Winter sport for all in Edinburgh

Youngsters learn to ski on the dry slope at Hillend. Picture:  Ian Rutherford
Youngsters learn to ski on the dry slope at Hillend. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THE eyes of the world will turn to Sochi in Russia next week as the Winter Olympic Games gets under way.

Friday’s opening ceremony kicking off two weeks of skiing, skating, snowboarding and bobsleighing sure to be watched by millions.

And while it might seem a world away, for those excited at the thrills and spills on show there are perhaps more chances than you might think to try out the various events right here in the Capital.

SKIING

JUST as the Summer Olympics is dominated by the athletics stadium, so Winter Olympics is defined by what happens up on the slopes. This year the world’s top skiers and snowboarders will be pitting their wits against the treacherous runs of the Rhosa Khutor Alpine resort, and Edinburgh’s own Murray Buchan will be skiing in the half-pipe competition.

For the staff at the Midlothian Snowsports Centre at Hillend it will be a proud moment seeing the 22-year old from Colinton 
compete in the games, and his achievement shows learning on an artificial surface is no barrier to success.

Andrew Goulbourne, the area operations manager at the centre, said: “Everyone takes to the surface differently, but the important thing to remember is there are many different types of snow that you will find on a ski-slope, from icy compact snow to loose powder, all of which require different techniques. What you can learn here is how to ski.

“We have training for all levels, and you can get the equipment needed here. And it’s all-weather – when it rains the surface is actually faster, so we often find that it gets busier.”

For those thrilled by the speed of the bobsleigh there is also the newly installed tubing runs, which see people tear down the slope on a giant inflatable ring.

“It is just fun really and it has proved incredibly popular,” says Andrew. “It also helps to bring people here who maybe never thought about skiing.”

n The Midlothian Snowsports Centre is open from 9.30am until 9pm Monday to Friday, and till 7pm on Saturday and Sunday.

CURLING

A SPORT once played by farmers and villagers on frozen lakes, curling is in fact one of those all-too-rare things – a sport where Scotland is considered among the best in the world.

And while the team off to Sochi may be flying the banner of Great Britain, every member of both the men’s and women’s team hail from north of the Border. Experts suggest that our men could well come back with a medal, while for the women the expectation is even greater, with anything less than the gold itself likely to bring disappointment.

The high-profile television coverage of “chess on ice” as it is often known is expected to bring more than a few new fans to the game, and Iain Baxter, manager of Murrayfield curling, is already getting ready for the crowds.

“We were a little unprepared when Rhona Martin won the Gold at the last Olympics, but we’re getting ready now for the expected interest we’ll see after the games,” he said. “We’re arranging taster sessions where basically anyone interested can come along and give it a try, see if it’s for them.”

Home to seven specially designed ice sheets dedicated to the game, the centre is already the most well-used in Europe, with 1800 members aged between nine and 91.

While none of the current Winter Olympic team train there, it is the home rink of veteran Winter Paralympian Tom Killin, who will be competing in Sochi. And for those that find themselves catching curling fever from the Sochi games, Iain says it is possible to pick up the basics of the game in just a few hours – as long as you can get past one hurdle.

“The taster sessions are to give people a feel of the ice more than anything else, to see how they react to it,” he said. “Some people take a few steps on it and immediately decide that it is not for them, while others instantly take to it. It all depends.”

n Murrayfield Curling will be holding introductory events on February 22, at 6pm, February 23 at 1.15pm and March 1 at 11.30am, and beginners courses on March 22 and 23 at 11.30am.

SKATING

“IT doesn’t matter how good you get at the sport, you are always going to fall at some point,” muses Richard Sterling.

The managing director of Murrayfield Ice Rink will have seen more falls than most, and he will no doubt see a few more if he tunes into the speed skating and figure skating at this year’s Sochi games.

The events are being held in the grand purpose-built venues of the Iceberg Arena and the Adler Arena, and Richard is expecting the games to provide something of a boost to the ice rink.

“We generally get a small lift, and with their being so much coverage this year I would expect the rink to get quite busy over the next month, which is great.

“The days of Torvill and Dean had everyone coming down and at the last Olympic Games we had John and Sinead Kerr competing in the figure skating, and they did a lot of their training here.”

Of course if you want to dance on ice – or race on ice – first you have to learn to stand up on ice skates. The ice rink has a weekly open training session every Sunday at 12.15pm where anyone can come along and give the sport a try.

“It covers the basics and its graded so you can improve if you come back for a few weeks running,” says Richard.

“The first thing you learn, though, is how to fall, as everyone falls, so you have to know how to fall and get back up again. It’s the perfect way to start off and for those who want to keep it up it can lead to figure skating or ice hockey or just a fun hobby.”

ICE HOCKEY

EDINBURGH Capitals manager Scott Neil is one of the few British ice hockey players who has almost touched the Olympic dream.

A member of the British Ice Hockey Hall of Fame who scored 23 goals for his country in appearances between 1989 and 1994, he also played in the qualifiers of 1993, when the GB team faced Japan, Poland, Slovakia and Latvia for a place in the tournament proper.

“It was tough,” he recalls. “We were a very good side, but it was a noticeable step-up in quality there.”

Scott is hoping the games will also provide a boost both to crowds at their home games played at Murrayfield and encourage the next generation of ice stars.

“There is generally a boost in numbers at the ice rink around the winter Olympics and we’d hope it would lead to a few more players getting interested in hockey,” he says.

“There are junior hockey clubs that kids can join, and you don’t need to be a great skater if you’re young as you’ll have time to pick it up. The best players are all-rounders. I would certainly hope we might see a few more people coming along to cheer on the team if they enjoyed watching the Olympic ice hockey.”