SOCHI, Russia Feb 17 (Reuters) - China's men's curlers swept into the semi-finals of the Olympic curling competition on Monday poised to emerge as the sport's new power.
With only five curling rinks and approximately 300 registered curlers in the world's most populous nation, curling is such a fringe sport in China that even their Canadian coach knows very little about the game's past or future there.
All Marcel Rocque is concerned about is the now.
"My sole focus has been this (Olympics)," Rocque, a three-time world champion for Canada, told Reuters. "I am not sure how it works in China.
"I can honestly say I have no idea. I'm really not even sure how many curling clubs there are."
China joined the World Curling Federation in 2002 and 12 years later is in position to win a gold medal at the Sochi Winter Games.
In less than a decade, China's women's team had been crowned world champions in 2009 and a year later climbed onto the Olympic podium for the first time taking a bronze at the Vancouver Winter Games.
In Sochi, it is the men's turn to make an impact, Liu Rui's foursome reeling off four straight wins to start the competition then closing out the round-robin with a nervy final rock victory over Britain to clinch a semi-final spot.
The Chinese women saw their bid for a return to the final four fall just short on Monday with a 10-6 loss to Switzerland.
"It's a different model from everything else that is being done around world just now," said British skip David Murdoch. "They put all their money into one team and those guys have just been playing in Canada week in and week out on the world tour learning the trade.
"That's what you've got to do if you want to be good and you can see that they are technically excellent."
China has long tapped into Canadian expertise, hiring coaches and basing teams briefly in the world's curling capital.
Already technically sound, Rocque was brought onboard last July to add some much needed tactical savvy and it has paid dividends with the men reaching the final four at an Olympics for the first time.
"They are still a young team but they play professionally so they train like 8-to-10 hours a day. It's hard to keep up with," said Norway curler Christoffer Svae.
"They have been good technically, good shooters, for four or five years and now they have some Canadian coaching help so now they are starting to get a grip of the game tactically.
"They are coming fast and it's just a matter of time before they get a medal. It could happen here."
Certainly China is counting on many curling podiums in the future.
The sport will receive another major boost in China next month when Beijing hosts the men's world championships.
The country is also in the process of creating what amounts to a curling pipeline.
Chinese curling teams have traditionally come from Harbin in the north-east of China where there is a four-sheet dedicated curling facility.
But a new rink opened recently in Yichun, Heilongjiang and there are plans to put 100,000 school children through a curling programme.
"I told them I might be giving you some of Canada's secrets but I'm definitely a student and I am learning some stuff from them as well," said Rocque. "I may have made them stronger but what I bring back will make us (Canada) stronger also." (Editing by Mark Meadows)