Winter Olympics: Curling - Scotland's broken bravehearts

THE measure of the British women curling team's achievement here was confirmed yesterday when Canada, who secured victory over the Scottish quartet in Saturday's semi-final by less than an inch on the last delivery of an extra-time end, overpowered Denmark to win the gold.

However, it was no consolation for the British team who, drained from their efforts 16 hours earlier, lost the bronze medal play-off to the former world champions, Sweden.

"Twice in a row," said Jackie Lockhart, Britain's No 2 player, disconsolately. "It just wasn't going to be our game."

The match turned on the seventh of the 10 ends, when Britain - who had recovered from 1-4 to level at 5-5 - lost four shots, which proved to be an insuperable handicap. Kirsty Hay, Britain's skip, conceded the game at 10-6 with one end remaining.

"We were strong in the first half of the match, but our confidence was eroded when they won the seventh end 4-0," Hay said. "That was the turning point. We need to work on our consistency. We have improved a lot in the process of playing these big games. Last is far worse than fourth. But we came here with the goal of getting a medal, so to be fourth is pretty disappointing."

"The ice was as flat as we were," said Lockhart, the team's second player in the order. "They were `game on' from the start. They came off a bad game in the semi-final, while we had played our guts out. But we will be back in four years' time."

The deflation the Scots experienced was understandable after the huge efforts they had made the previous day. Hay, a medical sales rep from Perth, came within an inch of beating the woman acknowledged as the world's leading player, the Canadian skip Sandra Schmirler.

"Curling has had to show it is good enough to be an Olympic medal sport," Hay said. "We had a responsibility here to get people to change their attitude to the image of the sport. Even when we met some of the other athletes out here they thought we were going to be Highland grannies."

That mission has been well and truly accomplished by a quartet who will now seek to reach next month's World Championships. Hay's inscrutable ice queen presence, and her side-of-the-mouth confabs with her fringe- blowing second-in-command, Edith Loudon, have become familiar to millions of television viewers in Britain and the rest of the world.

Among those who have expressed enthusiasm for the sport this week are Princess Anne and the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, both of whom have watched matches in Karuizawa.

The Minister came away talking about putting a lot more money into developing curling in Britain. Supplying England with at least one rink would be a good first step.

Thoughtfully, the Scottish authorities have let them off playing in the preliminary rounds now underway at the National Championships, which they must win to qualify.

The Swedes, who had won their final group match against Britain with another 4-0 end, reacted with understandable delight after securing their country's first medal of the Games. The game has attracted large TV audiences in Sweden, and viewers swamped their national television switchboard with complaints when producers abandoned one of the women's group matches to cover the ice skating.

Steven Cousins, Britain's lone ice skater at these Games, hinted strongly after finishing sixth in Saturday's men's final that he would be retiring after next month's World Championships in Minneapolis.

If the 25-year-old does decide to bow out after a career that has seen him compete in three Olympics, it will mark the end of an ice age for Britain. The country who produced the Olympic champions John Curry, Robin Cousins and Torvill and Dean will be left without a single world-class competitor.

That was the British criterion for selection here - and unlike Lillehammer four years earlier, there were no representatives in the women's singles, pairs or ice dance.

Cousins, who fell once on a triple axel and made an impromptu decision to downgrade a planned triple combination into a double, expressed dissatisfaction with himself after a competition won by Russia's Ilia Kulik.

"It's all right, but no one remembers sixth place," he said. "I'm not happy because I didn't skate up to my expectations. I will sit down after the worlds with my coach, my agent and my parents, and decide on my future."