirhead, another child of Gordon, was skip (captain) for GB at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, has half a dozen gold medals from Scottish, European and World Championships and will step up for GB again in Sochi next year.

That’s enough for one family, surely? No. Glen and Eve’s brother, Thomas, is coming to Trentino having snared that gold in Sochi earlier this year. It’s a brilliant story, if also an exhausting one to tell.

There are myriad narratives woven right through this GBR squad. The captain of Men’s Ice Hockey (and our flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony), Luke Piggott, is a qualified doctor who has made a breakthrough in the fight against breast cancer while – God knows how – also playing professionally for the Cardiff Devils in the Elite League, the top level of UK ice hockey.

Saffron Allen of Women’s Ice Hockey sustained a spinal injury playing in China last November that meant re-learning to walk. And yet she’ll be getting into the thick of the fight (perhaps literally, knowing ice hockey) in Trentino.

All of the athletes in this team have stories of struggle and sacrifice, triumph and disaster. From my point of view, it’s a privilege to watch them doing what they love and get the word out.

Eurosport are providing some coverage of the Games, and you can offer your support to Team GBR via @BUCSsport.

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