Slipping back into the cold comfort of curling in Sochi

The ebb and flow of ‘lawn bowls on ice’ makes for easy viewing despite the low temperatures indoors

Great Britain’s Skip Eve Muirhead in action during their Curling Round Robin match against Sweden at  the Ice Cube Curling Centre. Pihotograph: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire.

Great Britain’s Skip Eve Muirhead in action during their Curling Round Robin match against Sweden at the Ice Cube Curling Centre. Pihotograph: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire.

Tue, Feb 11, 2014, 01:00

The cold hits you in the face the second you close the door behind you. Harsh on the nostrils, wet on the eyes. This is it, finally. Winter cold at the Winter Olympics. You grab your coat by the sleeve-ends and zip it up to the neck.

Fish in your bag for that arctic-grade Cossack hat that seemed a bit much at the time you bought it but makes you feel pretty clever now. Take your seat and look around you, thinking what everyone else is thinking. Air conditioning is a bitch.

It was another day of blue skies and warm air in Sochi yesterday, with the temperatures getting up to 16 Celsius. So balmy was it up on the mountain that they had to cancel practice on the ski jump because the snow in the landing area was melting. If you wanted any sense of what it was to be around winter sport, you had to go indoors.

To the curling, then, in the aptly named Ice Cube. For the Winter Olympics agnostic, curling is the very essence of the games. A sport to watch out of curiosity for these two weeks and then under no circumstances allow your eye to wander towards even once in the next four years. Grimly slow, monotonously watchable and quite, quite odd.

Vaguely exciting
The opening group matches held the floor at the Ice Cube all day yesterday, men in the morning and evening, women in the afternoon. We went to see the women, since it was they who made the sport’s first impression on the outside world when the British team win gold in Salt Lake 12 years ago.

When it turns out that the schoolteachery captain (actually, they say “skip” in curling) of that 2002 team is now the schoolmistressy head coach of the current side, it feels vaguely exciting.

Curling built up a cult following during those Salt Lake games, most especially among late-night wasters who didn’t want to peel themselves off the couch and go to bed.

When Rhona Martin sent down the death-or-glory last stone in the final to take gold, many of us could scarce forebear to weep. Well, we rubbed our eyes at any rate. It was about three in the morning after all and there may or may not have been drink taken.

Anyway, she’s Rhona Howie now and her team of screechy young Scots got their Olympics underway against Sweden yesterday. It only took a few ends to get the ebbs and flows and tos and fros of curling back on the eye. Lawn bowls on ice, basically.

Stones instead of bowls, ice instead of grass and demented brushing instead of pursed-lipped prayer to help them on their way. The sort of brushing your mam does to the kitchen floor when she spots a bit of grease five minutes before the guests arrive. Most stones closest to the centre of a four-ringed target scores points, most points after 10 ends wins.

There are four lanes in the Ice Cube, so there were four games on simultaneously.

While GB v Sweden was the biggest deal of the four – both sides are expected to be in medal contention come the end of the tournament – the crowd was understandably most taken with Russia v Denmark. While it was obvious that most of them didn’t know a whole pile about what they were watching, they knew what they liked.

Curling hipsters
They liked Russia. And they liked Russia loud. They especially liked Russia whenever one of their girls sent down a take-out shot, obliterating whatever promising position the Danes had managed to build up.

That said, there was a small but significant rump who clapped the occasional tactical stone left hanging outside the scoring circle. In these populist times, it’s heartening to know that even curling has its hipsters.

Of course, were they worth their bespoke brooms, they’d have been gripped by the GB v Sweden match in which the Brits fought their way back from an early 3-0 deficit to make it 3-3 by the seventh end. Sadly for them, Sweden nailed them to the ice by picking up two in the next and holding out to the finish.

“It is always disappointing to lose the first match,” said their 23-year-old skip Eve Muirhead. “It was always going to be a tough one anyway, playing the European champions and world runners-up.

“They are one of the favourites but the game could have gone either way. We got off to a bit of a slow start, managed to claw it back to all square but they played a fantastic shot in the seventh end that gave them that step ahead.”

Shrugged and smiled
All in all, they weren’t too disappointed. It was only the first game and both sides will be in the shake-up come the end. They shrugged and smiled and soon went about their day.

The rest of us stepped out into the sunshine, suddenly all too aware of how stupid this hat actually looks.

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