Scots made history last night (21 Feb 2002) when they won Great
Britainís first gold medal at a Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean
The womenís 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 Ė Mrs Martin, Fiona MacDonald, Janice Rankin, Debbie Knox and
Maggie Morton Ė 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 womenís 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
Martinís team of dedicated amateurs, all Scots, all ordinary women with
families and jobs, as they made one of Britainís bleakest Winter
Olympics ever a little less bleak.
Curling may not yet be the new rockíníroll but the Olympics have lent
the sport a glamour that has given it global appeal.
Martinís team went into the final against Switzerland carrying what
remains of Britainís Olympic honour: with their help, we might rise
above Slovenia and Belarus, on the bottom rung of the medals table,
though weíre still dismally low, still lagging embarrassingly behind the
likes of Australia or South Korea, where they donít 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
menís 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 Martinís 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
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 womenís 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 wií gleesome speed," said Burns, in Tam Samsonís 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 sportís 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 Scotlandís 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. "Itís
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 worldís 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 Scotlandís
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
In Canada, curling is sexy. The Canadian womenís 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 wouldnít turn her nose
up at a plate of neeps and tatties". Of course, at the end of the day,
they would argue, itís not the make-up, itís 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,
Scotlandís men finished eighth out of ten, and Martinís 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, thatís the
bottom line," he says, somewhat dismally, "or becoming too old to
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 Curlingís 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 itís tremendous."
Aficionados hope that the glint of Martinís medal will attract new
players. Douglas McMillan, Hammyís 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
"The hotel is full of curlers every weekend in the winter months. Since
the decline in farming, we noticed a small drop, but itís 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 crŤche. 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 wouldnít 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: "Itís not an elite sport,
though it might seem that way because we have a team at the Olympics.
Itís a hard, hard slog for these people. Theyíve 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
itís a chicken and egg situation. If youíre getting more media exposure,
the chances of sponsorship is greater. People will give nothing for
No curler, then, curls for the money. According to Park, they do it for
the comradeship. "The social side of curling is whatís good. Itís
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. Youíre never asked what you do
for a living. Itís 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. Itís totally the reverse."
Which all goes to show that those of us who have never been part of the
great utopian curling multitude just donít know what weíre missing.