Iain Hollingshead: Whatever happened to ... curling?

Iain Hollingshead: It remains to be seen, whether curling will recapture public imagination this time round. Four years ago it had to endure much mockery as a pastime for broom-wielding housewives.

'In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Speaking at the end of The Third Man, Orson Welles omitted to add that Switzerland - along with that other oasis of tranquillity, Canada - is also one of the best countries in the world at curling, a sport traditionally considered on a par with tiddlywinks for the demands it puts on players and spectators alike.

In February 2002, however, curling's image changed almost overnight when the British women's team - all of them Scottish - defeated Switzerland 4-3 in a nail-biting final watched by 5.7m viewers at home. Their gold medals - Britain's first in the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean figure-skated to glory in 1984 - came after over 30 hours of competition in 10 days. One of the players (whose husband was in the men's team) let slip that she'd undergone a sex ban during the games to avoid distractions.

No doubt the orgasmic reaction of the British public made the abstinence worth its while. Underwear modelling contracts were offered and declined. Prince Charles wrote a letter of congratulation. Scotland's first minister, Jack McConnell, called it a "fantastic achievement for Scotland". Tony Blair diplomatically praised the way the team had "captured the interest of the whole of the United Kingdom".

The captain, Rhona Martin, later recalled that the media frenzy was "quite a shock". The publicist Max Clifford predicted (inaccurately) that the team would become millionaires. Fleet Street scraped the barrel in the search of puns with "clean sweep" in the title. And all five team-members were awarded an MBE. But inevitably, perhaps, the hype did not endure. A toe-curling film starring Leslie Nielsen - Men with Brooms - opened in Canada in March 2002. Although it broke national records for a home-grown feature (Canada accounts for 94% of the world's curling-playing population) few have seen it on this side of the Atlantic.

There is a divide closer to home as well. The Scottish curling population is approximately 25,000 strong whereas England has fewer than 200 registered curlers. Wales has half that number. The enthusiasm of those 5.7m television viewers appears to have been short-lived.

Fly-by-night aficionados will be pleased, however, to learn the sport returns to TV screens on February 13 for the Turin Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, the British women's team is now ranked sixth out of 10 countries and has been dogged by selection squabbles. Only two players remain from 2002.

It remains to be seen, then, whether curling will recapture public imagination this time round. Four years ago it had to endure much mockery as a pastime for broom-wielding housewives. Experts took pains to point out the endurance required to sweep hard for 25 seconds before launching their next "stone". The BBC commentator Steve Cram remarked how easy it looked until he was invited onto the ice and fell over.

But within weeks the nation was gripped by hog lines, houses, shooters, hacks, tees and sheets. It is yet another reminder - if the episode of Wally the whale were not sufficient - that we are a nation of eccentric hobbyists and emotional faddists. When it comes to being cuckoo, we give the Swiss a pretty good run for their (considerable) money.

· Do you have a forgotten news story you would like chased up? Email: iain@iainhollingshead.co.uk

Iain Hollingshead

The GuardianTramp

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