Winter Olympics 2014: Just how hard can curling really be?
Scotsman-in-exile James Cusick decided to try his hand at the only rink south of the border
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Friday 14 February 2014
There is a corner of a field in Kent that is for ever Scotland. Inside a chilled converted cowshed roughly 2,297 miles from Sochi, the telephone at Fenton’s Rink near Tunbridge Wells has been in meltdown over the past week as people beg for the chance to propel 42 pounds of polished granite across groomed ice and dream of sweeping their way to Olympic curling gold.
Fenton’s is currently the only curling rink in England. Owner Ernest Fenton, a Scottish ex-pat farmer, built the facility 10 years ago because it was easier than travelling to Glasgow for a quick slide.
In the same way as Wimbledon fortnight inspires fleeting interest in nothing more complicated than batting a soft ball across a low net, Team GB’s skippers in Sochi, Eve Muirhead and David Murdoch, make curling look elegantly effortless. So easy in fact that one of my evidently learned colleagues compared it to tiddlywinks on ice.
As an exiled Scot I regarded this as a national slur, an insult to the memory of my great grand-father Hamish, who exchanged stones daily across the frozen Lake of Menteith with his neighbour.
Fenton’s professional curling coach and rink manager, Tracey Brown, promised me time on the ice and the chance to re-acquire some national pride in a sport that although was common in Europe, nevertheless needed the genius of the members of the Grand Caledonian Curling Club in 1838 to come up with some rules.
So curling belongs to the Scots and we’ve shared it with the world – like shortbread, 18-year-old Glenlivet, and Andy Murray.
I was kitted out at Fenton’s with special shoes that allow you, thankfully, to walk naturally on the ice. But the removal of the rubber sole on my left shoe – called a kipper – revealed a flat Teflon surface that threatened to turn me into Charlie Chaplin as I stepped on to the ice. Tiddlywinks? Sure, cover your bathroom lino in wet soap, keep your socks on and try it. If curling was easy it would just be called hockey.
I hate to disappoint my Independent colleagues but “wanging it up there” was not a term Tracey used. She showed that the perfect delivery is a combination of ballet’s third position for the front foot, half a flattened grand jeté for the back trailing leg, all linked to the straight back and focus of a matador.
You to push off from “the hack” (no, nothing to do with illegal phone interception), which are small dark rubber blocks shaped into the ice. My effort had all the elegance of a muddy scrum-half getting badly messed up in a ruck.
But after a few attempts, with Chaplin and Buster Keaton easing out of the frame, and just a hint of the possible emerging, you sense curling’s attraction. It’s not about power, but the same thing that defines all sport – accuracy, concentration and defying the gods.
Holding on to a lump of Ailsa Craig granite, using the ice to cheat gravity of another victim, and trying to ensure your rock arrives on a chess square 150 feet away up a lane, shouldn’t be possible. But Muirhead and her pals show it is.
Team GB won’t be awaiting my arrival anytime soon, but an hour on Fenton’s ice, along with my Scottish DNA, was enough to spark the beginning of a relationship.
They say that when hell freezes over, the Scots won’t mind because they’ll just curl there too. They may have some unexpected company. A new rink is scheduled to open in Berkshire. Now, what was that comment about tiddlywinks again?
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