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Curling in the Middle East

If you are a regular reader of this blog you’ll know my sporting passion is curling. It’s a wonderful game, one of skill, mental agility, physical effort, and above all else socialising and friendship. The only drawback is that it wasn’t played in the Middle East. Until last Saturday that was.

I am of the firm belief that if you want to do something right, you have to do it yourself. So, last autumn I decided to do serious research into seeing if it was possible to get curling established in Saudi Arabia. I contacted the World Curling Federation who confirmed that they had never had any contact with, or approaches with any aspiring curlers in KSA. So this was virgin territory; there are no ice rinks of any decent size in Riyadh, and certainly no curling stones here.

The WCF let me know that they would be delighted to have KSA enrolled as a curling nation, but that it was up to the country to approach them, rather than the other way around. Once admitted to the ranks of the WCF, development funding would be available. “All” we needed was evidence of curling happening in Saudi, and endorsement from the KSA National Olympic Committee that they were administering the sport in accordance with Olympic standards.

I also did some research on how much it would cost to buy a set of stones, brushes, sliders, hacks, a measure, ice pebbler, etc: in effect a starter kit. The best I could find was in the region of US$8,000 plus transport (not insignificant) and 5% import tax too. Renting was not an option.

Next on the shopping list was finding ice. From further research there is a private skating rink in Al Khobar near Dammam (430km away), one in a mall in Ta’if (900 km), and another in a mall in Jeddah (1,000km). Nothing of decent size in Riyadh, the only possibilities were baby-sized skating rinks in a couple of shopping malls. Once I had explained to the owners why I was eyeing up their facilities and pacing out their sizes, they were happy to talk to the crazy-white-man-who-wanted-to-rent-their-ice-to-throw-stones-at-other-white-people. Having measured the ice pads, I reckoned that it might be possible to get single-ended or short length curling squeezed in. Certainly, the quality of the ice would be so poor that there would be no way a beginner could get a stone the full length, so that was a possibility.

I managed to track down - through a friend of a friend - a man who was an advisor at the Olympics Committee, and met with him. In a nutshell, he assured me that there was no way the NOC would support curling (even though it is an Olympic sport). They had had a review of objectives after the 2016 Rio Olympics (11 athletes, 0 medals, none qualified further than the initial round except the 100m man who had a bye to the second heat), and had decided to allocate sports funding to mass-participation sports to improve the health of the nation’s youth, and some spot funding for a couple of Olympic athletes. Whilst this was laudable in its approach it wasn’t helpful for curling. I asked him what sort of chance he gave me of getting curling started and he said 2% - if I was lucky.

There are other cultural issues to be tackled, such as restrictions on men and women mixing in society, restrictive dress codes for women, restrictions on forming clubs and having bank accounts. And those are only the ones I knew about, scratch the surface of any aspect of Saudi life and there are so many other things that stack up against enterprise and initiative. So, time to reflect on options, I must admit the chat with the Olympics advisor depressed me for a while. But 2% is better than 0%, and I felt that I must at least go as far as I could, If I didn’t try, I would never find out, and in future years I would regret that.

I am a member of the Caledonian Society in Riyadh, and attended their AGM at the British Embassy in November. There I asked the Chair if I could address the members present about curling and he agreed, giving me two minutes. I explained curling in a nutshell, laying it on thick about being a Scottish sport, and a rough outline of trying to start it as a grass-roots sport in Riyadh. I then asked for a show of hands of anyone who might be interested in further details, without obligation. Seven of the 40+ present stuck a hand up, so I took their details after the meeting. I circulated some thoughts to them afterwards, and received mostly positive responses. One lady was also a member of the Canadian Society, and through her I was able to reach their members.

In order to get interest, it had to be more than a notion, we needed to get some curling action. The nearest set of stones is in Qatar – 600 km away, and the next nearest is thought to be in Erzurum, Turkey, a mere 2,500 km away. The only problem with the Qataris is that have never played a game at home, and their experience is limited to appearances at the World Mixed Doubles in Karlstad, Sweden in 2016, and mens’ and ladies’ teams at the Pacific-Asia championships in Korea 2016. Their Doha stones are used only for coaching and training.

I contacted the Qatari curlers. Fortunately I had met their coach Lajos, a Hungarian, at an international competition before, so I emailed to him and said, if I can raise a team, would they accept a challenge match. Lajos said he would contact his organising committee, and after some correspondence confirmed that they could host us on Saturday 28th January. I asked him to reserve the date, and immediately asked the secretaries of the Caledonian and Canadian societies to circulate details of a meeting, and a possible match in Qatar to their members.

I fixed a meeting date at a restaurant in the Diplomatic Quarter of Riyadh, and ten people showed up. I had advertised this as a planning meeting for the Qatar trip, and also as a possible formation meeting for a Curling Association. We discussed the possibility of establishing curling, and the concensus was to form an Association. I had pre-prepared for this by drafting a Constitution, based loosely on that of the Irish Curling Association, as they operate as a national association rather than a club-based organisation such as Scotland’s RCCC. I had been able to draw on the experience of ICA’s John Burns, and the WCF had provided some useful tips too when I had asked them to review it. So, on the 10th January, the Saudi Arabian Curling Association was born, with yours truly as president and interim secretary, and a Saudi national (who had lived in Canada for some years) as treasurer.

