Sweeping to victory

by Joseph Romanos / 04 March, 2006
A sport full of subtle tactics, curling is on the right path in New Zealand, as the winter Olympics showed.

In a sports carnival that's all about speed and daring, the curling proved strangely compelling at the winter Olympics in Turin. The top speed in the downhill skiing exceeds 120kph. The same with the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton. Speed is critical, too, in ice hockey and ice skating. But in curling, it's a lot more genteel. The stone reaches a maximum speed of about 5kph. This game is about subtlety and patience.

It's a distant cousin of lawn bowls, except that the stone is assisted on its path down the rink by one, two or, in emergencies, three sweepers. By polishing the ice in front of the stone, the sweepers can add up to two metres to the length and also prevent the stone curling as much.

Curling is full of subtle tactics - most of which went over the heads of the crowds. It is sometimes better to lose an end by conceding a point because that gives a team the "last rock" - throwing the last stone - on the following end.

The New Zealand team in Turin, an eclectic mix of former Canadians and good southern men, were desperately unlucky. Early in the tournament, when they needed victories to remain in medal contention, they lost three times on the last throw of the match.

Still, they showed they belonged in elite company - only 10 teams qualified for the Olympics, and some of the giants of world curling were absent. New Zealand got there by virtue of top eight placings at the previous two world championships.

I enjoyed the humour that was evident at the curling. For instance, competitors will often throw light and bring their sweepers into play. That way the speed of the stone can be better controlled. But some curlers are known to throw exceedingly light, perhaps because they are affected by nerves. The sweepers have to begin their frenetic activity almost as soon as the stone leaves the thrower's hand. "With some guys," said New Zealand team lead Lorne DePape, "we joke that we have to begin sweeping before he's even released it!"

Curling will always struggle in New Zealand. When your national headquarters are in Naseby, you are going to struggle to find your niche on the national sports landscape. But there are now also rinks in Queenstown, Alexandra, Dunedin, Christchurch and Auckland, and there is a national secondary school championship, so the sport is on the right path.

Competitors in the skeleton have an expression: win or lose, hit the booze. It's entirely understandable, given the nature of this gravity-defying, adrenalin-inducing sport, which has proved such a hit since being reintroduced to the Olympics in 2002. Never mind winning - surviving is an achievement worth toasting.

Skeleton competitors lie forward, face down, on a sheet of steel that is about a metre long and as wide as a person's body, and has two steel strips underneath. They hurtle down the track - the one used for the luge and bobsleigh events - at speeds reaching 130kph. Their faces are only five centimetres from the track surface. Fastest down the track wins. It has been described as flying down a steep hill on an oven tray.

In 1884 an Englishman by the name of Child developed a low toboggan and called it a skeleton because of its appearance. The name has stuck. Child's countryman, Major W H Bulpett, build the only exclusive skeleton track, the famous Cresta Run, at St Moritz, in 1886. This track was used for the skeleton's two early Olympic appearances, in 1924 and 1948.

After that, interest in the event declined, until it underwent resurgence in the 1980s. It was reintroduced to the Olympics at Salt Lake City in 2002, and has quickly attracted a following among the thrill-seekers and speed junkies.

New Zealand has a surprisingly strong record in the sport because in 1992 Bruce Sandford won the world title. Sandford was a reserve for the New Zealand bobsleigh teams at the 1988 Calgary winter games. Afterwards he married a Canadian and remained in that country. He took up the skeleton, with incredible success.

By the time the skeleton returned to the Olympic programme, Sandford had retired. He decided to see if he could induce other New Zealanders to attempt the sport, not easy in a country attuned to traditional pursuits like rugby, cricket and netball. Even in terms of winter sport, we think more of skiing and ice skating.

Sandford returned to New Zealand, got some publicity and invited people to try it. His strike-rate was impressive.

Liz Couch competed at Salt Lake City, where she finished 11th. By the 2006 Turin Olympics, there was hot competition for places in the New Zealand skeleton line-up. Louise Corcoran beat Tionette Stoddard and Kelly Moffat for the women's position, and finished 12th of 15 starters at the Olympics. On the men's side, Ben Sandford rode impressively for a 10th placing among 27 starters.

Sandford, at 1.99m (6ft 6in), was tall for a skeleton rider, but he improved notably each year after taking up the sport in 2002. Mind you, he had a terrific coach - his uncle Bruce.

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