The Slide Effect: bowls

Call it bowls on ice at your peril, says Mark MacKenzie. Curling is as tough as it is graceful
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The Independent Online

'And you shouldn't read too much into that 5-1 nonsense in Germany." Mike Hay, Great Britain's national coach for curling, is in a hurry. Having climbed into his car on the outskirts of Edinburgh a mere two minutes ago, we have put the introductions and the weather to bed before I've even reached for my seatbelt.

"The problem with those down south is they never want to invest in those sports in which they stand a chance of winning something." Mike is berating the attitude that regards curling as merely "bowls on ice", as well as the various UK sports- financing bodies – he is aggrieved that after 600 years as a competitive sport, curling is still battling for the respect, and funding, he feels it deserves.

He has a point. In February in Salt Lake City, curling makes its second appearance at a Winter Olympics. The "target sport" that began as a focal point for rural Scottish communities in the 15th century has grown to such an extent that Scotland now boasts 15 specialist clubs, more than 30 venues and over 17,000 players. And then there's Canada....

With 1,000 clubs playing host to more than a million curlers, the largely Canada- based professional World Curling Tour offers annual prize money of C$3.5m (£1.5m). Television coverage runs to more than 300 hours a year, comfortably matching that for North America's National [Ice] Hockey League. Curling's biggest star, Wayne Middaugh, enjoys the same messianic status as that reserved in the United States for Michael Jordan. The global television audience for last year's World Championships, in Scotland, topped 10 million.

We make a pit stop at Mike's office at the Scottish Institute of Sport where, since 1998, curling has been a "core" discipline, taking advantage of cutting-edge training methods and performance technology. Mike introduces me to some of his fellow curlers – surprisingly, all, like him, all are built like rugby back-row forwards.

Ten minutes later and we are by the ice at the nearby Gogar Park Curling Club. Looking down the 44-metre lane, or "sheet", on which the game is played, Mike explains the object is to slide or "throw" the stones to a target made up of concentric circles, the "house", aiming to land the stone as close to the centre circle, or "pot lid", as possible. Teams are made up of four players, each throwing twice. An "end" is eight stones and a match is played over 10 ends. Points are scored for the number of stones a team land closer to the centre than the nearest opposition stone.

To slide themselves down the ice, players wear special shoes. I've borrowed a pair of Mike's, as well as a cloth "brush", which the non-throwing players, or "sweepers", use to smooth the ice ahead of the stone, affecting both line and length. With a Teflon-soled "slider" shoe on my left foot and a rubber "gripper" on my right, I take to the ice. The sensation is bizarre; my right foot is a model of composure, but my left goes into an involuntary hokey- cokey whenever it takes my weight. On expert advice, I use the brush as a crutch to make balancing easier.

Mike cleans a stone and hunkers down on the "hack", a kind of rubber starting-block. Launching himself down the ice, his entire body weight held over his lead leg, he moves elegantly and, as he approaches the "hog line" (curling's equivalent of an oche in darts), he "curls" the stone. In this instance it's an "in-turn" delivery, gently releasing the stone clockwise to send or "draw" the stone into the house from the left.

For my first effort, Mike scoots up to the house and plays the role of "skip". The skip's job is to "give ice", calling the line the thrower must play, while the sweepers call the strength or "weight".

But my technique lacks the balletic grace of Mike's and my trailing leg slaloms behind me like a fish's back end. Fifty or so slides later and despite aching quads, I'm beginning to get the hang of it; what's more, Mike is complimenting my improved style. Soon I'm firing off "out-turn" deliveries (an anti-clockwise curl), sending down "take-outs" (to knock opposing stones out of the house) and laying "guard" draws to protect stones in promising positions.

Sweeping, which can involve all non-throwing team members frantically brushing the ice in front of the stone, is as important in top-level curling as throwing. Effective sweeping can "prolong the deceleration of a stone by up to 10 feet", Mike says, and also help in straightening a stone's line. But for a beginner, sweeping is as much fun as patrolling the outfield at a school cricket match. Mike baulks at my suggestion that sweeping is just donkey-work while the real fun is to be had mastering the subtle nuances of stone weights and strategy. The truth is that throwing requires a certain grace in curling and sweeping requires power.

International curlers spend hours in the gym, building quads, lats and forearms so that when sweeping, they can generate massive levels of downforce. The Scottish Institute of Sport have even developed a "sweep-ergometer" to measure individual output.

"We give them a tough time, because the required fitness is way above what you would expect," says Mike. "To give you some idea, our strength and conditioning coach is Dave Clark, who worked with the Springbok side that won the 1995 Rugby World Cup."

Britain's best medal hope in Salt Lake City lies with the men's team, led by Scottish curling legend Hammy McMillan, and Mike is confident that "if they can reach the semi-finals, then anything can happen". Olympic matches last three hours, with teams regularly expected to play two matches a day, "and that doesn't even begin to include warm-ups and practices," Mike adds. "We do a lot of work on recovering quickly from fatigue, so that after a tough workout, a player is still able to throw a controlled shot."

Under pressure in a match situation, this guarantees that, after sweeping hard on a team-mate's throw, the next player is composed enough to send down the precise delivery called by the skip.

We call it a day, but by now I'm hooked. As we walk to the car I re-enact a slide – looking up, I realise Mike has been watching me. "Bowls on ice," he mutters, climbing in.

Hit the brush: deliver your stone on the line the skip indicates with the brush, like putting to the flag in golf.

Clean the stone: removing old ice before you play will help the stone follow an accurate line.

Try and lift the stone: 'delivery' of a curling stone is a subtle release, if you try and lift it you might get a hernia.

Mention 'bowls on ice': top-level curlers are large people.

Scotland has 15 specialist rinks and 15 additional sports centres hire 'sheets' by the hour, but access is limited.

For information about clubs and coaching contact the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, curling's equivalent of golf's Royal & Ancient, on 0131 333 3003, or visit www.rccc.org.uk

Curling shoes start at around £90, but a top-of-the-range pair with a 'fast' Teflon slider costs about £180.

Stones are provided and maintained by clubs; players rarely purchase their own.

Shoes, brushes and other accessories can be bought through your local club or online at www.curlingsupplies.com

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