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Curling Rocks

This column was written by Alex Massie.


The ski-jumping is spectacular, and prodigiously foolish. The skeleton bobsledding is remarkable and unnerving in equal measure. The biathlon has produced some gripping racing. The speed skating is oddly beautiful and strangely soothing. All have their charms. But none of them is the sport for me. Give me the thinking person's Olympic sport. Give me "the roaring game." Give me curling.

I could watch it all day. In fact, I am watching it all day. Three hours of live curling in the morning; a break for lunch and a light nap, then, at 5 P.M., it's back to taped coverage from Pinerolo. I could live like this for weeks at a time, toggling between the USA Network and CNBC. So it may be good, though still regrettable, that the curling ends soon.

We — my fellow addicts and I (and there are more of us than you may think) — are past the preliminaries now. Sadly that means the lovable Johnson sisters, Cassie and Jamie, a.k.a. "The Curl Girls," are on their way back to Bemidji, Minnesota, the ice-cool epicenter of American curling. The cuter than cute Japanese women, who slid around with great enthusiasm and no small measure of skill, are also, alas, going home. But the straightforward American men's team, led by another Bemidji (population 12,758) resident and pizzeria owner, Pete Fenson, faces the mighty Canadians in Wednesday's semifinal for the right to play Finland or Great Britain in the final. Rock on, boys.

It's easy to mock or snipe at curling. It's played by men with brooms for one thing. It's very popular in Canada for another. But any sport that requires you to root against our friends from the Great White North demands respect. On the curling rink, Canada and the United States swap places. The Canadians are the sport's brash superpower, the curling colossus; the Americans are the polite, plucky underdogs forced to live in their neighbors' shadow. (They are also, presumably, the only Americans ever mistaken for Canadians when overseas.)

Curling can even bring America together. Conservatives can wrap themselves in the flag while even the prissiest liberal need feel no guilt in supporting the underdog Minnesotans. We are all curlers now, you might say.

Like many simple things — omelets, a proper martini — curling is more complicated than it appears. As they say of Texas Hold-Em, curling is a sport it takes five minutes to learn, a lifetime to master.

I know this because I was a teenage curler. On particularly miserable and bitterly cold winter afternoons at boarding school in Scotland, any excuse to escape the horror of compulsory cross-country running was a lifeline to be seized, even if it meant swapping the freezing outdoors for the freezing indoors.

Since the Perth rink had hosted the World Championships in the past, this was — it was good to imagine — like stepping onto Centre Court at Wimbledon or the Old Course at St. Andrews. This was hallowed ice. I learned the game in Perth but, sorry to say, never mastered it.

Growing up meant slowly abandoning sports. I realized at a depressingly early age I would never represent my country at rugby, soccer, or even cricket. Those were heavy blows. Better men than I have never recovered from that sort of setback. Then I failed at curling too.

After years of only watching sports, curling is calling me back. The Potomac Curling Club in Laurel, Maryland, is, like clubs across the country, hosting open days this weekend so newcomers can "try the sport that's sweeping the nation". I think they'll be busy.

After all, curling's advantages are many and great. It is a sport for normal people, not freaks of nature. Physical fitness is not of paramount importance — nerve, poise, and judgment count for much more. There's no recourse to performance-enhancing drugs, unless you count a pre-match shot of whisky. And I'd like to think maturity helps.

On that note, curling is a sport in which character counts. Yes, you need courage and skill, but it's considered poor form not to buy drinks for your vanquished opponents. Showboating is frowned upon. There's no trash-talking. And apart from the beer, it is a sport for eight and eighty-year-olds alike.

It is also, it must be said, fiendishly difficult. Sure, it looks easy: shuffleboard on ice and all that. Except that curling — as Seth Stevenson argued last week — may have more in common with baseball than any other sport. One has the hit and run, the other the hit and roll. And curlers need many of the skills a pitcher does in bamboozling batters with the pace and location of his pitches. As on the mound, so on the rink: Think of the repertoire of curling shots as analogous to fast, breaking, and curve balls, and you're well-placed to appreciate the sport's subtlety.

The leisurely pace helps too. As with baseball or cricket, there's time for conversation. The 24 or so seconds the 44 lb. stone takes to slide down the ice is an eternity of slow, rumbling tension, as the rock roars closer to success or failure, a high-wire act performed to the rushing sound of a terrible, fatal waterfall. The suspense can be crushing.

So these Olympics have been great for curling. Just as well, since even in the game's Scottish birthplace, I'm afraid to say, curling is normally relegated to the "sport in brief" column. This is unforgivable, since a list of other notable sports in which Scotland has produced world champions would include darts, snooker and, most recently, elephant polo. We Scots can't afford to ignore our curlers or treat them lightly.

Four years ago at the Salt Lake City games, Britain briefly went curling crazy. It was Tulip mania on ice. Six million stayed up past midnight to watch the women sweep and slide their way to glory. When Rhona Martin's final shot clinched an unlikely triumph, her last rock was immediately known as a second "Stone of Destiny" (the first such stone being the one Jacob used as a pillow, later taken to Scotland, and upon which Scottish, and then British, kings and queens were crowned. Looted by Edward I of England in 1296, it remained at Westminster Abbey until 1996 when it was returned to Edinburgh Castle).

The bubble burst as quickly as it formed. Predictions that Martin and her colleagues might become millionaires proved unfounded. The curlers enjoyed their allotted fifteen minutes of fame before slipping back into obscurity. Four years' time and the pressure of defending her title proved to be too much for Martin. British hopes now lie with David Murdoch, the 27-year-old cattle farmer from Lockerbie, Scotland (population 4009), who skips the Scottish (well, British) men's team. Since Murdoch is the reigning European champion, it wouldn't be a miracle on ice if he reaches the final. So the question is whether it would be preferable to meet and slay the Canadian Goliath to win the gold or to meet the upstart Americans, guaranteeing a victory for one of the good guys.

After that, the issue is simple. If ESPN can show wood-chopping championships, dog trials, and bass fishing, can't they be persuaded to screen the World Curling Championships in April? Or will I, and the rest of America's curling fans, have to travel to Lowell, Massachusetts to watch the roaring game in person?

Alex Massie writes for the Scotman.

By Alex Massie.
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online

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