Winter Olympics: surreal turns into the familiar for British curlers in Beijing

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Beijing Games 2022! Let me hear your voice!” And so to the Ice Cube for the mixed curling for an intriguing first day of action at these XXIV Winter Olympics. Before the opening stone was cast, a Chinese military band of bagpipers dressed in kilts blasted out Scotland the Brave, while a dancing panda mascot pulled shapes. But the surreal soon turned into the reassuringly familiar as the British gold-medal favourites, Bruce Mouat and Jennifer Dodds, secured an opening night victory over Sweden.

Unlike at the Tokyo Summer Games last year, a select band of around 200 spectators were also on hand to watch this most slow-burning of sports – although whether the crowd was quietly enthralled, or merely bored, was unclear until they exploded into sustained cheers after China won a sudden-death match over Switzerland.

Don’t be surprised if a similar switch gets flicked in Britain over the coming fortnight, just as it did when Rhona Martin inspired Team GB’s women to curling gold in Salt Lake City 20 years ago. Britain’s men and mixed doubles teams are world champions, and the women recently won the European title. True, it is early days. But there is a notable confidence that a three-pronged attack on the medal table is not out of the question.

“We will be trying to improve on that but it is a great start,” Mouat said, after a match that was not nearly as comfortable as the 9-5 scoreline suggests. “We know Sweden will be at the top of the table at the end of the week so we are really chuffed with how we played.”

Mouat also conceded that hearing the bagpipers put a spring in his step, adding: “We saw them outside the venue a couple of days ago so we knew they were here and were excited. They did not disappoint.”

The Beijing military pipe band play before the mixed curling on the first day of the 2022 Games. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

Meanwhile Dodds believes the friendship between the pair could make all the difference when the mixed doubles gets down to the business end next week. “We’ve known each other since we were 10,” she said. “The fact that we’re friends from way back and the dynamic that we have has helped us. We’re not getting at each other’s throats if we’re down in a game; we’re being positive and trying to get each other’s momentum going.”

These Games do not officially kick off until Friday’s opening ceremony, but after a week dominated by criticism from human rights groups and rising Covid cases inside the Olympic bubble, with 11 people now hospitalised, organisers will be relieved that some of the world’s focus can now be diverted towards the field of play.

That message was conveyed by the front page of the China Daily’s Winter Olympics supplement. Its headline? “Gold Vision: How President Xi’s leadership is delivering ‘fantastic, extraordinary and excellent’ Winter Games’.

“Beijing’s vision of hosting a sustainable Winter Olympics is materialising in a big way, with the Games’ venues and projects primed to benefit local communities and the economy far beyond the closing ceremony,” was the message.

The official mouth organ for the Chinese government also hailed the three curling tournaments – which are all 10-team round-robin events, leading to a semi-final and final – and the fact the games are being staged at the same venue where Michael Phelps won a record eight Olympic gold medals.

Incredibly after a feat of engineering worthy of Brunel, what was nicknamed the Water Cube in 2008 has temporarily become the Ice Cube.

Bruce Mouat and Jennifer Dodds embrace after their close victory over Sweden at the Ice Cube. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The work has required organisers to completely drain the 50m pool before complex scaffolding and mounting plates went in, and an insulating and waterproof layer were put down. Finally a removable ice making system was installed and the ice was sculptured and sprayed. And, just like that, a 10-lane Olympic swimming pool became a four-sheet curling rink.

“To be in the same arena as all those amazing athletes before such as Phelps and Rebecca Adlington means a lot to us,” Mouat said. “Hopefully we can keep it going.”

A range of sensors in the building are designed to monitor the temperature of the ice and facility. But there were some understandable teething issues, with the British team struggling to read the ice as it slowed during the course of their match.

“Both teams noticed around the fifth it was just starting to slow a wee bit and then we just had to play that bit heavier,” Dodds explained. That may have been a factor in a patchy performance that was only settled on the final end. With Team GB 8-5 up, Sweden had an easy shot to take the match to sudden death only for Sweden’s Almida de Val to miss a sitter.

“We expect them to make most of their shots and this time we were fortunate it went our way,” Dodds said. “We set up a good end and I just missed one with my last. We can build on it.”

While Britain, the USA and many western countries have announced they will stage a diplomatic boycott of the Games, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin is coming to Beijing, and Saudi Arabia leader Mohammed bin Salman and Pakistan’s Imran Khan are expected to attend the opening ceremony. Putin and Xi are also expected to sign a deal to increase capacity of the Power of Siberia, a 2,485-mile pipeline that transfers gas from eastern Russia to China.

That is another sign that sport and politics are intertwined – and Putin, of course, will watch Russia’s athletes competing in their third consecutive Olympics without their flag and national anthem.