Curious sport, curling; it engen-ders great passion among its 40,000 British devotees while to outsiders it can't fail to resemble bowls on ice, though some say it's all in the mind, a sort of refrigerated chess. "Scotland's ain game," they call it there, unsurprisingly, as all 10 curlers representing Britain in the forthcoming Winter Olympics are as Caledonian as the canal.
Coy the Scots may be about kicking a football for Team GB in London six years hence, but in Turin, as in Salt Lake City four years ago, it will be a case of Tartan home brew should either of the stones-and-broom brigades slide and sweep their way to the podium.
It was at Ogden, just outside the Mormon citadel of America, that the exploits of the chirpy Ayrshire village housewife Rhona Martin and her golden girls attracted the biggest TV audience for a Winter Games here since T & D boleroed their way to perfection.
Martin was the woman who "threw the stone of destiny" which kept British viewers enthralled in the early hours four years ago. But now the 39-year-old mother of two is struggling to hold her life together after the collapse of her husband's business and subsequently her marriage. Her sixth-ranked team have qualified again, if only just, but this time around it is the men, led by a young Lockerbie beef farmer, David Murdoch, who are more likely to be declaring any 22- carat neckware on their return.
Murdoch has taken over from the celebrated Hammy McMillan, whose team failed to live up to their promise last time, as skip of a reshuffled men's squad who on form - silver in the world championships and bronze in the Europeans - seem well-positioned for a medal. But with an activity that demands the ultimate in hand, eye and foot co-ordination, there is poten-tially many a slip between the 44lb kettle-handled stone and the bull's-eye 146 feet yonder.
Murdoch, 27, is described by Britain's Olympic head coach, Mike Hay, as "beyond his years in terms of strategy". He adds: "He's a very calm guy, focused and determined. The team are up against tough competition and they know that, being ranked third behind Canada and Sweden. But the boys seem to be the form team at the moment, their progress has been impressive." Murdoch says: "The policy changed after Salt Lake, selecting a squad rather than a team, mixing them up and playing them in different positions. Ultimately we've got the best five players. This new team is a good blend, five guys who get on well, and are really focused."
The men are peaking at just the right time, Murdoch feels. "It's good that we've beaten a lot of the teams we could face. In fact, at one time or another, we've beaten all of them. It's a case of trying to get a good start, and then pushing for a semi-final spot. Any one of eight teams, including us, could probably win the tournament."
Murdoch, who says he has been "curling daft" since he first abandoned football and ice hockey as a 10-year-old (his parents were curlers and so are his two siblings), says top-level curling is not just a matter of turning up to brush up on the brush strokes with those squeegee-like mops. It is as demanding physically as mentally - "I am in the gym five times a week."
Two of Murdoch's team were in Salt Lake: Warwick Smith and Ewan MacDonald. The newcomers in addition to himself are Ewan Byers and Craig Wilson. He says that the stunning success of Martin's women in Salt Lake has had a big impact on their own aspirations and on the sport generally. "There's a hell of a lot more people who know what curling is. The wom-en's gold was huge. I was at the Lockerbie rink on the night of the final, and it was packed out with people cheering them on. I found it very inspirational. It has certainly given us something to dream about."
This time around, the women's team have failed to scale similar heights in their own build-up. Martin herself recently revealed that, following her marriage break-up, she has been forced to sell her home and move from the village where she grew up and live in accommodation subsidised by social security handouts. "It's been the worst year of my life," she admitted. "My marriage has irretrievably broken down because of financial problems and we are living apart. The DSS pay part of my rent. If it were not for the funding from the Scottish Institute of Sport and Sport Scotland I wouldn't be going to Turin. I lost it all. We had to sell our home to pay the debts."
Since Salt Lake, hers has not been the glamorous existence of most Olympic winners. Sponsorship has dwindled and her personal appearances have been sparse. One recently was at a DIY store in Paisley, where shoppers were awarded £50 in vouchers if they could beat her.
"Hands up, the girls are not taking great form into the competition," says coach Hay. "But we have taken a gamble by picking those we believe are our best shot-makers and playing them out of position a bit."
As with the men, only two have survived from Salt Lake. Martin and Debbie Knox. The newcomers are Jackie Lockart, a former world champion, Kelly Wood and Lynn Cameron. "We know Rhona has been through a rough time recently but her form is remarkably good considering the things she has had to contend with," says Hay. "Although people are writing them off I do believe they have a chance of getting to the semi-finals. And as we saw last time, if you get to the semis, anything can happen. You are only two games away from the gold."
Both teams will be taking their "mops" with them. Buckets will also be quickly provided should champagne be called for again. There will be no shortage of ice.Reuse content