From Olympic gold to qualification concerns, what’s happened to GB women’s curling?

The stone of destiny might be grinding to a halt, so why are GB’s women curlers on their last chance to claim a spot for Beijing 2022 at a qualification event starting Sunday (5 December) after their gold medal-winning heroics nearly 20 years ago in Salt Lake City?

By Jo Gunston
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

In the early morning hours of a cold February night in 2002, pubs were packed, families crowded around TVs at home and media scribes were poised ready to write about the fairytale sport story of the year. But this time it wasn’t football that had the whole of the UK agog, it was the GB women’s curling team who were in the Olympic final and had one stone left to win gold.

Up stepped Rhona Martin, GB’s skipper, who curled that final stone with pinpoint accuracy, nudging Switzerland’s stone out of the way and the team off the top step of the podium. Great Britain had won their first Olympic gold medal in curling since the inaugural Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924.

Today though, GB’s women are left with just one final chance to qualify for Beijing 2022 after missing out on the direct route available to them via the World Championship in Canada in May in which the top six teams progressed automatically.

The GB side, which is actually just the Scotland side in tournaments outside of the Olympic Games, now play in the Olympic Qualification Tournament in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, which takes place 5-18 December. The top three teams will claim the last places available for Beijing 2022, which starts 4 February.

So how did they get here?

Stone of destiny

Great Britain won Olympic gold at the first-ever Olympic Winter Games at Chamonix 1924 – the men’s event, there was no women’s edition at the time – and it took 88 years to repeat that feat. Not only that, when it did happen, it provoked a most extraordinary reaction.

More than six million Brits stayed up past midnight to watch as Martin led her team comprising Fiona MacDonald, Margaret Morton, Janice Rankin and Debbie Knox, to the Olympic final. With an eight-hour time difference to Salt Lake City in the United States, it was quite the revelation that so many people would get up so early on a cold winter’s morning to watch curling, a sport which most had not known existed before this Olympic Games.

Eyes glued to screens fans were invested in the result as Great Britain took on Switzerland in the final. The last Olympic Winter Games gold medal won by the Brits was the famous Bolero-inspired figure skating title won back in 1984 by legendary duo Torvill and Dean. Would this event be as dramatic? Apparently so.

GB and Switzerland were tied for gold in the final end and Martin had one last stone to play. Since titled the ‘stone of destiny’, Martin slid the most excruciatingly slow stone but her pinpoint accuracy gently nudged the Swiss team’s stone away from the target, crowning GB Olympic champions by a score of 4-3.

Martin leapt in the air before landing with great agility on the ice, broom held aloft, teammates screaming and dancing and hugging their tension away. Switzerland were bereft and 4,500 miles away the UK was bouncing.

What happened next?

At the following Olympic Winter Games, at Turin 2006, the team was in flux. Martin was still skip and Knox was now the alternate but the rest of the team was new. A fifth-place was the result.

At Vancouver 2010, under new skip Eve Muirhead, the team came 7th.

By Sochi 2014, the team were back in the medals, taking home the bronze. You’ll never guess who they beat? Yes, Switzerland, who had followed up their Salt Lake City silver medal with the same result at the following Games in Turin, this time beaten by Sweden in the final. GB’s men’s side also claimed bronze in Sochi.

GB women curling win bronze Sochi 2014
Picture by 2014 Getty Images

By PyeongChang 2018, GB women had slipped back out of the medals in fourth, yet all of these results still put the team in the top seven at the last four Olympic Winter Games. So how have they even reached a point where they have one last chance to even qualify for Beijing 2022?

Qualification quandary

Ten teams can qualify for Beijing 2022 in women, men and mixed doubles, an increase of two teams from PyeongChang 2018. GB’s men and mixed doubles have already safely qualified. Jen Dodds is part of the mixed doubles team, alongside men’s skip Bruce Mouat, courtesy of the pair claiming the World Championship title in May, so she is definitely headed to Beijing, but can her GB teammates join her in the women’s event?

Most likely the answer is yes but there’s always that element of doubt when it’s a last chance scenario.

Host nation People’s Republic of China have qualified as hosts, and the six other women’s teams who have qualified via their results at the 2021 World Championship, are Switzerland – yes, them again, ROC, United States, Sweden – the reigning Olympic champions, Denmark, and Canada, the Sochi 2014 Olympic gold-medal winners. That means there are three places remaining and it is one of those spots that GB women hope to claim at this weekend’s Olympic Qualification Tournament.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, seven nations were due to earn their spots courtesy of results at the 2020 and 2021 World Championships with a qualification tournament cementing the last two teams. However, after the 2020 event was cancelled, just the 2021 results were taken into consideration and the top six nailed their places at Beijing 2022.

All nations that qualified for the World Championship in 2020 or 2021 but have not already qualified for the Olympics are eligible to compete in the Olympic Qualification Event. In addition, the top two qualifiers from a Pre-Olympic Qualification Event in Erzurum, Turkey in October – open to all other nations – enabled Turkey and Latvia to join the last-chance-saloon party.

GB women are in good form coming off the back of a European Championship win in Lillehammer, Norway in November. The men also won their event in a double first, with both sides beating Sweden, one of the favourites for Olympic titles come February.

If GB women can qualify for Beijing 2022, their side, the men’s and the mixed sides can definitely all be in with a chance of winning medals but you’ve got to be in it to win it, and right now, the women’s team aren’t in it.

Participating teams at curling Olympic Qualification Event 2021
5-18 December 2021

Leeuwarden, Netherlands

Women's teams: Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Scotland, Turkey

Men's teams: Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Netherlands, Norway

Mixed doubles: Australia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Latvia, New Zealand, Russia, Spain, Turkey, United States

The first day of curling at Beijing 2022 is Wednesday 2 February, two days before the opening ceremony on 4 February.

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