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Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 13:36 GMT

When a nation unites

By BBC Sport Online's Tom Fordyce

The talk across Britain on Thursday was of one thing and one thing only.

Kylie's saucy performance at the Brits counted for nothing - for this was the day when curling came to town.

With Great Britain's women's team on the brink of Olympic gold in Salt Lake City, the nation rushed to embrace a sport it had successfully ignored for the past 200 years.

Offices and shops across the land were dominated by heated arguments about tough ends, four-foot rings and stones in houses.

Generally speaking, few would give a monkey's about the exploits of a Scottish housewife and her broom.

But, when there is even the slightest chance of sporting glory, the country will take even the strangest pursuit to heart - as a glance at the history books shows...


Shooting

Few indeed are the times when the arrival of a bearded man wearing a Union Jack headband and waving a rifle around is greeted with universal acclaim.

But that's what happened when Malcolm Cooper - 'Cooperman' to his devotees - returned to these shores after claiming his second Olympic gold in 1988.

For Cooper was the master of the small bore rifle. No matter that it was a discipline so obtuse most sports fans thought it involved taking pot-shots at Ronnie Corbett.

Cooper had claimed the gold medal at the Los Angeles Games in 1984 and, when he repeated the feat four years later, became the only man in history to successfully defend the title.


Hockey

14 years ago in Seoul, the Great Britain men's hockey team beat arch-rivals West Germany 3-1 to clinch Olympic gold.

Men like double goalscorer Imran Sherwani, goalpoacher extraordinaire Sean Kerly and tubby winger Stephen Batchelor were national heroes for at least three days.

Kids across the country rushed to sports shops to buy towelling headbands and better shinpads.

Sadly, the golden glow was short-lived.

The decline from the heady heights of '88 was so steep that when the GB men were thrashed 8-1 by Pakistan at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a nation was united in its utter indifference.

Perhaps the best thing about the national side was the name of its head coach - Barry Dancer.


Sailing

As the closest most Brits have come to mastering the ocean waves is a half-an-hour joust on a pedalo in Magaluf, the profile of sailing has usually sat somewhere below that of wrestling and crown green bowls.

All that changed in a spectacular couple of days in September 2000, when Britannia ruled the waves in a style not seen since the sinking of the Bismark.

First Shirley Robertson grabbed glory in the Europe class before Ben Ainslie beat Robert Scheidt to gold in the Laser class.

Then Iain Percy repeated the trick with a sensational win in the Finn Class.

Europe, Laser, Finn - it meant nothing to any of us. But there was gold hanging on British chests, and that was enough for this success-starved nation.


Ice-skating

Torvill and Dean - national heroes to rank with Redgrave and Pinsent, and Posh and Becks.

But what was their sport really about, and was it really a sport?

That line of questioning would have seen you stoned in the street for being a traitor in the winter of 1984, when the pair with fixed grins and inch-thick make-up made history with their perfect 6.0s in Sarajevo.

For a while, phrases like 'axel toe-loop' and 'triple salchow' were bandied around by instant experts the length and breadth of the country.

It took the constant failures of Joanne Conway to remind Britain what really mattered in the sporting world.


Modern pentathlon

An event designed around the sporting timetable of an upper-class English girls' public school, the modern pentathlon was nothing more than a footnote in Olympic history until two years ago.

Then Stephanie Cook, a medical student from Bath, put together a startling sequence of performances to take gold for Britain at the Sydney Olympics.

Suddenly the country began treating the sport as the equal of football, cricket or tennis - despite the fact that the number of active participants was roughly on a par with the number of pupils at Cheltenham Ladies College.

Who cared that it comprised of horse-riding, fencing, jogging and hosting a decent dinner party?

The Brits were the best, and we didn't care who knew it.


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