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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 06:49 GMT

Conversion of the curling kind

BBC Sport Online's Alex Gubbay explains how curling can win over even the most staunch sceptic

If you had asked me before the Games which event I was least excited about, curling would have been right up there with the cross country.

Talk of takeouts, draws and hammer shots would have turned me right off.

Not any more.

OK, I only actually made it through Utah's more industrial suburbs to the Ice Sheet at Ogden for one match, which just so happened to be the historic triumph by Britain's brilliant women.

But putting my Union Jack to one side, believe me when I say curling captivates in a different way to most other events at these Games.

The mental and physical pressure on the players is immense, and you can't help but admire the way they handle it.

One match takes three hours of constant concentration and frantic exertion - and that's just how I felt sitting sheet-side.

From the stands, you hear the ice crackling as the curlers send down their stones, and get a real sense of the sweepers' enormous effort as they brush to order.

I watched all eight faces as they discussed and conjured up the best strategy, and was left wondering how on earth they judge direction and distance so precisely.

The crowd were involved from the start, and their screams of 'sweeeep', 'hurrrry' and 'haaaard' rivalled those of Rhona Martin.

Towards the end, I even beat the big screen to shouts of 'nice takeout' and 'button shot'.

As at every other venue, the music is themed, so here, it was Apollo 440's 'Stop the Rock' and 'I love Rock and Roll' by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts that entertained us between ends.

During those breaks in play, I expected the suspense to subside.

But bar a bizarre, rather self-congratulatory cameo from Games chief Mitt Romney, it was honestly edge of the seat stuff.

The tension just kept building and building, in the stands as well as on the ice.

Having to send down the deciding 'last rock' in the tenth end is a true test of courage, determination and skill - even without the small matter of Olympic gold at stake.

How Martin stayed cool enough to land hers sufficiently close to the button for victory remains beyond me - I could hardly bear to watch by the end.

I guess that proved I had, at least briefly, become a curling convert, and not just because the sport had given Britain its first Olympic gold for 18 years.


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