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Curling in China: The World Championships head to a new frontier. Will the hosts be ready?

Chinese Skip Liu Rui might be feeling some pressure over the next year or so. (CP)

The women have been to Japan and Korea.

Now the top men's curlers in the world will try to best one another for the first time ever, at a World Championship in China. A Canadian curling hall of famer says you can bet that the host nation's team will be up to snuff by then.

“You’re exactly right," replied Russ Howard, when asked if Chinese officials will press for their men's curlers to respond on home ice. "There’s a hell of a chance that this time next year they’re going to be in the playoffs, in the top three or four."

In a move that they say heralds the continued growth of the game in what not so long ago was considered a "non-market," the World Curling Federation (WCF) has announced that the 2014 Men's World Championships will be held in Beijing.

Speaking in Perth, Scotland, WCF President Kate Caithness indicated that after ten years of growth for the sport in China, the time is right:

"In the last decade we have witnessed a surge in growth of curling in the region. Following on from the World Women’s Curling Championships in Japan in 2007 and Korea in 2009, China will now host the top twelve men’s teams in the world and we look forward to working with our partners and sponsors to stage a first class show for the world to enjoy.”

"I was a little surprised when I saw the announcement today," offered Mike Harris. "The WCF had traditionally placed the worlds in places where they want to see growth immediately following Olympic Games, however, so at least they are following suit. Growth in China would be great for the game!"

Caithness is right to be excited about one of the sport's crown jewel events being held in one of the world's most prominent cities. If the momentum the sport usually gets coming off an Olympics (the Sochi Games will be held just weeks before the Men's Worlds) is present, Beijing might welcome the event with open and eager arms. Doubly so if either of China's men's or women's teams grab a podium spot at the Olympics.

That, of course, is not a given. Ten teams will compete in the Olympics on both the men's and women's sides. Russia automatically gets a berth in each, leaving nine to be contested for leading up to Sochi.

Combining results from the 2012 and 2013 World Curling Championships, the top seven teams get Olympic berths. The last two spots will be up for grabs at a competition next December.

Right now, China stands sixth in the men's standings, the women are a dismal eleventh. However, a big showing in this spring's Worlds would catapult them right back into the thick of Olympic qualifying.

That's not a long shot for the women, based on recent history. Wang Bingyu may have slipped to an eleventh-place finish at the 2012 Worlds, but she scored a bronze medal at the 2010 Olympics and a gold medal at the 2009 World Championships, in South Korea.

The Chinese men have seen a bumpier road to prosperity. Their best finish at a world championship was fourth, in 2008. Last year, in Switzerland, Liu Rui skipped his team to a sixth-place finish. At the Vancouver Games, he skipped China to ninth. It's true that Liu took his team to gold at the Pacific-Asia Curling Championship last autumn, but that is a far cry from snatching a medal at The Worlds.

“I’ve played him 5 or 6 times," said Howard, of Liu. "Good team. They’re not at quite the level of Kevin Martin and Glenn (Howard) and (Jeff) Stoughton but they’re in that next tier. If they went to the Canadian men’s championship they’d probably end up in the middle of it. They’re good, but they’re not elite yet. They’re improving every time you play them."

"They treat it as a professional sport," continued Howard. "They’re training 24/7.”

Harris notes that in order for the Chinese men to reach elite status, they need more than just technical excellence.

"The Chinese men haven't had the same success as the women," he wrote in an email. "I think the biggest difference is that in the men's game, talent alone will not win you games. They have had moderate success as they are technically very very sound. But under pressure, in tight situations, teams that communicate and think alike and don't make small mental errors tend to rise to the top. This is not something you can practice. But they will continue to get better."

What is utterly certain is this: Like any host nation, China will do its utmost to ensure it performs as well as humanly possible at The Worlds in 2014. With gigantic resources and the will of a totalitarian government bent on making sure its representatives are successful, you can bet on a major, pressure-filled push when it comes to its men's curlers in the coming year.

As for the spectacle of the championship being held in Beijing? Harris, an Olympic silver medallist at the 1998 Nagano Games, figures it'll be a spectacle.

"I think the players will really enjoy themselves. I'd love to go watch that event!!"

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