Quirky Scottish sports have a mixed record in gaining popularity abroad. A bizarre game featuring the hitting of a little white ball with odd-shaped clubs is now played all over the developed world. On the other hand tossing the caber, like deep fried Mars bars and black pudding suppers, remains a Scottish eccentricity. In the middle of these two extremes lies curling, a game involving the throwing of three stone lumps of granite on a sheet of ice towards a target 40 metres away..
Three weekends ago David Murdoch’s team (it is customary in curling to use the skip’s name to refer to a team) from Lockerbie won the right to represent Scotland at the European Championships next month in Örnsköldsvik beating Warwick Smith’s Perth team in the key match. Örnsköldsvik is in northern Sweden, just under the Arctic Circle and in December there are only a couple of hours of light each day. In sporting terms though Scotland are hardly entering the twilight zone and they start as favourites, with Murdoch having skipped (the skip picks the tactics and, usually, plays the final and most important stones) Scotland to two victories in the European Championships in the last five years. In the same time frame the team have won the World Championships once and finished runners-up twice. In addition, Murdoch and his third (vice captain) Ewan Macdonald, are both now in their early thirties and should therefore be at their peak over the next couple of years – a male curler’s peak being somewhat different from a female gymnast’s!
Sweden and Switzerland, the two other traditional forces in European curling will, of course, fancy their chances of victory as well. Sweden will be particularly motivated playing on home ice, although their line-up looks weaker than in previous years following the retirement of three-time World Champion Peja Lindholm.
However, as much as winning the trophy itself, all teams will have an eye on general form as Vancouver in February 2010 gets ever closer. To a minority sport the Olympics is the Holy Grail. For curling in Britain, the fact that it is in the Winter Olympics (rather than the summer version) is even better. Team GB (did I really just use that phrase!) may have won 19 golds in Beijing but even the lottery millions will struggle to produce a “Cool Runnings” style bobsleigh team. In short, curling is one of Britain’s only medal chances and when gold is on the line people watch; as proven by the 5.7 million Britons who watched Rhona Martin, a Renfrewshire housewife, play a perfectly judged tap-back to defeat Switzerland in the Salt Lake City final.
The 2010 Olympics being held in Canada provides further motivation. Canada is not only home to lumberjack competitions and massive ice hockey hits; but also over one million curlers and is, by a massive distance, the curling world’s dominant country. The interest means that the arena in Vancouver will be regularly packed; a far cry from the empty seats in Turin (2006). Thus, playing in an Olympics in Canada is every curler’s dream.
Murdoch’s team in particular will have a point to prove in Vancouver. In Turin they were the dominant team in the round robin stages. Their crushing win against a strong Swedish side was particularly convincing with Ewan Macdonald playing every stone perfectly (each stone is critically measured by watching experts and entered on a database). This was unheard of in Olympic history and an 80% success rate is generally considered a reasonable performance.. Looking back though, the team peaked at the wrong time and lost momentum in a dead rubber having already qualified for the final four. They went on to lose both the semi final and the bronze match, finishing a disappointing fourth.
Since 2006, the performances of Murdoch’s team have confirmed their status as one of the world’s very best. They may very well come back from Örnsköldsvik with gold but, should this happen, they will no doubt keep the champagne on ice [cue drummer]. The newly ambitious British Olympic regime has targeted two golds (womens and mens) for curling in 2010 and everything from now on is geared towards that end.