Martin's hopes of retaining gold fade

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The Independent Online

Rhona Martin's defence of the Olympic curling title her team won four years ago was looking forlorn last night after a 10-5 defeat by Japan. "It was very important," Martin said. "It's put us out of the Olympics."

Strictly speaking, it had not. But to have any chance of staying in the competition the British curlers must win the last of their round-robin matches this evening, against the United States, and hope that other results go their way.

Britain's men, though, saw their place in the semi-finals become mathematically certain even though they lost their morning match against the US, 9-8.

"A second lifeline" was the way Martin described the circumstances in Salt Lake City, when an unexpected victory by Switzerland over Germany kept her team in a three-way tie for the last semi-final position, an opportunity that they exploited to the full.

Now Britain, currently one place outside the semi-final positions, need similar assistance if they are to secure a tie-break match tomorrow. With Sweden and Switzerland already assured of qualification, Martin and Co must hope that the two other teams above them, Norway and Canada, fail to register a further victory that would put them out of reach.

"I would put our chances of qualifying at very low at the moment," a disconsolate Martin said. "We are relying on other people, and they are unlikely to lose.

"We are not playing well enough at the moment. We have still got a very tough game tomorrow - and we have got to look hard at what we are doing."

While Britain's men, skipped by David Murdoch, have shown admirable consistency throughout the tournament, the same has not been true of Martin's team. Yesterday Jackie Lockhart, the vice-captain who won the world title in 2002 soon after Martin's team had secured Olympic gold, paid the price when she was replaced by Debbie Knox, who played in the victorious Salt Lake team.

"It was the coach's decision," Martin said. "Jackie accepted the decision and had no problem with it. We all knew we could have to sit a game out, because we are a five-woman team."

Lockhart's reaction to the switch, however, was not entirely phlegmatic. "I was surprised," she said. "Disappointed. I had a couple of slack shots yesterday ... I guess that was it."

Martin's team never recovered from falling 6-1 behind to the improving Japanese at the fifth end and were eventually forced to admit defeat with an end to spare.

The head coach Mike Hay said: "Now we are relying on other results to get us through, and that was the same four years ago. There are a few things that could still go in our favour - but it is out of our hands."

Murdoch's team are assured of a top-four finish and a place in Wednesday's semi-finals - with the very worst scenario for them being a play-off to decide the bronze medal. They went into last night's final round-robin match against Finland, with whom they shared a three-way lead, seeking a victory that would leave them as top qualifiers.

Meanwhile Chemmy Alcott, anxious to put her disqualification from the Combined Downhill behind her, has been forced to wait an extra day because the Super Giant slalom, which could be her strongest event here, was postponed until today because of bad weather.

The 23-year-old from Twickenham, whose 11th place in the downhill was the best Olympic Alpine result by a British woman for 38 years, discovered after the first of her two slalom runs in the Combined that her skis were too narrow for regulations.

Britain's pair of Lee Johnston and Dan Humphries could only finish 15th in the two-man bobsleigh final at Cesana last night.