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Curling
With thanks to the Scotsman Newspaper for this article


Rhona Martin’s teamFIVE Scots made history last night (21 Feb 2002) when they won Great Britain’s first gold medal at a Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean in 1984.

The women’s curling team, led by Ayrshire housewife Rhona Martin, beat Switzerland 4-3 after a tense final lasting almost three hours.

BBC Scotland cancelled its scheduled programmes to show the nerve-racking final. Viewers had to switch from BBC2 to BBC1 and back again to see Mrs Martin, 35, make the crucial score with the final stone of the tenth and last end in Salt Lake City.

The team – Mrs Martin, Fiona MacDonald, Janice Rankin, Debbie Knox and Maggie Morton – embraced on the ice after the thrilling victory.

It says something about a nation when its best hopes of Olympic success rests on a team of young Scottish women wielding brooms. But the British women’s curling team, in their no-nonsense, business-like way, proved themselves worthy of our expectations.

For a brief spell last night, the eyes of the world turned to Rhona Martin’s team of dedicated amateurs, all Scots, all ordinary women with families and jobs, as they made one of Britain’s bleakest Winter Olympics ever a little less bleak.

Curling may not yet be the new rock’n’roll but the Olympics have lent the sport a glamour that has given it global appeal.

Martin’s team went into the final against Switzerland carrying what remains of Britain’s Olympic honour: with their help, we might rise above Slovenia and Belarus, on the bottom rung of the medals table, though we’re still dismally low, still lagging embarrassingly behind the likes of Australia or South Korea, where they don’t even get any snow.

But, more than that, the girls were carrying the torch for the home of curling. For we - Scotland - invented it. We wrote the rules. We make the best stones (polished Ailsa Craig granite, no substitutes accepted). We exported curling to the world. And ever since, they have been unceremoniously beating us at our own game.

Salt Lake City was a chance to redeem our curling honour. All hope seemed lost when the men’s team, under former world champion Hammy McMillan, lost five of their first six matches and finished joint seventh. From then on it fell to the women to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Back in Scotland, curling fans were watching Martin’s team ascend the table, defeating the favourites, Canada, on the way. They desperately needed a medal to revive the fortunes of their sport. Perhaps now, they think, those Scots who think curlers are for hairdressing and brushes for sweeping the floor might sit up and take notice of our other national game.

Several already have. After a trip to Gogar Curling Rink, Radio Forth presenter Diane Lester and Edinburgh interior designer Anne Hunter, want to set up a women’s team. Murray McKean, better known on the Edinburgh club scene for Going Places and The Pond, in Leith, was hooked after one session and also wants to get a team together next season.

There is no doubt that Scotland is the spiritual home of curling. Its precise origins are unclear, however, true curling, using a stone, originates in Scotland. By the 18th century, it was hugely popular. Artists painted it - like George Harvey, whose work hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland. Writers wrote about it. "To the loughs the curlers flock wi’ gleesome speed," said Burns, in Tam Samson’s Elegy. Almost every village had a makeshift curling pond.

In 1804 the clerk of Duddingston Curling Society - which curled on Duddingston Loch, Edinburgh - wrote down the rules which would form the basis for the modern game. The Royal Caledonia Curling Club (RCCC), which became the sport’s official governing body, formed in 1838, getting its "royal" status in 1842.

There is a part of most curlers which hankers back to the golden age of outdoor ice. The event of the year, or the decade, then was the Bonspiel or Grand Match, when hundreds of curlers would converge on the Lake of Menteith in Perthshire for a great competition, the North of Scotland against the South.

It still happens if there is sufficient ice - ten inches thick is deemed necessary to support the weight of Scotland’s curling fraternity. Unfortunately, with milder winters nowadays, this is uncommon. The last Grand Match was in 1979 - there have been just 33 in the last 150 years.

Today, some 650 curling clubs are affiliated to the RCCC, with around 15,000 members. There are other, usually smaller, clubs which are not affiliated. One estimate says there are some 25,000 curlers in Scotland. There are junior championships, adult and the rather euphemistically named "senior" championships. However, the sport that is sometimes called "bowls on ice" shares with bowling a certain lack of profile. Though it is voraciously and skilfully played at amateur level, newspapers rarely cover it. It hardly ever attracts crowds. It lacks the prestige it has in certain other countries, particularly Canada. "It’s as though Scotland developed the game and everybody else is taking full advantage of that, but we are finding it difficult ourselves," says Robin Park, communications and commercial director of the RCCC.

Canada is to curling what Brazil is to football. Canada has a million players, more than 75 per cent of the world’s curlers, and 1,100 ice rinks - Scotland has 30. Curling is the second biggest participation sport in the country, and is avidly watched. Crowds of 20,000 at a curling match are not unheard of. British skip Hammy McMillan, who passes incognito in Scotland as the manager of the North West Castle Hotel in Stranraer, gets stopped in the street.

