One lord a-leaping and a-dashing downhill

 

THE SATURDAY PROFILE: From a most unlikely source, there emerged this week a new Irish sporting hero. Step forward Lord Wrottesley, the fastest chap (almost) on the skeleton. Johnny Watterson and Rachel Donnelly profile a sportsman and gentleman

Few who have plunged the equivalent of 50 floors down a mountain head first at 80 m.p.h. on an inverted tea tray have made such a sane impression. But in Lord Clifton Hugh Lancelot de Verdon Wrottesley's dash down the Salt Lake City track on Wednesday, which brought him closer to a winter Olympic medal than any other Irish athlete since teams were entered in 1992, Ireland has woken up to the skeleton.

The skeleton is fringe material. It is to mainstream sport what haiku poetry is to pulp fiction. Wrottesley's 4th place in the event was astonishing.

The 33-year-old baron was not expected to finish inside the top 10 competitors. When in the practice run he claimed the 7th-fastest time, it was seen as an aberration, and when he found himself in the bronze medal position after the first of two runs, he was poised to become the biggest splash of these Winter Olympics.

Wrottesley emerged as a legitimate Irish athlete just before Christmas when he arrived in Dublin brandishing several bottles of the highly acclaimed wine, Chateau de Sours. He had convinced his uncle, Esme Johnstone, the Bordeaux vineyard owner, to sponsor the Irish team, a partnership that was so unusual it landed him on RTE's Marian Finucane show.

Descent from James I, a French vineyard and a skeleton run in the Winter Olympics did not add up to a typical Irish package. But like Wrottesley himself, the idea had connections and charm, useful attributes in short supply.

Last July the dashing former Grenadier Guards captain, who served in Northern Ireland, married into one of the wealthiest families in Britain.

"I have been able to rationalise that [IRISH TOUR] now," he said. "I served in Crossmaglen, but like many people in the Troubles I have moved on. I like to think Ireland has, too."

His wife, Sascha Schwarzenbach, is the daughter of Swiss financier Urs Schwarzenbach, who founded Interexchange, Switzerland's largest foreign exchange company. Variously described as a multimillionaire and a billionare, Schwarzenbach and his family, between sponsoring the top polo events (the Black Bears based at the Guards Polo Club at Windsor Park being the favourite team), can afford to spread themselves around the winter resorts of Europe; St Moritz, where Wrottesley married Sascha, being the favourite.

"I originally came to St Moritz to find out about my father, who died when I was two. He did the Cresta run and the bobsleigh. At one stage he had tried to put together an Irish team in the 1960s but nothing came of it."

Although he was born in Dublin, Wrottesley spent only a short time in Ireland before moving on to be educated at Eton and Edinburgh University. He is a member of the "gentleman's club," the Cavalry and Guards in London, but appears to be an infrequent visitor as there are no recent records of his attendance.

Wrottesley - pronounced "Wroxley" - inherited his title from his grandfather in 1977 when he was nine years old. His father, Richard Francis Gerard Wrottesley, who established a pig farm in Co Galway after he moved to Ireland from South Africa, was tragically killed in a car accident when Clifton's mother, Georgina, was pregnant.

"Dad died without a will, and I was made a ward of the Irish courts. There wasn't much left after that. He had lived in Galway four to five years before his death.

"We couldn't afford to go back to the UK so we went to Spain where it was more affordable. Then when my grandfather died his money paid for my education."

The Wrottesley family fortunes in Staffordshire had earlier gone up in smoke after a stately home blaze in the 1950s. His father's funeral took place at St Anne's Church in Dawson Street, Dublin, and Georgina later married a Scots Guards officer.

One of Wrottesley's grandmother's is descended from the Wingfield family, which once owned the Powerscourt estate in Co Wicklow.

Fittingly, as his celebrity curve rockets in Ireland, it was on the subject of the media that he made his maiden speech in the House of Lords on December 18th, 1996.

Wrottesley, then only 28 years old, admitted it was a subject he knew little about but thanked his fellow Lords for the opportunity to perform "a somewhat daunting task".

Of all the media, the press was "the most anarchic, the most sensationalist, the most controversial," but with youthful sensitivity he argued for self-regulation rather than strict new laws, adding: "To deny to the poet or painter expression of what he or she feels is to impose a form of imprisonment.

"However, I concede that the articles written by many tabloid journalists can hardly be called prose, let alone poetry."

With a touch of the historian, Wrottesley included the Magna Carta and observations on the media by a judge of the US Supreme Court in 1927 and quoted the French political thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, all in a four-minute speech.

A Conservative, Wrottesley was not a particularly active member of the Lords, according to family friend and Conservative peer, Lord Glentoran, who won an Olympic gold medal for Britain in the bobsleds in 1964: "He came in occasionally but he probably knew he wouldn't be there very long."

Indeed, Wrottesley's time in the House of Lords was short-lived. The Vacher Dod Parliamentary Guide lists among the 6th Baron Wrottesley's special interests electoral and parliamentary reform, but in an ironic twist of fate just three years after he took his seat he lost it when all but 92 hereditary peers were removed under Labour's reform of the Upper House.

"He is quite shy and keeps himself to himself," said Lord Glentoran. "He has a serious commitment to everything and takes things extremely seriously. It [his Olympic performance] is a tremendous achievement, but I think he won't be terribly satisfied because of his previous ice experience and he will be working out whether he still has a chance for the next Olympics.

"What's not known is that he was one of the fastest in the world on the Cresta Run and he only took up the skeleton two years ago, but he is an experienced ice-racer and like me has driven bobsleds."

The Northern Ireland peer said luck on the day of competition plays a big part in winning medals. "Luck was against him on the day, both for him and Alex Coomber [who won bronze for Britain in the skeleton bobsleds this week].

"They both went down late in the order, and Clifton's quite light, as she is, and it had been snowing heavily. In the end it becomes a bit of a lottery."

Wrottesley left the Grenadier Guards in 1995 and is now a yacht-broker in London.

"What struck me about him was how he gave up his time talking to people and explaining everything to them in Salt Lake City.

"He is one of the best athletes I have seen in dealing with people. He's a good talker, very impressive," said Olympic Council of Ireland president Pat Hickey.

"The Irish colours on his competitor's suit . . . all that was his own idea. He's a remarkable athlete. When I compare his attitude to some athletes in the summer games, it is unbelievable."

Naturally his competition outfit came from a German fashion house, Escada, more famous for clothing female celebrities than little known athletes.

The Daily Telegraph recently pegged him as "more Sloane than Tyrone", a description that after this week may fit less snugly.

His ancestors' names may be traced back to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and appear in the Domesday Book, but in terms of his Irish qualification . . . if he could kick a football, Jack Charlton certainly would have selected the gentleman amateur.