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Cold Stones Are Cool

Cold Stones

If the films nominated for Academy Awards in 2010 were Olympic sports, figure skating—full of sights, sounds, and lots of media attention—would be Avatar, the halfpipe—entertaining and edgy—Inglourious Basterds, and hockey—an unglamorous study in grinding perseverance—The Hurt Locker. For Americans, curling wouldn't appear until "The Best Animated Short" category: "A Matter of Loaf and Death" starring Wallace and Gromit.

One of the noteworthy, albeit minor, stories coming out of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver was some unexpectedly positive murmuring about curling. The genuine curiosity exhibited about the sport could very well be a precursor for more mainstream American interest. U.S. team captain John Shuster expressed satisfaction that Vancouver had helped to put curling "on the map." Of course, a lot of the attention curling received this year was due to things having nothing to do with the sport itself. Such as the tittering over the Norwegian team's garishly patterned pants. So, it remains to be seen if curling has the potential to attain more than hacky sack-like fad status in the U.S.

I've never set foot on a curling surface myself but I've been a closet fan for years. Although, I didn't realize I was in the closet or that such a closet even existed.

Living a short 15-minute drive from the border, Windsor never seems like a "foreign" city and access to Canadian Broadcast Company (CBC) programming something one takes for granted. This is mostly unremarkable. The coefficient of quality for a typical CBC primetime lineup is pretty much the same as their American counterparts. A huge exception would be coverage of Canada's national pastime, NHL hockey. In their endless zeal to attract domestic hockey fans, U.S. sports outlets often resort to gimmickry that dovetails on the ridiculous. Fox infamously put a computer chip in the game pucks so they would glow like comets on television. This experiment only resulted in creating valuable souvenirs for the lucky fans in the stands who managed to grab up errant shots. NBC's hockey broadcasts include a feature called "Inside the Glass" that places color commentators between the opposing teams' benches. I've yet to hear one report that couldn't have been done from up in the booth! On CBC, I don't have to endure any of this nonsense. They take an appropriately old school approach to a game where players on frozen water bash each other with sticks.

If hockey is Canada's football, than curling is their basketball. Until Vancouver, American networks didn't pay any real attention to this Canadian import. Basically shuffleboard on ice, there are probably at least as many, if not more, curling rinks in the "Great White North" as bowling alleys. And while we routinely question the athleticism of American professional bowlers, Canadians treat their curling stars like royalty. I've spent countless weekend hours viewing matches on CBC Sports.

I seem to be alone in this fascination. Whatever it is about the game that attracts my attention eludes my friends, family, coworkers, and the U.S. public in general. Anticipating this year's Winter Olympics, I expressed excitement over the upcoming tournament on Facebook, which drew sarcastic comments like "dishwashing should be an event too." The late night talk show hosts were equally cutting. Jimmy Kimmel quipped that he "watched nine hours of it on MSNBC and it really does suck." To jokingly prove his thesis that curling shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as a sport like speed skating, he truthfully pointed out the fact that one of the alternates on the Canadian women's team is five months pregnant. Ouch.

Cold Stones

I won't seriously suggest that curling requires the same sort of athletic skill and daring as skating, skiing or bobsledding. However, truth be told, those other events lose me after about twenty minutes.

I certainly appreciate the talent and dedication necessary to be a successful figure skater, but I don't know a triple salchow from a toe loop. And, unless someone falls, I really can't tell a good performance from a bad one. Instead, I have to rely on the judges' final scores that often directly contradict evaluations made by network commentators only minutes before. Even then, I have no point of reference to evaluate a result of "61" or "159." They're just numbers. So, without a really compelling human interest story—say, a husband of one of the top female contestants hires two sociopaths to bludgeon the knee of her closest rival—I can take or leave it.

Speed skating, a distant cousin to figure skating, is the NASCAR of Olympic events and features people wearing skin-tight superhero costumes flying around in an endless series of left turns. The same can almost be said of the skiing and sled events. After a while, the quick cuts between various points on the runs become repetitive and the participants start blurring into each other.

