Olympics

Muirhead’s team saved Great Britain in Beijing

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In the end, it was the curling teams who saved this Olympics for Great Britain. The teams, led by Bruce Mouat and Eve Muirhead, banished their ghosts of missed opportunity while giving the country’s winter program a much-needed boost after a turbulent fortnight in Beijing.

Great Britain had been staring down the barrel of a medal-less Games for the first time since Albertville 1992. After podium hopefuls came and went, falling short of pre-Olympics expectations, the curling team stepped up.

Team GB headed into Beijing 2022 with the target of between three and seven medals but leave with two — the women’s curling gold sitting alongside the men’s silver.

Up until that final golden weekend, it was a familiar, grinding tale of missed opportunities and tears of regret. We saw hopefuls come and fade; the tears both of personal sadness but also widespread frustration a product of a Games which wasn’t clicking for Great Britain.

The ski and snowboard team hoped for big things but went home empty-handed. Charlotte Bankes was a gold medal favorite in the snowboard cross but exited in the quarterfinal stages, while other hopes in ski and snowboard like Dave Ryding, Katie Ormerod and Kirsty Muir also finished outside of the medal places. Their attempts finished with Zoe Atkin losing her ski twice in her three runs in the women’s halfpipe final as she came in ninth. And given GB’s Ski and Snowboard program received £9.5m of the £22,846m UK Sport funding over the last quadrennial cycle, there will likely be a brutal post-mortem into where this Olympics fell apart.

The same goes for skeleton where despite having the second-largest pot of funding –£6.425m — the athletes Laura Deas, Brogan Crowley, Matt Weston and Marcus Wyatt were all left with low finishes. At Pyeongchang, Britain won gold and bronze in the women’s skeleton; they went home with nothing from Beijing lamenting the equipment as they continually lost time as the runs progressed despite promising starts. Deas’ father Ewen said « British skeleton have an awful lot of thinking to do », saying their speed was « being haemorrhaged by the kit ». His daughter, Laura who took bronze four years ago, was left « gutted ».

There were factors out of their control, with the athletes spending the best part of 18 months off the snow and ice due to the pandemic. This robbed them of essential preparation time and saw them adopt fresh methods to maintain their Olympics hopes, like bobsledder Mica McNeill who built a makeshift track in her back garden. They had to seek private sponsorship to reach the Games given they received just £120,000 in funding over the last four years, thanks in part to the Beijing Support Fund — a late injection of £200,000 from UK Sport into winter sports outside of traditional funding . The duo finished 13th overall in the two-woman bobsleigh, as Montell Douglas created her own slice of sporting history to become the first British woman to compete at both a summer and winter Olympics Games.

For the men’s four, they finished sixth having self-funded their journey to Beijing and that return felt like they were on the podium. « I really hope UK Sport take a long, hard look at us, » said Nick Gleeson, part of both the two and four-man team. « We’ve beaten a whole host of nations with a significantly bigger budget. And we’ve done the last three years on a personal budget that is less than 10% of what these guys spend in a year. »

The funding cycle always seeks to strike a tricky balance between encouraging greater participation in a sport (tough when it’s a niche sport like skeleton) and success. UK Sport plans to diversify the funding over the next four years ahead of Milano Cortina 2026. « It’s a real desire to make sure we’re not too narrowly focused on one sport or discipline, create as broad a spread as possible and reach as many athletes as we can, » UK Sport chair Dame Katherine Grainger said. « We want to feel like we can help smaller projects and innovate individual athletes with bespoke and specific things.

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« This is the exciting thing and one of our biggest areas of growth — we want people to get hooked on them every few years and for them to become part of our sporting family. Winter sports have this exciting, edgy and different feel — the more we see means more people will want to have a go themselves. »

Curling is efficiently played north of the border in Scotland with 22 rinks there, compared to three full-time rinks in England, while the sole curling rink in Wales has been temporarily transformed into a vaccination centre.

The men’s silver medal and the women’s gold is a solid return on their £5.257m funding. Due to the scheduling, the men were always one day ahead of the women’s team. Mouat and his team of Hammy McMillan Jr, Grant Hardie and Bobby Lammie were ruthless throughout at Beijing, winning eight of their nine round-robin matches and then defeating the US in the semifinals 8-4.

The women’s team got through by the narrowest of margins — having won five of their nine round-robin games. And just a day after the men booked their spot in the final, Muirhead’s rink of Vicky Wright, Jennifer Dodds, Hailey Duff and alternate Mili Smith won their semifinal, having come back from four down in the first end to defeat Sweden 12-11. « I think that just sums this team up, » Dodds said. « Even if we are down, we are fighters and I think we’ve just proven that throughout this whole competition. » For Muirhead, it was third-time lucky after she lost at the semifinal stage at both Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018 but her moment of exorcism was to wait.

Both their triumphs meant the weight of the medal wait had eased: Britain would be heading home with two.

The men were first up on Saturday morning — a more reasonable 0650 GMT start time compared to Muirhead’s 0105 GMT. In an epic final, Mouat’s team eventually lost out 5-4 to Sweden. There were tears, the interviews quiet but eventually the weight and joy of an Olympics silver medal broke through the immediate disappointment. Mouat said: « While we, as a team, didn’t get the color of medal we wanted, that apart I don’t think I could have taken more from this first Olympic experience, having been involved in competition from two days before the Opening ceremony and all the way through to the final weekend, while winning Team GB’s first medal on the way. »

But they saved their greatest Beijing moment for last. Muirhead, 31, had her near misses weighing on her shoulders. She was a 19-year-old skipper back at 2010 Vancouver and then won bronze at Sochi 2014. Those ghosts of PyeongChang were everywhere for Muirhead, though, as she missed a final stone to see bronze slip away against — of all teams – -Japan.

So when Japan were up on Sunday as the last hurdle between Muirhead and the gold she so wanted, she was never going to let this opportunity slip. When Japan conceded the match in the ninth, with Great Britain 10-3 up, Muirhead let out the roar of delight, relief and exoneration of her own guilt from four year’s back. « In Pyeongchang coming fourth was incredibly tough. It took me a long time to get over that and like even now I still think of that shot. Hopefully, it will be out of my mind now. »

Mouat leads Britain into the closing ceremony. Muirhead and her team will celebrate this triumph and Great Britain’s bosses will breathe a sigh of relief. There is plenty to pick through and work out where some of their favorites fell short, but they can rejoice in their two curling teams who saved Britain at Beijing 2022.

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