The Sport that Sweeps the Nation
“It is chess on ice…albeit it’s a lot more difficult to move your rook from K2 to K4.”
That was how Graeme Thompson, British Curling performance director, described the tactical intricacies of curling. However, when I stepped onto the intu Braehead ice at the final Try Curling session of the season, it felt more like Twister than chess; with me destined to end up sprawled on the floor.
I booked my place at Try Curling so as to experience the sport I had seen a lot in recent weeks. The BBC’s coverage of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics had allowed me to watch with intrigue, excitement, and subsequent agony as both of Great Britain’s curling teams missed out on the medals. After Pyeonchang, the playoffs between the Olympic teams and the recently crowned Scottish champions were shown live on the BBC website, with the winners representing Scotland ato the World Championships.
The curling season is now finished, so there will be next to no coverage of the sport throughout the summer, but will it return when the season restarts in Autumn? The BBC’s coverage of the Olympics and playoffs was the only live curling shown on a mainstream TV channel since last year’s Scottish Championship final in February 2017.
The Olympics, as well as being the pinnacle of the sport for curlers, seems to be the only time it piques the interest of broadcasters. Curling hits our screens for two weeks every four years and enthrals the nation for a short period before disappearing once again. This spike in popularity is just as apparent as the drop off when coverage ends.
“Try Curling gives as many people as possible the opportunity to get onto the ice and experience curling, but the problem is that curling is well down the list of things that people want to take up.”-Colin Keir
Bruce Crawford, Scottish Curling chief executive officer, said: “the coverage on BBC and Channel 4 for the Olympics and Paralympics generates huge interest in the sport [but it is] the only regular coverage on terrestrial TV in the UK.”
Colin Keir, Try Curling lead coach has experienced this fleeting popularity first hand. “There’s a definite pick up at the Olympics. If you go back four years [around Sochi 2014], we had 700 new curlers through the door purely because they’d seen it on TV.”
“This year we’re at more than 500, mainly because of the Olympics but [the retention rate] is not as good as we would like to see. Of the 500 that we’ve seen this year, if we got 20-30 back we’d be delighted.”
Scotland has a rich curling history at the elite level, including Great Britain’s men winning the first Olympic gold in the sport in 1924. Removed from the Olympic programme until 1998, GB also won gold in the women’s curling in 2002 and picked up silver and bronze in 2014. Scotland has also had success in the European and World Championships, picking up 12 men’s and three women’s European golds and five men’s and two women’s World golds. In wheelchair curling, GB has silver and bronze Paralympic medals and two Worlds golds.
Anna Sloan, who boasts an Olympic bronze medal on top of one World and two European golds, is one of the few professional curlers in Scotland.
“There’s a different aspect to the sport [as a professional]. There’s consequences if you do well or not at competitions. It is great though, we get to do what we love and we get to travel the country and the world.”
Despite being part of one of the best curling teams in the world, Sloan and her teammates don’t often get the opportunity to showcase their talents to the non-curling world. When the Olympic coverage starts, it can be a big change.
Sloan said: “It’s quite strange [being in the public eye around the Olympics] but I don’t think we’ll ever get how much in the public eye we are because we are basically in a bubble during the competition.
“It’s a strange feeling when you come back when people come up to you and say they watched you at the Olympics but it is really nice. It’s great that the sport is appreciated and is getting showcased. It would be nice for it to be showcased more than it does, once every four years, but it’s nice that people appreciate our sport and hopefully more people will come and try it.”
Scottish Curling also share Sloan’s hope and have Try Curling sessions running throughout the season as they look to add to the 20,000 curlers in Scotland at the moment. As lead coach, Keir is well aware of the challenges the sport faces.
“Try Curling gives as many people as possible the opportunity to get onto the ice and experience curling, but the problem is that curling is well down the list of things that people want to take up.
“People see curling and think ‘I fancy that’ – it catches their imagination – but the big thing is then getting them onto the ice to try it.”
Evelyn Reid, a Try Curling coach and wheelchair curler, believes that one of the strengths of the sport is how it caters for a variety of abilities.
“It’s one of the better sports [for wheelchair users] as there is no segregation. You can play with wheelchair and able-bodied curlers in the same team or in the same match. We play off an even platform, so there’s very good integration. No matter what level you want to play at, there’s opportunities for you.
“When you go on the ice initially, you might think you’ll never be able to do this, but after a bit of practice and throwing a few stones, it’s amazing how quickly you can come on. Very quickly you can play a game and make something of it.”
And make something of it we did. After just over an hour of learning the basics at Try Curling, we were divided into teams to play mini-games and put our learning to the test. As I had feared from the first step on the ice, my Twister moment duly arrived during our final game.
As skip, I was the final player to play and my opponents had their stone in the house. I slid out aiming for a takeout and released my stone, which must have been the only thing balancing me, because I promptly found myself spread-eagled on the ice. I looked up to see my stone knock my opponents’ out of the house, remaining in play itself to win the end for my team.
While that might have been down to luck as much as skill – because I’m fairly certain that the sprawled position in which I finished is not how it’s meant to be done – I had felt myself improving as the lesson progressed, and I had genuinely enjoyed myself.
When Colin Keir said he expected me back in September for the start of the new season, I accepted the ego boost gratefully, but also knew that despite the slight tongue-in-cheek tone, there was a genuine hope there. I’m not expecting to be winning Olympic medals any time soon – though Rhona Martin was in her thirties when she led GB to gold in 2002, so there is still time – but curling is a sport that is always looking for new blood.
Could it be me tearing up the ice next season? Maybe.
But, given that curling is a sport that caters to such a wide variety of ages, abilities, and locations throughout Scotland, the bigger question is: could it be you?
If you feel like you want to give it a go next season, the Try Curling website will be updated with dates and locations of the sessions and can also give you a background on the sport, while this short video from the World Curling Federation quickly summarises the basic rules and how the sport is played.