'Extreme shuffleboard' captures Olympic audience with strategy, suspense

Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2002

OGDEN, Utah -- They'll never make the X-Games. They're twice the age of most Olympians. And they're more likely to get an endorsement deal from Fuller Brush than Mountain Dew.

Never mind the screaming teens in the back row with the ''Extreme Shuffleboard'' poster. Curlers are about as far from radical as it gets.

But even as the adrenaline-filled 2002 Winter Olympics make stars out of snowboarders and speedskaters, this game of rocks, brooms and middle-age men and women is gaining a certain cachet.

Members of the U.S. women's team, who made it into Wednesday's semifinals with a last-minute comeback, are being recognized on the street for the first time ever. Scalpers are selling $35 tickets for at least $50 outside the Ogden Ice Sheet, and the sport is being shown on television more than ever during the Winter Games.

''People don't know what's going on, but they're mesmerized by it,'' said Rick Patzke, spokesman for the United States Curling Association.

It casts a strange spell, this sport that has been compared with bowling and chess on ice and which begins to the skirl of bagpipes in honor of its Scottish roots.

Maybe it's the intense stares of the curlers as they gently slide their granite stones down the ice, or their screams of ''Hurry, hurry, harder, harder!'' to the sweepers who rush down the ice.

Or perhaps it's just the fact that curlers look as if they could be a next-door neighbor or member of the local PTA.

''Curling's something anybody can do, from 5 to 95,'' said Jim Henderson of Sweep, a curling magazine in Canada, where the game draws as many viewers as the Super Bowl.

Families play together in curling leagues there and travel to weekend tournaments called bonspiels (meaning ''good play'') where the winners buy drinks for the losers.

It's also a sport that can be picked up later in life. American women's captain Kari Erickson didn't start curling until she was 17. She's 30 now, with a 3-year-old son and a full-time job teaching swimming in Bemidji, Minn., the hotbed of American curling.

''Not a lot of people have seen'' curling, Erickson said. ''Now with them seeing it and checking it out, I think maybe they'll go to their home club and try it.''

But just because the Canadian Curling Association is sponsored by beer and doughnut companies doesn't mean curling is a sport Homer Simspon could medal in.

The stones -- the best of which come from the same quarry in Scotland, where the game began in the 16th century -- weigh 42 pounds apiece and each player delivers at least 20 stones per match. In between, there's the rapid-fire sweeping that melts the top layer of ice so the stone can move faster as it slides toward the target area, known as the house.

''People don't understand how grueling and tiring it is because it looks easy,'' said Julie Skinner, a member of the Canadian women's team, favored to win gold. ''I've taken a lot of really good athletes out there on the ice and they can't walk the next day.''

Curling requires brainpower as well, as each team of four tries to knock their opponent's stones out of the house while defending theirs from the same abuse.

''It doesn't have the excitement of some of the other sports, but it has the strategy and the suspense,'' said Dan Gallagher, an American who got hooked on curling while living in Germany and came to watch during the Olympics. ''You're really head to head, every shot counts and every tiny mistake counts.''

That's convinced NBC Sports, which barely showed curling when it appeared for the first time as a medal sport in the 1998 Nagano Games, to run 50 hours of the event this time around, mostly on CNBC.

And viewers want to find out more. Patzke said the 130 curling clubs nationwide are getting hundreds of requests for more information, even from ice-free states like Texas and Florida.

About half of the 15,000 curlers in this country live in Wisconsin or Minnesota and most others are elsewhere in the Midwest, Mass-achusetts and Seattle.

But can a contest that favors bagpipes over the Beastie Boys compete with snowboarding long-term?

''It's an interesting unique sport that has its niche in the games, but it's not going to be any more than that,'' said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports and Celebrities, a Chicago company that helps companies find athletes for endorsements.

That's not going to dissuade Don Barcome Jr., an alternate on the American men's team who's organizing a curling tournament in North Dakota.

''If you can have chainsaw competitions on ESPN or dog shows,'' he said, "this is something that will work.''

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