Curling seizes its golden moment

Winter Olympics victory opens way for multimillion pound investment in 'bowls on ice'

A woman with two children, a broom and a dodgy knee is set to spark a £6m windfall for curling, the Scottish sporting pastime that is often ridiculed as bowls on ice.

By leading Britain to its first Winter Olympic gold medal for 18 years, Rhona Martin has guaranteed that her sport will become one of the most heavily funded in the country.

Martin and her team had prepared for Salt Lake City thanks to a grant of £200,000 from Sport Scotland - a figure that could now be trebled to allow them to prepare to defend their title in Turin in 2006.

The success could also trigger a building boom of curling rinks in England, with grants totalling as much as £5m from Sport England, the biggest distributor of national lottery grants in the UK.

Curling is played by 30,000 people in Britain, but the only rink south of Scotland is in Deeside, in north Wales.

But there are plans to build 10 sites across England with development of the first in Cambourne, Cambridgeshire, already well under way. The £3m Olympic-sized rink is due to be completed in 18 months and will have three curling lanes along with facilities to accommodate ice hockey and skating.

The project started as a Cambridge University scheme in conjunction with groups such as the English Curling Association. It is largely being funded by a £1.4m bequest by alumnus David Gattiker, who played ice hockey for the university in the 1930s. But for completion it will rely on being successful in its application for £1.6m of lottery cash.

Sport England awards grants mainly on the basis of whether the new facility will be used extensively at grassroots levels. Whereas an explosion of interest in curling seemed unlikely a couple of weeks ago, today things are very different.

The English Curling Association has been flooded with inquiries from the public asking where they can play the sport.

"Any application will be evaluated on the basis of a business plan and how many people in the community would use it," said Fran Edwards, of Sport England.

"But I think it's fair to say that what has happened in Salt Lake City has generated a lot more interest in the sport and it is in a much better position than it was 24 hours ago."

The World Curling Federation, which is shortly due to receive £2m from the International Olympic Committee as its cut of television money from these games, is also ready to give £200,000 to help spread the sport in England.

"We see England as a major developing market and would like to do whatever we can to help," a spokesman said.

An audience of 5.7m people watched live on BBC TV as the team beat Switzerland 4-3 with the very last throw of the final. That is more than tune in for the Six Nations rugby union matches and the Derby.

In Scotland, a new initiative, run in conjunction with the Bank of Scotland, aims to encourage children to take up the sport. "Curling's Cool" has seen 12,000 children try the sport in the past three years, for as little as 50p a game. Curling officials in Scotland now hope they can emulate Canada and sign multimillion pound deals with blue-chip sponsors.

Martin - who has two children Jennifer, nine, and Andrew, six - is also set to cash in personally on the team's success. She has already been approached by a tabloid newspaper offering to buy her story and the supermarket Safeway wants her to appear in an advertisement to promote floor-cleaning products.

"I'll still be a housewife, a mother of two from Dunlop in Ayrshire, that will not change," said Martin, who was only able to play here after an operation on her knee.

Martin's preparations were affected during the build-up to the tournament when she had to visit a hospital in Salt Lake City with severe stomach problems. "I was worried I would not be fit to play and it has not completely cleared up yet," she said. "It happened probably 10 days before the games. It was hard for the girls because we were in Calgary to practise as a team and I had to leave them."


Duncan Mackay in Salt Lake City

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