What do bowls players make of curling, and do they envy its popularity?
Curling and bowls share many similarities, so why does the sport dubbed “bowls on ice” seem to capture the imagination more than its warmer counterpart?
For such a niche sport it’s perhaps surprising to note that 5.7 million people tuned in to watch Great Britain’s women claim curling gold at Salt Lake City in 2002. A silver for the men and a bronze for the women were added at the 2014 Games in Sochi.
England and Scotland have won their share of bowls medals at Commonwealth Games too, but it rarely grabs the attention like curling – what does the sport of bowls make of that?
What does curling have that bowls doesn’t?
Alistair Hollis is Bowls England’s operational services manager and played internationally at junior level. He believes curling’s allure comes from what goes on around each shot.
“There’s some dead time in bowls between the bowl being delivered and it reaching its final resting place,” said Hollis. “In curling, the action continues from the moment the stone is released, to watching them do the brushing and sweeping, to the moment it finishes.
“Everybody seems to get interested in the brushing and the shouting.”
Paul Brown is chairman of Disability Bowls England and won bronze at Glasgow 2014 in the lawn bowls para-triples. He suggested curling’s popularity had something to do with the competitive nature of the game.
“In bowls if you win the end you get the jack in the next end, so you can build up an advantage,” he said. “In the curling you always need to try and win when the other team’s got the hammer, so the scores are always pretty tight and it is quite exciting to watch because of that.”
Meanwhile Robert Paxton, a top-10 ranked player and member of England’s team heading to the Commonwealth Games in April, said curling’s popularity is all to do with the precedent set by a group of Scottish ladies in 2002.
“The only time you see it really is during the Winter Olympics,” he said. “There’s an awful lot of press because of when Great Britain won gold all those years ago. The press always goes back to that.”
What do they make of the comparisons?
“There are similarities,” said Paxton. “Obviously a lot of people call it bowls on ice. You do play fours and nearest to the target, and it’s the same sort of scoring system as it is in bowls. However, it is a completely different sport in terms of tactics.”
That’s something Brown, who has played both bowls and curling, agreed with.
“They’re both very fun and very exciting,” he said. “I suppose the difference is that in bowling I’m drawing more (laying the bowl up to the jack), and in curling you’re playing shots more aggressively, using stones to come off stones.”
Hollis agreed that while there are similarities, the tactics involved in aiming for a stationary target and a moving one are key.
“I think in bowls and curling there is that element where it’s about being able to execute your own shot while at the same time judge what your opponent is likely to do,” he said.
“I think the major difference between the two is that while in bowls the target (the jack) can move, the curling target always stays in the same place.”
Would bowls achieve similar popularity with an Olympic berth?
While curling is a part of the Winter Olympic programme, bowls has no such place at the summer Games. Bowls gets its moment in the spotlight at the Commonwealth Games, but would an Olympic berth propel it to stardom?
“I’d say yes, it probably would benefit just because I’ve seen the profile that can come from the Commonwealth Games,” Brown said. “I think it would definitely have a significant impact on the sport.”
Meanwhile, Hollis had high hopes for what the Commonwealth Games might do for his sport, regardless of a lack of an Olympic place.
“The Olympics would be the pinnacle, but the Commonwealth Games is our Olympics so we’ll be hoping that when the it comes around we will get something of the coverage that curling is getting now, and likewise that will have a good effect for our clubs when the new season starts in April.”
But what do the players think? Would a gold medal won by Paxton at an Olympics inspire at the same level curling has done?
“Yeah, definitely,” said Paxton. “That’s what everyone hopes, to get into the Olympics. Bowls is getting close but whether it ever will get there I don’t know.”
Do they envy curling its moment in the sun?
“Definitely not,” said Brown, who mentioned that he’s been taking a keen interest in events on the ice this year. “We were at a training session over the weekend and over breakfast we turned on and watched how Team GB were getting on.”
Meanwhile, Paxton and Hollis seemed to agree that there was no reason to begrudge their winter cousins their moment in the sun.
“I wouldn’t say there’s any jealousy there,” said Paxton. “It’s good for any sport if you can get a spike and build on it to get new members and players to compete.”
Hollis added: “You have to respect the fact that this is the one opportunity every four years for curling to raise its profile as a sport, so you say good luck to them.
“I think it’s a positive for us because we often hear it referred to as bowls on ice, so if nothing else the sport is getting a mention.”