Sochi 2014: Biathlon’s Brian Clough – British waxman’s lonely quest
Sochi 2014: It's competitive, unfriendly and secretive, and that's just biathlon ski waxing. Meet GB's Marc Walker, in love with the sport.
Wax on, wax… on. Sometimes up to 180 times a day. Meet the multi-tasking Marc Walker, the man with the thankless task of ensuring Team GB’s biathletes have the quickest skis possible.
Not only does Walker wax between 160-180 pairs a day during the World Cup season, he also tests the skis, checks the conditions and controls the range during shooting practice, making him the Brian Clough of biathlon.
Meanwhile nations that take the sport more seriously are able, for example, to call on specialist meterologists, like Norway did for the men’s 12.5km sprint last week where Ole Einar Bjoerndalen came within a hair’s breadth of being crowned the most decorated Winter Olympian.
Generally we haven’t got any friendly nations out there. It’s very competitive
British biathlon’s Marc Walker
At some events these mighty biathlon nations might have as many as four waxmen to Britain’s one.
Yet Walker plugs away, much like former European Cup winning coach Clough, who famously learned to drive the team bus as well as other jobs like painting the stadium’s stands early in his managerial days after joining Hartlepool United in 1965.
“The difference with our team is I’m the wax man and I’m our test person, whereas in other teams where there are more people they’ll have one wax man only waxing two people’s skis. I’m waxing all six,” said Walker.
“Other teams might have four waxmen, two working in the room on skis while two others are out skiing with the athletes testing and radioing through saying which wax is working the best.
“It’s a challenge, I have too many roles. My days are very, very long, but that’s no whinge, I love it, getting out every morning, looking up the conditions, planning what skis I’m going to test. You don’t have time to just turn up at the office.”
Turn on the television to catch the action from Russia and you will likely see competitors hugging and laughing with one another.
Snowboard slopestyle, on its Olympic debut, has set an example for future generations that your biggest rivals can be your best mates.
This is not necessarily the case in the world of biathlon waxmen, however, as the Germans found out in Sochi when their ski grinding machine broke just before the Olympics got underway and Switzerland and Austria both refused to lend their neighbours a hand.
In the end Russia came to their rival’s rescue, much to the amazement of the German contingent, who had never previously experienced such fair play. For Walker, this tense environment is all too familiar.
“It’s quite awkward,” says the 41-year-old, when asked if approaching the technologically advanced Norwegians for tips is a card he can play.
“It’s not really the done thing. We all socialise and we talk about general conditions and they’re quite happy to dip their tool in the snow and show me what readings are coming up and then I’ll Google what those figures mean.
“Generally we haven’t got any friendly nations out there. It’s very competitive.”
Britain has sent biathletes to every Winter Games since its debut at the 1960 Olympics in California and the national governing body recently secured a sponsorship deal that will be vital for the next Olympic cycle – possibly keeping Team GB’s Sochi athletes, Lee Jackson and Amanda Lightfoot, in the sport.
My aim as a wax tech is to be competitive with the rest of the world. Maybe in the future a biathlete can get recognition
“There are many elements for the reasons why we’re where we are now. It’s about keeping people interested in the sport,” said Walker.
“There have been many athletes in the past who could have been interested in being a wax person but there’s no funding to develop a wax team unfortunately. In Great Britain there’s no education to be on a wax team.”
Walker has at least managed to make some friends out there and says observing the Canadians at close quarters could be a lesson for the sport in Britain.
“They have a structured education program to develop ex-athletes, because they understand the skis and the basics of waxing. We don’t have that,” said Walker.
“We can leak into that, but then you’ve got to find the person to do that, to go on the education course and then pay their ways during the season and their travel and all the things that go with the team.
“Ideally I would like to see the British team in both the World Cup and the IBU (International Biathlon Union) Cup with two or three support staff. So you’ve got the manager, the range controller and the wax techs. That would be the minimum requirement for us to get better as a nation.
“My aim as a wax tech is to be competitive with the rest of the world. Maybe in the future a biathlete can get recognition.”
Clough went on from Hartlepool to success at Derby and then back-to-back European titles with Nottingham Forest, so if Walker’s similar work ethic and passion for his job is anything to go by, Sochi may not be the last the world hears of British biathletes.
Samsung are a proud partner of Team GB and are supporting the Samsung Galaxy Team. To meet the team, see exclusive content and win amazing prizes, including once-in-a-lifetime winter sport training sessions with the Samsung Galaxy Team athletes, visit: www.samsung.com/uk/sochi2014