Estonian Curling ensuring their country is “an attractive place to curl”

  • Estonia competing in 2017 Europeans © WCF / Céline Stucki

Estonia’s relationship with curling is an unorthodox one. A nation that joined the World Curling Federation as an associate member only 15 years ago, Estonia had a relatively successful start in the sport, coming close to the play-offs in the European Curling Championships B-Division for both the women and men in 2005.

A lull period ensued before results picked up at the Europeans. In 2012, the women’s team made the play-offs, but were unsuccessful in being promoted to the A-Division. However, they succeeded the following year, taking a silver medal in the process.

Although an underdog nation, they pulled off a display to finish eighth in the division, ensuring a second season in the top flight of European curling. It would only be a second season though – in 2015, the women were relegated back to B-Division while the men were relegated to the C-Division.

However, the women in particular have been impressive recently, showing form that could see them return to the top flight - winning bronze at last year’s Europeans [pictured below, © WCF / Céline Stucki]

So, ahead of them hosting the Le Gruyère AOP European Curling Championships 2018 next week, why is Estonia’s curling story ‘unorthodox’?

They love to host a curling championship, despite being a relatively small curling nation.

Having never qualified for a senior World Curling Championship and making the top division of European curling for a total of two years, this will make Estonia the second nation to host the European Curling Championships while being absent from the top A-Division, the first being Bulgaria in 2004. Yet, that statistic isn’t a concern for the native curling fans.

“The European zone is very competitive, and it takes time to rise to that level,” said Rainer Vakra [pictured below, © Kristian Jarv], the current President of the Estonian Curling Association and member of the Estonian Parliament.
“If we compare the nations from the A-Division in 2004 and 2016, there were no changes among the women’s teams, and among the men’s teams only two countries were not present in 2016 —Wales and France.

“It shows that new countries, including Estonia, find it hard to compete with the countries that have a long curling tradition. There are exceptions, but often new countries instead have short-term success with some project-based teams rather than long-term success with different teams.”

Despite their low-key displays in the last couple of years, Estonia has already impressed as a host on the world stage. Three years ago, the capital Tallinn hosted the World Junior Curling Championships [pictured below, © WCF / Richard Gray].

It was the first major tournament held there, yet it went so well that talks led to the eventual selection of Tallinn for this year’s European Curling Championships. The World Curling Federation President, Kate Caithness met with the then Minister of Culture in the Estonian government who spoke about the possibilities of hosting another major event. And, on the country’s 100th birthday, the World Curling Federation gave Tallinn that wonderful present. Rainer believes that the city is a gift back to the spectators.
“Everything is close by here,” he said, “The two divisions will be under one roof. The closing banquet will be held at the fantastic Seaplane Harbour, one of the most visited tourist spots after the Old Town.”

It will also be the first time in the history of the Europeans that the B-Division will be broadcasted on national television. Event organiser for Curling Tallinn and the European Curling Championships, Juuli Liit believes that this will be one of the major contributing factors to promoting the sport, “A significant reason to host this is to raise awareness of the sport internally,” she said.

“Tournaments and other international events give us the possibility to introduce curling to the Estonian Olympic Committee, city of Tallinn, Ministry of Culture, media, sponsors, companies, and for Estonians in general.

“At the same time, we promote the city and Estonia to our guests. It is very difficult to find reasons not to organise competitions.”

Yet, Juuli sees the hosting as one of many ways of promoting the sport in the country, “There are other areas we work on as well: curling in schools, company events, different camps, open-house days etcetera,” she said, “Of course, watching on TV is the most effective way as we will see this year.”

Rainer has a lot of praise of the work done by Curling Tallinn too who credits their work in development, “This team wants to take on new challenges, and hosting events also helps to promote curling and attract the local curling club.”

The strong ambitions have been assisted by investment in facilities. In 2014, a new ice facility was built in the city, which will be used for the championships. With the success of the World Junior Championships, it built the reputation of Tallinn as a hosting city.

“It was a positive response,” said Juuli, “That is why we have the same supporters again helping us with the ECC 2018.”

“Thanks to the organisation of the World Juniors at home, Estonia was awarded a place in the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer.”

“To give an example, before the World Juniors, Estonia had been visited by only one curling team from Switzerland over the course of a decade, then during the 2017-2018 season a total of 13 teams came from Switzerland to take part in our tournaments as well as guests from the United States, Canada and Scotland.”

Curling has raised its profile and the country is becoming an attractive place to curl too. Three years ago, the country proved to be as great a host as the Great Gatsby. But where Gatsby met his demise, Estonian curling looks to only improve on the encouraging foundations they’ve built so far. Both Rainer and Juuli are optimistic about the future and the success of the upcoming tournament.

“We, together with the organising team, think there are only positive sides of organising events of this scale,” said Rainer, “We promote Estonia, we promote Tallinn, we promote the arena, we promote curling in Estonia.”

“If people ask us why we organise these events we like to reply, why not?”

To engage with the World Curling Federation on social media in the build the Le Gruyère AOP European Curling Championships 2018 follow it on Twitter, Instagram (@WorldCurling) and Facebook (/WorldCurlingFederation) and use the hashtags when posting: #ECC2018 #curling

by feature writer, Michael Houston