We (SACA) approved the match against Qatar, and we spread word, asking for expressions of interest. Over 20 people responded, and of these 12 including myself committed to book flights, hotels and participate. We confirmed to the Qataris that we could raise teams and they confirmed the ice times, offering two sessions at 15.00 and 17.00 and two lanes therefore four games. As we has 12 players they Qataris suggested playing two 4v4 games followed by two mixed doubles games.

So, we organised a travelling party of 4 Scots, 1 English, 2 Irish, 1 French, 1 Canadian, 1 USA and 2 real, genuine Saudis. Flights and hotels were booked individually as many of us opted to make a full weekend out of the event, only one person opting to fly in and out the same day. Of the 12, only two were experienced curlers – myself and the Canadian, and two others had tried it once. One of these, the US guy had curled outdoors in Antartica with the US Forces – there’s surely a great story there!

I flew out on the Thursday evening and was picked up at the airport by Lajos, who also took two other members of our party to our hotel. Over a meal, he explained that he had spent the last 3 nights preparing the ice and painting the circles. He still had more to do in preparation so we offered to help him. He took us to the ice rink which is an ice hockey sized rink in the middle of the Villagio shopping mall. He had one set of stones stored near the ice pad in the Zamboni garage under scrap ice, but the second set had never been used and were in a storage cupboard 100m away. We got a trolley and brought the stones over, along with the Ice King cutter and blade. The new stones were added to the pile and covered over with ice to give them a chance to cool down before use (warm stones will melt the ice and freeze in).

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Stones cooling in the scrap ice pile

On Friday I did some touristy things in Doha and took in the Museum of Islamic Art (good, and spiced up with a temporary exhibition of the life of Mohammed Ali and when he went to Qatar for a boxing exhibition match). Later I went for a wander around the old souk, a fine eclectic marketplace selling everything imaginable. Fascinating. In the evening we had arranged a social meet-up in a restaurant that served alcohol (always check these things out when on the Arabian peninsula) and most of the tour party rendezvoused there. Some of us met for the first time and we had a grand evening.

Next day Lajos picked us 3 up at the hotel and we went to the ice rink for 12.00. Lajos wasn’t going to get access to the ice until 14.15, and he estimated it would take him 45 minutes to prepare the ice. But before that there was plenty to do, including digging out the stones and drying them, and bolting on handles to the 16 new ones. We also got out brushes, sliders, hacks, the measure (which also had to be constructed). Some Qataris turned up and set to work constructing a second scoreboard, modelled on one created by Lajos (both formed by whiteboards and coloured tape). Once the skaters cleared and the Zamboni went round, Lajos installed two hacks and pebbled an area for us to do some tuition and then he set to preparing the match surface. During the preparation period we agreed to change the format to have all matches as standard 4-a-side. 

The rest of our teams arrived, and I issued the team t-shirts, and Steve the Canadian and I gave folks about 30 minutes basic tuition, enough to let them know the safety basics and how to use the hack to throw the stones. Prior to the trip, I had circulated some videos available on YouTube about curling basics, so at least our novices knew something about the game.

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11 of the 12 Saudis pause during practice

Finally the moment arrived, and the Qatari President and I exchanged cordial greetings and coins were tossed and we were off. The first game was 6 ends and my team drew 5-5, and Steve lost 2-3. We swapped players around to give everyone an opportunity to play, and after a break for prayers (another curling first?) we swapped opposition and set off again. We ran out of time midway through the 5th end and had to vacate the ice mid-end. At that point my team was losing 2-6 and Steve was 0-5 down. So overall Qatar won 19-9 on points. With 8 novices in our ranks, I was incredibly pleased how well we had done. But most importantly we had pushed back the frontiers of the sport, introduced it to another country, made new friends and had a great time.

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After the first game

I had prepared certificates of participation for all the players on both teams, and we gave a framed certificate to the Qatar Curling Federation. In return they presented SACA with a small trophy commemorating the very first curling match in the Middle East. After the match, the Qataris invited us for the traditional “broom-stacking” which turned out to be a meal, at their expense, at a local restaurant. There being no alcohol available we were unable to reciprocate in the time-honoured way. At the meal, I found out that one of the teams that had played for Qatar was formed of four brothers of Yemeni descent. With our team resembling the United Nations, we could hardly complain about ringers being drafted in!

All too soon it was time to head back to the airport and Lajos again drove me there. We parted after promising each other that we would repeat the experience. And most of our Saudi players have also asked when the next event will be. That in itself made the whole event worthwhile.

But now the difficult work begins. We have to meet both the Saudi National Olympic Committee, and the General Sports Authority for permission to form a sporting club, and gain approval to start a website. The Ministry of Trading needs to be approached to give permission to open a bank account. All of this has to be achieved if SACA is to even apply to get membership of the WCF and access to development funding. And of course we need to raise money to buy stones etc, and import them, in order to get “come and try” curling started at one of the baby rinks, aimed at ntive Saudis and ex-pats alike. On the more positive side, there is a new mall beng planned in the north of Riyadh, projected opening date late 2018, and we have heard it will have a full-sized skating rink. If we can get to meet the developers, we can try and influence them to design in provision for curling, or at least include passive provision.

I would like to give Lajos and the Qatar Curling Federation grateful thanks for all the effort they made to make the day so successful. They have offered all possible help as SACA goes forward.

I think that will keep me well occupied for the foreseeable future. Just as well I have had my contract here extended to a second year.

Contacting us is straightforward

* Email: info@afyferail.uk

* Call Alastair Fyfe directly on 07785 370074 (UK) or +966 570754128