The Beijing Winter Olympics marks 20 years since the moment where more than six million people stayed up past midnight to watch four Scottish women become heroes in a sport – which until then had generated barely any publicity at all.
As the Winter Olympics rolled into Salt Lake City in 2002, it had been 18 years since Team GB had won a gold medal in any event, when Torvill and Dean lit up the ice in Sarajevo.
But on February 21, 2002, the UK became gripped by a sport which most had never seen before as curling became the new craze.
Reserve Margaret Morton, Janice Rankin, Fiona MacDonald, Debbie Knox and Rhona Howie (then Martin) made up the 2002 Winter Olympic winning curling team
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics marks 20 years since Team GB claimed gold at Salt Lake City (pictured Rhona Howie)
It was thanks to Scottish curlers Rhona Howie (then going under the surname Martin), Debbie Knox, Janice Rankin and Fiona MacDonald, who ended Team GB’s long wait by beating Switzerland to win a first gold medal since the 1984 Games.
The unlikely story of an event which saw the four women with brooms sliding a 42lb lump of granite across an ice rink and grip a nation was a sensation, as they became overnight heroes.
Flag-waving crowds gathered at Heathrow Airport to welcome them home, they appeared on television shows and were later awarded MBEs in the Queen’s 2002 Birthday Honours list.
Team GB skipper Howie releases the stone which earned them the gold medal at Salt Lake City
It was the first gold medal for Team GB at the Winter Olympics since Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean in 1984
Then prime minister Tony Blair wrote in a congratulatory fax: ‘You captured the imagination of the whole of the UK.’
There was even talk of a Hollywood movie – all for a story which at one point looked like it might not have happened.
Curling had returned to the official Olympics roster after a 78-year absence in 1998 and the four women who made up the 2002 gold-medal winning team were not without top-level experience.
They had shown their potential in 2000 when finishing fourth in the World Championships where they lost to eventual champions and hosts Canada.
Team GB’s path to gold in 2002
Team GB 10-6 Norway
Sweden 7-4 Team GB
Team GB 9-1 Japan
Russia 5-8 Team GB
Canada 9-4 Team GB
Team GB 7-4 Switzerland
Team GB 8-6 Denmark
Team GB 5-6 USA
Team GB 5-7 Germany
Sweden 4-6 Team GB
Team GB 9-5 Germany
Semi Final: Canada 5-6 Team GB
Final: Team GB 4-3 Switzerland
The team were originally assembled by Howie, and played together for years before entering the 2002 Winter Olympics as underdogs. Canada, for whom curling is a national sport backed by serious funding, was expected to win by many.
Heading into Salt Lake City, there had been serious doubt over whether Howie would be able to compete after she underwent knee surgery in 2001.
She recovered in time but her place was then again in doubt as she spent three days in hospital with a stomach complaint just a week before the Games began, with reserve and the fifth member of the team Margaret Morton on standby.
From there the path to the final was far from smooth with defeats to Sweden and Canada in the nine game round-robin group stages.
However, wins over Norway, Japan, Russia, Switzerland and Denmark meant they were well on course to make progress – requiring just one win from their final two matches.
However, when they slipped to defeats, firstly at the hands of the United States and then against Germany, they appeared to be heading for an early trip home with Martin insisting: ‘We’re out – we’re dead’ after their final group game.
She could not bear to go to the rink to watch the action with her team-mates, as she told Sportsmail in 2013: ‘At that point, I was angry and too disappointed to leave my room. I thought that was our Olympic dream over.’
More than six million viewers stayed up past midnight to watch the curling final in 2002
Team GB show off their medals after beating Switzerland 6-5 in the gold medal match
But Switzerland’s victory over Germany allowed Team GB into the play-offs, where they beat Sweden and the Germans to remarkably scrape into the semi-finals where they stunned the Canadians with an extra-end win to reach the Olympic final.
Such was the public interest that the BBC changed its schedule to ensure that the success was covered live and a television audience of nearly six million sat enthralled for almost three hours as the match remained a closely contested affair.