Hockey is, well, hockey. On the men's side, professional hockey and the Olympic planning committee have formed an alliance aimed at cross-pollinating their respective fan bases. As a result, instead of amateurs, the participating countries field teams taken directly from the ranks of the NHL. While I freely admit that the fault lies not in the stars, but in myself, I can't shake the feeling that it's exhibition play. Sure, close games are always intrinsically interesting. And I don't doubt that the participants are motivated by national pride to play their best. But, for me, the net result seems more like an extended all-star game. Watching Team U.S.A. lose the gold medal game didn't have anywhere near the same emotional impact on me as the Red Wings losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals (I was in mourning for a good part of last summer). I don't know much about how the women's teams are chosen. I hate myself for saying this, but in spite of the grit it clearly takes to advance in the sport, women's hockey is, well, women's hockey. Sorry.

Maybe my affinity for curling is partly explained by its relative lack of pure athleticism. I'm still somewhat limber enough with good knees and an "okay" back. Thus, I'm able to delude myself into believing that through hard work and persistence, I could theoretically make myself a world-class curler. Conversely, short of a globally devastating asteroid impact, there's absolutely no chartable path that ends with me on an Olympic hockey squad (men or women's). The same holds true for skating, skiing, sledding, etc.

That's not to say curling is easy. Players have to slide a forty-pound "stone" down a ninety-foot sheet of ice with just enough momentum to make it stop on a specific spot. In other endeavors, the challenge is to imbue the main accoutrement (ball, dart, or puck) with enough force to simply reach the destination. Some other object (mitt, corkboard, or net) takes it from there. Curlers, on the other hand, contend with both ends of the inertia continuum. Push too hard and the stone will glide through the target and out of play. Pushing too little will leave the player short. Complicating matters are stones left on the rink from previous shots. Curlers have to put the right amount of spin on their shot for it to maneuver ("curl") around these obstacles. Working furiously with "brooms," sweepers help guide a shot by cleaning the ice surface in front of the stone as it slides along (more sweeping translates into a faster, straighter, longer shot and vice versa). When I was a kid, I remember being captivated by the sharp, staccato slapping sounds made by the old style witch's brooms. Alas, the newer, "Swiffer" style brooms result in a cappella shots.

Cheryl BernardAesthetically, the game is tailor-made for television. Using a ceiling mounted camera, the high angle shot of "the house" (the bull's-eye players are aiming at) fills the screen. Each of the ten "ends" in a match consists of curlers from both teams taking turns throwing their allotted eight stones. After the last throw is made, whichever team has a stone nearest to bull's-eye's center ("the button") scores at least one point and possibly more depending upon how many other of their remaining stones sit relatively closer to the button than those (if any) of the opponent. That may sound complicated. However, unlike the criteria factored into figure skating's scoring algorithm, a curling target covered with color-coded stones is fairly self-explanatory. And there's a level of strategy exhibited by players in deciding their shot placement which falls somewhere between tic-tac-toe and chess. Again, that's something an average viewer, like myself, can grasp. I also like the fact that one never has to endure a blowout in any given match. Curling etiquette dictates that the losing team concedes whenever the score becomes ridiculously one-sided.

Because CBC lost the broadcast rights for the 2010 Olympics to CTV, a network not included in my cable package, I was reluctantly forced to watch curling on NBC. While they had decent commentators with a real background in the sport for the coverage, every once in a while I detected some of that good old American hype mentioned earlier. For instance, one reporter kept insisting that, shades of Fox, they put GPS chips in the stones to make determining which one is nearer the bull's-eye easier. Granted, for really close calls, Olympic officials in Vancouver used a cumbersome looking pole-mounted measuring device that seemed more appropriate for calibrating HVAC equipment. But, a GPS chip? This isn't rocket science.

In any event, along with the scuttlebutt about Norway's pants, one MSN article dubbed curlers the "new Olympic sex symbols." Along those lines, as I write this, the Internet is rife with chatter about whether or not a sexy swimsuit calendar featuring women curlers ("Fire on Ice") includes racy photos of Cheryl Bernard, the fabulously fortysomething captain of the Canadian women's Olympic curling team. I feel squeamish ogling young female Olympians who are close in age to my oldest daughter. So, Bernard is one imaginary "Canadian girlfriend" I can brag about.

Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.

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