Curling is a serious business in Canada. Six million Canadians tuned in to watch the final of the 1999 Ford World Championship, in which Scotland beat the home team. The crowd in the stadium booed Scotland’s successes and finally fell into icy silence as McMillan delivered his final shot, to win 6-5. The Canadian team did not wear their silver medals.

In Canada, curling is sexy. The Canadian women’s team, coiffeured and made-up for the semi-final against Scotland, were clearly used to being televised. Martin and her girls were too busy winning to bother with glam, causing one columnist to write, somewhat unkindly, that Martin "looked like someone who is used to sweeping and wouldn’t turn her nose up at a plate of neeps and tatties". Of course, at the end of the day, they would argue, it’s not the make-up, it’s the medal that counts.

The 1999 World Championship was a rare golden moment for Scotland. It was not to be repeated the following year when, on home ground, Scotland’s men finished eighth out of ten, and Martin’s team just missed the bronze. In 2001 the women did the same again, while the men failed to qualify at all.

Scottish players hoped to make their mark when curling became an Olympic medal sport four years ago. But those dreams failed to materialise in Japan: the men finished seventh in the eight-team preliminary group, while the women, once again, just missed the bronze.

All this did nothing to boost the fortunes of curling back home, where getting the television companies interested in curling is about as easy as getting blood out of a curling stone. The "roaring game", so-called due to the noise made as the stone hurtles across the ice, is far from roaring. It has what Robin Park tactfully describes as an "older profile", and numbers are declining. "People are dying, that’s the bottom line," he says, somewhat dismally, "or becoming too old to continue".

However, the sport is bending over backwards to accommodate players who are not as fit as they used to be. A curved stick has been developed to allow a stone to be launched without a player having to bend. Last year the first wheelchair curling championships were held in Switzerland. Britain won a bronze.

At the same time, initiatives are underway to attract younger players. The Scottish Institute of Sport has named curling one of seven core activities. The RCCC, sponsored by the Bank of Scotland, has launched an initiative called Curling’s Cool, funding curling development officers to work with young people in five local authorities. Lottery funding has been obtained for top players to develop by competing abroad.

Robin Park says: "There are a lot of young people coming into the sport, but retaining them when they grow up tends to be a bit of a problem. We do feel the media has a part to play. Snooker is a classic case, all of sudden it has a measure of respectability and interest because it is covered on TV regularly. We want Joe Public to come along and try this game, because those of us who play it think it’s tremendous."

Aficionados hope that the glint of Martin’s medal will attract new players. Douglas McMillan, Hammy’s brother and a director of McMillan Hotels, says he is already seeing evidence that the Olympics have stimulated interest in curling. The North West Castle Hotel, the first hotel in the world to build its own indoor curling rink, has seen a significant rise in inquiries about curling coaching since the Olympics began.

"The hotel is full of curlers every weekend in the winter months. Since the decline in farming, we noticed a small drop, but it’s recovering well. We have a development officer in the local area and lots of young people are getting the chance to try it. We also run a special programme for young mothers, with a crèche. I see a bright future for the game."

Nevertheless, compared to many sports, Scottish curling limps along on a shoestring budget. There are no big-bucks prizes. The Scottish Masters has a purse of £3,600, a sum many professional snooker players would not button their waistcoats for, and top-flight footballers wouldn’t even get out of bed for.

The men and women who are playing in Salt Lake City are ordinary folk who rely on sympathetic employers and supportive families to give them time off for competitions. Martin describes herself as a "part-time mother, part-time curler", Debbie Knox is a customer services representative, Fiona MacDonald an account manager and Janice Rankin a recruitment administrator. Robin Park says: "It’s not an elite sport, though it might seem that way because we have a team at the Olympics. It’s a hard, hard slog for these people. They’ve probably spent a lot of their own money to get where they are.

"Funding is a big issue. We could do with an awful lot more of it. But it’s a chicken and egg situation. If you’re getting more media exposure, the chances of sponsorship is greater. People will give nothing for nothing."

No curler, then, curls for the money. According to Park, they do it for the comradeship. "The social side of curling is what’s good. It’s totally underestimated. Without exception, after the game you go upstairs to the bar with your opponents and buy each other a drink. There is a bond among curlers. The moment you meet a curler, you know you have something in common."

Park says curling has an "aura". Some clubs have initiation rites which go back hundreds of years, by which players become "made curlers". Sometimes foreign players visiting Scotland ask to be initiated during their stay. The rite itself, a kind of oath of loyalty to the game, remains shrouded in secrecy.

The world of curling, he says, is an egalitarian society. "It truly spans all backgrounds and occupations. You’re never asked what you do for a living. It’s accepted that the common bond is curling. There are a lot of poems written about it, about the people that take part, from the lord to the minions, but when you go on the ice, your situation is not an issue at all. It’s totally the reverse."

Which all goes to show that those of us who have never been part of the great utopian curling multitude just don’t know what we’re missing.


Scots Women in History  |  Significant Scots