Curling appeals to niche crowd at Games

TURIN – Yesterday’s Olympic women’s downhill, pitting racers heading at breakneck speeds down the treacherous slopes at San Sicario Fraitere, was a fearsome race at a sublime mountain venue that had most of those in the spacious media room glued to the extra-large screen, watching Austria’s Miguela Dorfmeister dismantle the opposition. Transfixing as it was, my mind was still flitting back to the previous evening’s more sedate and intimate encounter with the sport of curling. I hadn’t expected much by way of excitement at this event, which only became an Olympic medal sport at Nagano in 1998, yet discovered that this, as with all Olympic events, has its own drama, strategy, vocabulary, tactical maneuvering, athleticism, even controversy. There were likely no more than 500 people in the 2,000-capacity facility in out-of-the-way Pinerolo, but it was a friendly-yet-partisan crowd that was on hand. Huge Italian flags were draped over the seats next to mine, in support of the host team in this women’s round-robin competition, which was battling the dangerous Danes – dangerous not so much because of the ongoing cartoon controversy as for sporting reasons. The Danish women’s team won silver at Nagano in 1998, for that country’s first-ever Winter Olympics medal. In fact, the entire Danish delegation at these Games consists solely of its female curlers – and security. The Pinerolo venue has four «sheets» (playing areas) side by side, each 44.5 meters long. This almost came as a surprise; televised curling always zooms in on one sheet, but in fact four matches are going on simultaneously. Russia vs Canada, the US vs Japan and Switzerland vs Norway were the others. Apart from the Norwegians getting outclassed, the other matches were close. Plenty of partisans were on hand, but the Japanese crowd was the most vociferous. With painted faces, waving flags, choreographed yells, crashing cymbals and hats more outrageous than anything you could see during Carnival time at Patras, they put on a show worth the 20-euro admission. Each of the eight teams of four had their own contingents out in force, but the Italian quartet, which took an early lead against their favored opponents, had the local crowd in a festive mood. Curling may not be the most physically taxing of sports, but it entails gobs of strategy and finesse. It has been called «chess on ice,» though it also bears similarities with boules and with darts; it’s also something of a thinking person’s shuffleboard, and in its 10 individual frames, or «ends,» it even resembles bowling or baseball scoring. The object is to score points by placing your stones (which weigh 19 kilograms) within the red-and-blue target area, called the «house,» at either end, and to knock your opponents out of scoring places via a «take-out.» Each team has eight stones, so an entire match means sliding 80 stones per side; plenty of heavy sliding if not lifting. The server or «lead» launches the stone with a long, split-legged yet elegant slide, releasing the heavy weight with an uncanny delicacy, eyes transfixed on the target area at other end, where the strategist or «skip» yells her directions at the «second» and «third.» These furiously sweep to melt a thin film of the ice and decrease friction against the granite stones, which move along with a slow, almost stately momentum. The tactics get more complex as the stones collect in the «house.» When it comes time for the «hammer,» the final stone of each «end,» which can wreak havoc with the other team’s positioning and make or break the scoring, the teams gather and plot tactics while the clock ticks down and the crowd murmurs. In the US-Japan match, it all came down to the final hammer, which the US placed beautifully to tie the Japanese at 5, sending it into extra time, though the Japanese, undeterred and with their faithful hanging in to the last, pulled the match out in the 11th. And despite the home-crowd support, the increasingly confident Danes put away the upstart Italians with some superior take-outs in the 10th and final end. Can a medal for the besieged country be far behind? Apparently the ice in Turin is not «swingy» or lively enough for some of the competitors, whose brooms are not able to «curl» the stone the way they would like to. That may be splitting hairs for non-aficionados, but in a little-known sport of millimeters and slow grace, it can make all the difference.

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