Olympian Graham Bell was so poor when he was training as a ski racer that he would eat the food other skiers had left behind on tables in restaurants.
Along with brother Martin, Bell competed for Great Britain at the Winter Olympics throughout the 1980s and 1990s. But he never made much money and doubled his earnings the year he retired.
Now 55, he lives in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, with wife Sarah. He spoke to DONNA FERGUSON.
All downhill: Former British skier Graham Bell in full flight competing in Spain in 1996
What did your parents teach you about money?
To be frugal with it. My brother Martin and I both started skiing when we were young – five or six – and all our birthday and Christmas presents were basically ski equipment. Everything revolved around skiing. My dad was a pilot in the Royal Air Force and my mum was a French teacher.
I was born in a British military base in Cyprus and we moved around a lot. My parents earned a reasonable amount, but skiing is an expensive sport. So we were brought up to value the money we had. When we lived in Scotland, for example, we would park a caravan at the bottom of a ski slope in the Cairngorms and stay in it over the weekend. We would save money at every opportunity so we could afford to be in the mountains.
Have you ever struggled to make ends meet?
Yes. There was no lottery money when I was ski racing. I struggled to be able to afford to do the sport. The worst time was when I was 19 or 20. I remember going to a restaurant, starving hungry after a morning of training, and I didn’t have enough money to buy lunch.
I saw this German family get up and leave their table, having not eaten half of their food. So I sat down with a friend and finished their lunch off. That happened on a few occasions. The problem was that I was training all day, so I wasn’t earning except in the summer.
During the winter season, I spent all the money I had just putting fuel in my van so I could get up to the mountains and race. Sometimes I’d spend the night in the back of the van. That wasn’t ideal.
How did you find the willpower to keep going?
I think it was just the love of doing it. It was an incredible challenge and being able to compete in World Cup downhills felt amazing. Eventually, my brother Martin and I managed to get sponsored by Drambuie, the liqueur company. In fact, we went through a string of alcohol sponsors which is not allowed any more.
That sponsorship helped us financially. The great thing was that we used to get half-bottles of Drambuie as a perk which was useful when it came to getting on your side the ski lift operators and the drivers who cleared the pistes.
So if you wanted your training piste prepared well, you’d turn up at the training resort and hand out these little bottles of Drambuie. It worked a treat. Having said that, I never really earned that much money as a ski racer. As soon as I retired, I started earning about twice as much.
Have you ever been paid silly money?
No, but there have been occasions on a beautiful day in the mountains when I’ve been skiing with clients and caught myself thinking: ‘I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this, it is so incredible.’
I’m not even instructing them – they can already ski. I’m hosting them in the mountains and just basically having fun with them. The most I have been paid to do that was £1,000 for a day. Due to the pandemic and lockdown, I’ve not been working recently. But when the ski resorts reopen, people should know that I’ll again be available to go skiing with.
The most expensive thing you bought for fun?
My motorbike. It’s a Honda VFR800 and it cost £12,000. I never really trusted myself on a bike when I was ski racing because I had too much adrenaline already in my system and it probably wasn’t safe to jump on one. But since retiring from competitions, I’ve bought myself three motorbikes and a £2,500 road bike.
What is your biggest money mistake?
Not buying somewhere in the Alps 20 years ago. It would have cost around £125,000 for a small chalet then, which would probably be worth around £1million now.
The best money decision you have made?
Getting on the property ladder in 1991, shortly after I got married – I was 26. Buying when you were young was possible back then. Selling that property enabled us to move up the ladder and buy our current home, a three-bedroom house in the centre of Henley-on-Thames for £120,000 in 1996. It was a repossession so we managed to buy it for a good price. It’s now worth around £900,000.
Smart move: Graham Bell doubled his money after retiring
Do you save into a pension or invest in the stock market?
No. Looking at stocks, shares, graphs and figures going up and down does not interest me. I’d rather spend my time earning money by doing a job I enjoy. I stopped saving into a pension in 2000 because the money I was paying in wasn’t providing the return I expected. In principle, I think it is a good thing to save into a pension and look out for your future. But there’s so much else that goes on in life. My mother saved into her pension for years and then when she was 65 she got Alzheimer’s.
She had spent all of her life saving for a retirement that never happened. And that’s the kind of thing that makes me think, yes, it’s important to have security, but the most important thing is your health – and to strike a balance in life.
If you were Chancellor, what would you do?
There is a huge disparity between how much tax, proportionally, the super rich and everyday people pay. Hedge fund managers are making millions from shorting shares and people who are key workers are being hung out to dry.
And that’s not right and not fair. If I was Chancellor, I would clamp down on tax evasion, both by large companies and wealthy individuals.
Do you donate money to charity?
Yes, I support a couple of snowsport-based charities and donate both my time and my money to them. One is Disability Snowsport UK which helps people with disabilities do snowsport.
The other is Snow-Camp which takes underprivileged young people to dry ski slopes and uses skiing and snowboarding as a way of breaking down social barriers. It has a talent programme, so the kids who show aptitude can go and do instructor courses and make a career out of it.
What is your number one financial priority?
To keep working so I can provide financial security for my kids: Louis, 25 ,and Lottie, 21. I want them to feel able to go off into the world and do what they want.
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