After representing Britain in Men’s Downhill skiing at five winter Olympics, Graham Bell joined the BBC as presenter of ‘High Altitude’ and ‘Ski Sunday’, making him Britain’s best known skier. Graham has covered winter sports for BBC Grandstand and Eurosport for a number of years and has just returned from the 2010 Winter Olympics Vancouver. He took some time out from his presenting duties to speak to Rohantime.
You’ve just returned from the Winter Olympics, what was your favourite spectator sport?
The Ski Cross was the newest sport to be included on the Olympic programme for Vancouver 2010, and it was exactly as we had built it up to be. A massive mid-air collision between one of the favourites Daron Rahlves and Ted Piccard in the very first round got people’s attention. It was the BBC’s biggest viewing figures of the Games at 4.2million.
As an ex-Olympian, how does commentating on it compare to competing?
Commentating on Alpine skiing is a great way to be involved with the excitement of the race, without the actual danger! As a racer you spend most of the Olympics focusing internally on your own performance and shut out all distractions, as a commentator you can look outwards and take everything in.
What was the most memorable event during the Winter Olympics?
The final of the Men’s hockey was pretty awesome, it was like being in London if England were to win the World Cup at Wembley, the streets of Vancouver were filled with thousands of people celebrating.
How has your time spent in Canada left its mark?
Of the 8 Winter Olympics Vancouver 2010 has been the best yet for me, the people have been so friendly and really embraced the spirit of the Games, without being overly nationalistic.
As part of the BBC’s Winter Olympics programming you took part in the Arctic Man event, one of the toughest alpine sport competitions in the world, tell us about the experience.
Arcticman was an event that I had been eying up for a while. It’s basically a red-neck festival of speed. 10,000 Alaskans celebrate the end of winter by pitching up in the middle of nowhere, riding snow mobiles and partying hard. The Ski/Snow machine race that is held there is pretty nuts, you do a downhill run, then grab a handle behind a snow machine that your partner is driving, and hang on for grim death. Top speed behind the snow machine is on the release at the summit at 80mph.
Getting the chance to visit such incredible places in the world must be your perfect job, did you ever think when you were a downhill skier that it would lead to this, and what do you prefer?
When I was racing downhill we spent a lot of time on the road, but were often confined to training and race pistes, even then I would try to get a bit of time to explore the back country of the ski areas we visited. Many of the adventures we filmed on High Altitude, I had been planning to do anyway, fact that we managed to do them and film it all was amazing.
What’s your proudest skiing moment?
I would rate my best downhill racing performance as the 12th place result of the Hahnennkamm in Kitzbuhel, I had better rankings elsewhere, but Kitzbuhel is by far the toughest course on the circuit.
Do you still ski in Scotland?
I used to ski in Scotland every weekend during the winter as a kid, but have not been back up there for a couple of seasons now, it is a shame because they have just had their best seasons for a long time.
Where’s your favourite place to ski?
I’ve got a list of the 5 big ones: Val d’Isere, Verbier, St Anton, Whistler, Aspen, plus there are a couple of off-piste hidden gems like Gressoney and La Grave.
Where is your favourite place that you’ve been to and most incredible view?
As part of the High Altitude run, I really enjoyed Greenland there is still a real frontier spirit up there! One of the most spectacular places for the scenery was the volcano region of Chile, down near Pucon.
Where’s the roughest place you’ve ever spent the night?
I spent some pretty bad nights stuck in train stations and airports in my time, but probably the coldest I got was when I spent the night in a snow-hole without a sleeping bag or roll-mat.
Is there anywhere in the world you still want to visit?
Antarctica – not slogging to the pole, but there are some great mountains down there that no-one has skied yet.
Are you concerned about man’s impact on the arctic and alpine environments?
Yes of course when you see the how much the glaciers have shrunk in the time I have been skiing in the Alps.
What’s the most extreme activity you’ve ever taken on?
The activity that tested us the most on High Altitude was when we tried to ice-climb the 125ft ice wall at the bottom of a glacier in Chile, the only way to access the foot of the cliff was by boat! In the end the over-hang was too much for our ice-climbing skills and we came away defeated.
You and Ed got up to a lot of death defying stunts for High Altitude, what was the most terrifying moment?
I scariest sport I did for High Altitude last season was the Speed Skiing, it was like being a downhill racer again. You need to stay very focussed at 120 mph!
Do you go on crazy adventures when the cameras aren’t rolling?
Yes and not all of them are in the mountains. Ed introduced us all to shoe golf, as a way of getting home from a night club – exactly the same rules as golf except with shoes! Anything from a road sign to a manhole counts as the hole.
Are you always on the search for something more extreme or do BBC producers line you up because they know you’re game?
A bit of both, I’m always coming up with ideas, it is getting them into production that is the hard bit.
You seem to spend rather a lot of time with Ed, does he make a good travelling partner?
Ed has the same traits as me for adventure and was born without an embarrassment gene, he does not have the same competitive drive though, and will try to look for the spiritual side of things!
You must have been living out of a suitcase quite a lot recently though, do you have any great packing tips?
If you are packing for a back country adventure you need to make a list, then check it all off as it goes in, it’s the best way to stop the airport worry.
Can you offer our readers your top tips on how to gear up for wild conditions?
The difference between enjoying the mountains and having a totally miserable time, is most often decided by the kit that you are wearing and carrying. As the Swedes say there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.
What are your other top winter survival tips?
Pack a candle in your first aid kit, it will make an unplanned night in a snow-hole much more bearable. Super glue is also really good for cracked and dry fingers.
What are your backpack essentials?
Chocolate and water, you can never have enough.
Do you have an essential piece of clothing you can’t live without?
Not really, but don’t wear cotton and carry a spare base layer.
You presented Britain’s Best Breaks, where was your favourite place?
Obviously places like the Lake District and the Highlands of Scotland were great to film, but the surprise of the series was Bradford, it’s got a much worse reputation than the reality, the city is alight and really close to some amazing countryside.
Do you have a favourite camping spot?
When we were kids we used to spend every weekend living in a caravan in the Loch Morlich campsite at the foot of the Cairngorm mountain.
You’re involved with charities including Action on Addiction and an Ambassador for Special Olympics Great Britain, how do you help others and what has it taught you about yourself?
I have been very fortunate to have such a wonderful job, and it does help to keep things in perspective when you work with others that have not had such a good break. Having said that I find working with the Special Olympic team quite personally inspirational, their enthusiasm just rubs off on you.
Do you have an inspirational figure in your life that helps drive you?
Not really, but Ed Leigh has infected me with his bizarre sense of humour.
Who were your heroes as a child?
Franz Klammer winner of the 1976 Olympic Downhill in Innsbruck. I still see him on the circuit, and he is a great guy.
Who makes you laugh out loud?
Ed Leigh mostly
What makes you mad?
What’s next for you? And will presenting at the London 2012 Olympics feature?
Not sure yet, the two summer sports I work on are Triathlon and Road Cycling, so yes I would love to cover them in London 2012.
Graham Bell can be booked for speeches and appearances. Call 0208 233 2824