The drama carried over into a close final where at the end of the ninth end, the score 3-3 and an extra end was required.
The final gripped the nation to the very last agonising shot which was entrusted to Rhona who duly kept her nerve on the grand stage.
‘I had a standing joke with the other girls,’ said Martin. ‘I told them if they kept a gap of 4ft open, I’d make the shot.
Her team-mates had done just that. When she released the stone – the yellow No 4 that now resides in the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame – was met by Rankin and MacDonald, the sweepers whose job it was to clean the ice.
Howie walks off the ice celebrating with flowers and a British flag after hitting the shot which secured the gold
‘The crowd was so noisy that Janice and Fiona couldn’t hear Debbie and I screaming at them to sweep for the line I wanted,’ she said. ‘I’ll never forget Debbie jumping up and down like a frog!’
Rhona never once thought of what had been at stake. ‘If I had, I might have panicked,’ she said.
Only the next day did they realise that six million had been watching at home. ‘We had no clue as we were living in a bubble at the curling venue at Ogden, 90 minutes from Salt Lake City.’
Yet, at the medal ceremony, the size of their achievement hit home when her sporting idol, Sir Steve Redgrave, approached Rhona to congratulate her.
‘Just the fact that Sir Steve knew my name was the highlight of the Olympics!’ she said.
There success was celebrated by the nation with the five ladies including Morton, who made a brief appearance in the early stages of the competition, becoming household names overnight.
They were further honoured when they were each awarded the MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List of 2002.
Talks of receiving life-changing amounts of money and a Hollywood film came to nothing with Debbie Knox telling the Guardian in 2010: ‘We were getting excited about who could play us, reeling off names like Julia Roberts.
‘That was silly. We thought then, how on earth are they going to make a film out of curling?
Martin added: ‘We played Canada in the semis and they were so gutted we beat them. They said afterwards we’d cost them millions.
Eve Muirhead will skipper the team at the forthcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics
Muirhead (right) was part of the team that lost the bronze medal match in 2018 after claiming bronze in 2014
‘To them, money was a huge part of winning but to us it was never even a thought – we play and win a lasagne dish.
Knox added: ‘There are still people who say we should’ve made fortunes out of it but it just never came about. We knew the hype about it wouldn’t last that long.’
Team GB has yet to repeat the astonishing feat from 2002 even though they have not finished outside the top five since then.
Eve Muirhead is the current star of British curling and she was part of the quartet that took bronze in Sochi in 2014, as well as the team that lost their bronze medal match in Pyeongchang in 2018.
The 31-year-old who was part of the European Championship winning team last year has secured a spot for Team GB in 2022 for her fourth consecutive games alongside Jennifer Dodds, Vicky Wright, Hailey Duff and alternative Mili Smith.
A strong run to the final in Beijing could reignite the curling craze of 2002 as they look to match the success of the last gold medal winning team.
The 2002 gold-medal winning team
Rhona Howie – The 55-year-old was appointed as the women’s head coach of the British and Scottish curling performance squad and was part of a five strong coaching team heading into the 2014 Winter Olympics where Team GB claimed bronze. She was inducted into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame and was part of the BBC’s commentary team for curling at the 2018 Winter Olympics in a role which she will also carry out in Beijing.
Debbie Knox – The 53-year-old was part of the Turin 2006 team which narrowly missed out on a medal. She has also worked as a development coach for the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. At the Salt Lake City Games she was originally named as an alternate but ended up playing every match.
Janice Rankin – The 49-year-old was in the final shortlist of ten for the 2006 Games but failed to gain a spot on the team. Her son Jamie competed at the 2020 Youth Winter Olympic Games in the curling.
Fiona MacDonald – The 47-year-old retired from curling after her Winter Olympics success to focus on her career as an account manager with the Bank of Scotland. Broke into curling at an early age winning the World Junior Championship in 1993 aged 19.
Margaret Morton – The 53-year-old was nominated as vice-captain and scheduled to throw third in the 2002 Olympic team before she was replaced shortly before the Games began and played only briefly as an alternate.