Winter Olympics: Romancing of the stones

Missionary zeal sweeps grand mistresses of chess on ice to thrilling end-game but Olsson is on skid row; Mike Rowbottom watches Britain's best put on a thoroughly compelling slide show
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The Independent Online
THE British women's curling team have had a mission to explain this past week. Forget Highland grannies; think genuine Olympians.

"Curling has had to show it is good enough to be an Olympic medal sport," said Kirsty Hay, the team's skip. "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."

The incorrectness of that assumption has been swiftly acknowledged - not least by Britain's bobsleighers, who have kept in touch with a succession of encouraging e-mail messages.

The compulsive qualities of a sport which has been compared to chess on ice have become evident to millions of television watchers at these Olympics, not just in Britain, but world-wide.

For home viewers, however, yesterday's semi-final defeat by the Canadian world champions - who secured a 6-5 scoreline by the distance of one inch with the very last delivery of an extra-time end - fell into the category of torture. Had the Canadian skip Sandra Schmirler, acknowledged as the world's finest player, not slid her final effort fractionally closer than Hay's to the centre of the target after two and three quarter hours' play, Britain would have been assured of their first medal of the Games.

The Scottish quartet - Hay, a medical sales rep, the sisters Edith and Katie Loudon, respectively a computer operator and clerical assistant, and Jackie Lockhart, an information officer for Shell - have played together for two years. That constitutes relative stability in a sport where line- ups are constantly altering, and they drew on that to produce a performance far above that which might have been expected of a team ranked only fifth in the world.

Afterwards, they strove to draw some comfort from the fact that they had pushed the world champions all the way to the end. It was an effort which was only partially successful.

Hay was utterly composed throughout as she rallied her team-mates and took the strategic fight to Schmirler. But the flushed colour of her cheeks at the end testified to the feelings that churned inside. "I thought Sandra's last delivery was going right through, but the ice changed it and slowed it down," she said afterwards. "We didn't have to get the tape measure out to decide, but the difference couldn't have been more than an inch." Asked if she was disappointed, she replied with a tight smile: "Disappointed would probably cover it."

But such feelings could not be dwelt upon, as thoughts were already turning to the play-off match against Sweden for the bronze medal which loomed a matter of 16 hours later.

Making the most of the sport's formal debut at the Games has been hugely important. "People suggest that it isn't a bona fide sport because it doesn't have a physical element," Hay said. "But you only have to play it to realise that it is both technical and physical. And unlike other new Olympic sports, like freestyle skiing or snowboarding half-pipe, the result is not reliant on judges."

Three of the team - Hay, Katie Loudon and the reserve Fiona Bayne - knew that whatever happened they would at least have a tangible reminder of the Games. Each has had a tattoo of the Olympic rings put on their rear end.

Before the Games, the bulk of publicity being generated for the game was coming through the British men's team, who stated boldly that they were here for a crack at the gold.

Sadly, those hopes were unrealised as the team's performance fell away after a bright start. The comments of the skip, Dougie Dryburgh, after Friday's concluding defeat by the United States hinted at a process which had undermined their chances: "You can only have one skip out there, not one or two."

The men's four also ran into trouble early in the week because of bad language, which was getting picked up on television. The most heinous words to have issued from Hay's mouth were: "Get your fingers out, girls."

Shocking stuff. But as Hay explained, different styles suit different people. "The television people said, 'You don't look pumped up like the men'.

"They do get pumped up and it works for them. But we are just quiet and confident. All the time we believed we could qualify from the group matches. We didn't shout about it - we kept it to ourselves."

Their performances last week have demonstrated that quality to a wide audience, and the sport of curling can only benefit from their efforts.