It is a story worthy of Celtic mythology and could almost be described as Ireland’s own version of the film ‘Cool Runnings’. In an unlikely sequence of events, for one day in 2002 in Salt Lake City Ireland could dream of gold in the Winter Olympics.
For the next two weeks, one piece of gold will be coveted even more than our selection of Irish jewelry as competitors from around the world ski, skate and slide their way into the record books in Sochi, but a piece of Irish history was written by Clifton Wrottesley when after the 1st run in the skeleton event in the 2002 Winter Olympics he lay in the bronze medal position and gold was within sight. For a country where snow is such a remarkable event that even the slightest hint of it causes panic in Dublin City, it was going to take something really unusual and when you read that Clifton’s full name is Clifton Hugh Lancelot de Verdon Wrottesley 6th Baronet of Wrottesley you will realize how unusual this really was.
Born in Dublin in 1968, the young Clifton lived for the first few years of his life in Abbeyknockmoy, Co Galway. His father stood to inherit the title of 6th baronet, however his James Bond-like life of derring-do ended when the Jaguar car he was driving crashed, and as he left no will, the family was almost penniless and had to move from their home in Ireland.
Once Clifton inherited the title from his grandfather, things became a lot better and he attended the finest schools and universities, but aside from a little money for his education and a historic family name and coat of arms, wealth did not come with the estate and he became a stockbroker to earn a living. While trying to discover more about his father he visited the famous Cresta Run in Switzerland where his father had been a member, hurling himself down the mountain on what is little more than a platter, for the thrill of the sport. Having tried it, the younger Wrottesley was hooked too and became a regular participant in their amateur races.
When the bobsleigh-skeleton event was admitted to the 2002 Winter Olympics he dedicated himself to qualify for the games for Ireland. In the tradition of all great Olympians, this meant giving up work to compete full time, selling his home and almost going bankrupt. His family history worked against him as he tried to fund-raise with many asking why he would need the money with his privileged background.
The luck of the Irish eluded him on his second run, as snow continued to fall the track became slower allowing who went before him some advantage and Ireland’s hopes of seeing the Irish Flag on the podium were dashed as he could only manage 4th, just 0.42 of a second away from 3rd place. Although some say that 4th place is the worst place to finish in the Olympics Clifton’s Irish spirit kept him upbeat and when asked how he would celebrate said “Some Guinness, along with a couple of glasses of champagne should do the trick nicely!”
His gift to the Irish Olympic movement has been not just to show that it can be done but he was also actively involved with coaching athletes for the 2006 and 2010 games and also served as chef-de-mission. This year 5 Irish athletes will parade in the Irish colors at the opening ceremony and for a country with almost no winter sports facilities that is an achievement in itself. The only connection Ireland may have to a medal this year might be through the heritage of someone like U.S. hockey star Patrick Kane, or the Riverdance routine of skater Jason Brown (if you haven’t already seen that check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=wzlcVKFVWVI) but we will still cheer them on with pride.