Is curling really an olympic sport?

Posted: Friday, February 15, 2002

OGDEN, Utah The International Order of Obsessive Compulsive Ice Bowlers convened just outside Salt Lake City again Thursday, and, wouldn't you know it, an Olympic event broke out.

You might call it freestyle sweeping, if it wasn't already called curling.

Either way, the IOC can officially stop looking for the odd-ball sports it keeps adding to the Winter Games. Because they're not going to find one any odder than this.

Compared with, say, downhill skiing, curling doesn't look like much of a sport.

It looks more like tryouts for Merry Maids. It's as much housekeeping as competition, with brooms the most utilized piece of equipment. Yes, brooms.

What would be considered cross training for these guys, mopping?

Actually, you've seen curling before. You probably just didn't recognize it because it was being played by retirees in black socks and sandals in between midnight buffets. Because curling, essentially, is shuffleboard. Except it's played on ice, and it's a little more interactive.

Teams of four get eight throws in each of 10 ends, which are kind of like innings, only slower. One player slides a 42-pound puck, or stone, and the others attempt to manipulate its speed and distance by sweeping vigorously in its path, trying to move the disc closer to the middle of a circle at the far end of the alley.

It's like watching Hazel on speed.

There's also a fun-with-science element involved. The sweeping melts the ice, which allows the stone to glide farther. And competitors have to estimate deflection better than the guys who came up with the Magic Bullet Theory, since they are constantly trying to knock each other's stones out of scoring position.

That's not as painful as it sounds. And it can get pretty interesting if it's close at the end, winning and losing often determined by the last bump. But it doesn't quite jive with the Olympic ideal. There's no higher, faster or stronger to be found.

I mean, you have to be a little suspect of a game you play in mittens. Just look at boxing. Or about anything that could be officiated by Captain Stubing, which, by the way, would still leave curling way ahead of figure skating.

And there's something up with any sport where Felix would whip Oscar.

But you almost want to feel sorry for curling.

It's been around for 400 years, and it's still a closet sport. Yet here comes snowboarding, which hasn't even spent 400 minutes at the Olympics and is already the rage of the Games.

Curling can only blame itself for that. It hasn't adjusted its idea of getting stoned to today's athletes. And it's not exactly something they can play in a mall parking lot, either.

It's just one of those crazy games started by the Scots when the sheep were sleeping. Like golf.

Except this one's been better at avoiding the mainstream, gaining about the same universal acceptance as those other cultural contributions from Scotland, haggis and men in skirts.

It should be popular, though, considering it is driven equally by skill and luck. That makes it a little bit bowling, little bit darts and little bit billiards -- something that's better with beer.

In fact, that's what is missing in Olympic curling.

It might not be much of a medal event. But it would make a heck of a drinking game. Get your stone bumped out of a point, you drink. The other guy's throw stays in the circle, you do a shot.

Nobody would remember who won the next day. But how is that any different than it has been so far in Salt Lake City for curling?

The funny thing is, for a minute it looked like curling might be getting ready to emerge at these Olympics, spurred onto phenomenon across America by the standard impetus. We were doing well at it.

On the first day of the competition here, the U.S. men beat Sweden, which was kind of the curling equivalent to Super Bowl III. Then the other day, the American women were right in it against Canada, until losing in overtime.

Both teams have lost as often as they've won since then and are starting to seem again like long shots for medals. So is curling's shot at hitting it big here.

And that's too bad. Because it means the U.S. players won't be able to cash in big on the free-agent curling circuit. But it's not like their careers are over or anything.

America's Olympic curlers may not be able to turn their performance here into a livelihood, but they will always be able to get work from their ability in the sport.

Just as long as there are garages, front porches and chimneys to be swept out.

Savannah Morning News sport s columnist Tim Guidera is part of a Morris News Service team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics. He can be reached at guidera@hotmail.com.



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