EVE Muirhead and David Murdoch skip into action at the Winter Olympics today shouldering the burden of a £5 million investment over the course of a four-year Olympic cycle.
No British curlers have ever been sent off better prepared to achieve what Rhona Martin achieved on a much smaller budget, but as they take to the ice they do so with a warning light flashing in the background.
Dave Crosbee is, naturally, confident that Muirhead and Murdoch can deliver a medal apiece in Sochi, which would be an unprecedented success.
But British Curling’s performance director will not be surprised if the Scots’ sternest competition over the next 12 days comes from outside the sport’s traditional hinterland. He will, however, be surprised if the clamour for Olympic success in this upwardly mobile sport does not increase dramatically during the next Olympic cycle.
The message is firm and stark: we may have spent £5m, but if we do not continue to treat curling seriously, Scotland’s global prominence in the game could quickly become history.
“The sport is changing internationally,” Crosbee told The Scotsman. “Twenty years ago at the European Championships you would say there were three or four nations that had a chance to win and Britain were almost guaranteed semi-finalists. Now you find that all ten nations are competitive. Go to the World Championships and you find a number of Asian nations who are getting better all the time.
“Last year at the World Junior Championships, Scotland was the only traditional nation. The others were the Czech Republic, Russia and China. We can’t stand still and that’s something we really need to get across to people. We haven’t got a divine right to expect our historic success to continue.
“Let’s not put our heads in the sand and ignore it, let’s acknowledge it, because as soon as we drop behind one of these new nations, we will find it very hard to get back to where we are now.
“Japan is making significant investment in women’s curling with a new centre where they have a full-time coach and three part-time coaches and 30 athletes. Their stated aim is to win Olympic medals in 2018.
“In the past few months we had the Korean ladies’ junior team and the Korean Olympic team in Aberdeen. A lot of people were amazed that they were spending five hours a day on the ice, training. This is where the sport is going. When we have discussions with high-performance athletes we tell them that the £5m investment is an investment in sport and they are expected to get results from that.
“We need athletes who are prepared not just to compete, but to put the time in, and they need to make life choices that show their commitment.”
Muirhead and Murdoch are, Crosbee proudly confirms, “fantastic athletes” whose conditioning bears little resemblance to how curlers went about their business in the heyday of Martin and Hammy McMillan. They are trailblazers, but they are already feeling the heat created by their own progress. Kyle Smith, for example, who won his third consecutive Scottish junior title last month in Aberdeen, goes into the upcoming World Junior Championships as defending champion.
There are ever-present reasons , then, for UK Sport and sportscotland to applaud their joint investment – the £5m was a 50/50 split – but Crosbee is determined not to allow the pace of change to catch anybody out. And his intention is that Muirhead, Murdoch and Smith will do what Sirs Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins have done for British cycling.
“The investment is a strong demonstration of faith in the sport by UK Sport and Sportscotland, and it’s not just about winning medals. The performance programme can be used to develop and support the grass-roots, too. You can use a strong performance programme as a shop window into the activity that goes on in a sport such as curling,” he said.
“The strongest example of a performance programme in the UK is British Cycling, which over a period of five to ten years transformed the sport. They were very determined and worked very hard to grow a performance culture and asked athletes to make significant life choices and really go for it. At the same time they were using it as a shop window and you see participation rates going up hugely, and that is where we are starting to want to go with curling.”
Some groundwork has, of course, been done to even get Eve Muirhead to a place where some ordinary members of the public know who she is. She owes much to the “Stone of Destiny”delivered by Martin (now Rhona Howie) in 2002. The other problem is that our curlers only benefit from mainstream attention every four years when those five rings are lowered into view.
“That’s an issue for a lot of sports, not just curling. Their only opportunity to really shine in the eyes of the general public is the Olympics every four years,” Crosbee, a former slalom canoeist, acknowledges. “But that was the state British cycling was in 20 years ago. Every four years people watched them speeding around this velodrome thing, and then once a year you had the Tour de France. But once they started to achieve consistent Olympic success, people started to realise how interesting it is. It is possible to create a genuine, sustained interest in a sport, but you need to do everything you can to be successful first.
“You look around the world and there is definitely an increased interest in sports like curling. There are strategic gains being made and that takes a bit of time. In Canada it’s a very strong spectator sport, on TV and on the web. There is massive growth in Asia where the World Championship coverage attracted millions of hits online.
“There is a strong market out there for the type of game that curling is. There always seems to be a criticism that games take more than two hours and people therefore aren’t interested. Really? People watch golf, they watch cricket and they watch snooker for much longer than that.
“There is a market, but we have to make sure we can get people into it through knowledge and being able to identify with the characters in the sport. One of our key challenges around participation rates is access to facilities. Scotland is a strong base, but it’s hard to get access to ice. There is one only rink in England – at Tunbridge Wells – and one in Wales – in Deeside – and that is only available for curling once a week.
“It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. If you don’t show demand it’s hard to create more curling centres, and if you don’t have ice, it’s hard to create demand. There is a big parallel with swimming in that there is always going to be a trade-off between high-performance training access and general public access, because every facility needs to wash its own face financially.
“It costs money to run a rink so there has to be that trade-off, and ice time is so tight. But curling attracts serious athletes, no doubt about it. You look at Dave and Eve and Kyle and they are athletes. But I think the consistent success we have had is a product of the investment and processes we have been doing for the last ten years.”