Sochi Olympics raises profile of Curling

Curling is in the spotlight. Picture: Getty

Curling is in the spotlight. Picture: Getty

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FROZEN, dreary and dark winters, no television and no social media to play with. What else was there to do but stick a Tam O’Shanter on your head and chuck a big stone across an icy loch?

That was some time in the 16th century. And who could have guessed that the “old stone throwing on an icy loch” game would eventually evolve into a mesmerising winter sport of such skill, focus and hand-eye co-ordination – not to mention requiring an ability to avoid falling over on the ice – that half a millennium later curling would end up trending worldwide on Twitter?

Or for that matter, that somewhere in Russia, a chunk of granite chiselled from a Scottish rock and chucked by a bloke called David Murdoch who, aged ten, witnessed the horror of the Lockerbie plane crash, might possibly turn into gold?

Away from Sochi and closer to home in the usually peaceful surroundings of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club at Ingliston – the “mother” club of the sport of curling – the phone calls, Facebook mentions and frantic tweets of the past few days have left staff reeling.

While no total strangers to a bit of sudden attention thanks to Rhona Martin’s Winter Olympics triumph in 2002, the relentless barrage of excitement from armchair fans has hit staff there like a smack in the face from a 20kg lump of granite.

“We’re trending on Twitter, the phones are constantly ringing,” laughs Lynne MacKenzie, coaching officer at the RCCC, who has been a curling fan since she tried the sport aged ten.

“I’d say the office is buzzing about the men’s final, but half the staff are off doing interviews for radio and television. It’s incredible.”

The RCCC had been braced for some interest and in preparation for what it hoped would be a rise in inquiries set up a website to guide newcomers through the game and where to play it. The hits, adds Lynne, have been astonishing. “The first time the Try Curling website was mentioned during the BBC’s Winter Olympics live coverage, we had 800 website hits within a minute. Normally we’d be unlikely to get that many in a month. Actually, make that two months,” she smiles. “We’ve now had 1.2 million hits in total since the Winter Olympics began. It’s huge!”

Indeed, the RCCC has never witnessed anything close to this kind of attention in all of its 176-year history, although the moment in 1843 when Queen Victoria granted the Capital based club its Royal Charter having witnessed a bizarre curling match played indoors across the polished ballroom floor of Scone Palace, may have come close.

Now it is gearing up for a stampede among fans to local ice rinks to give the sport a go – just in time for the curling season to draw to a close.

“The season runs September to March,” explains Iain Baxter, left, of Murrayfield Curling Rink in Riversdale Crescent, the most used curling rink not only in Scotland, but in the whole of Europe. “But we want people to come and try what they’ve seen on television and if they like it, come back and join our beginners’ sessions in September.”

Three Try Curling weekends are all fully booked with around 200 newcomers eager to get to grips with the granite and a sweeping brush – once they’ve mastered the art of staying upright on the ice, that is. The rink’s special Gremlins Sunday morning classes for eight to 14-year-olds are already thriving.

“Some will come and decide it’s not for them,” says Iain, who has played ‘chess on ice’ for more than 50 years, having started curling when he was just 11 years old at the long-gone rink in Haymarket. “It’s not difficult to learn and we have players from eight years old right up to one man who’s 90.”

The taster sessions are aimed at giving newcomers a feel for the ice – having the confidence to step on to the rink without fear of crashing on to your face is just one element of how deceptively easy curling can look. “Some take a few steps and immediately decide that it is not for them, while others instantly take to it. It all depends,” adds Iain.

For those who find themselves at home on the ice, the rest is a case of balance, technique and timing as they compete to “curl” 20kg granite stones into the centre of the “house” at the far end of the ice sheet, while preventing their opponent from knocking their stones out.

And while the sport, with its roots in mid-16th century Scotland, has its physical demands – a glance at the faces of the Team GB men as they battle to sweep the stone across the ice can prove how tough it can be – special equipment such as curling “cues” can help less able players line up their shot without kneeling on the ice.

Certainly, being in a wheelchair is no barrier to taking part: Hibs fan Tom Killin, 63, was paralysed in a traffic accident when he was 17 and will head to Sochi with Team GB’s Paralympic curling team next month.

For Ontario-born Aaron Forsyth, 34, curling is a full-time task made all the more challenging as Team GB’s men wrestle with Canada’s for Sochi gold.

As an ice technician at the Murrayfield rink and a member of Corstorphine Curling Club, he sees the game from all angles: working to keep the ice especially hard and “pebbled” with tiny droplets of water to help the stones run properly, to playing competitively twice a week.

“I started playing when I was nine years old – in Canada curling clubs are often affiliated to golf clubs, you stop playing golf when the weather changes and go to the ice rink instead,” he says. “It can be physically demanding depending on what level you play at, the game rules are fairly simple and it’s definitely sociable.

“It’s great that there’s a lot of interest in it. It’s a great sport.”

For details of how to get involved in curling, go to www.trycurling.co.uk or www.murrayfieldcurling.co.uk