KARUIZAWA TOWN, JAPAN
Lisa Schoenberg, captain of the US women's curling team, was talking the other day about how worn out she is with the curling and hair dryer references.
Yet, it's hard for this sport to be taken seriously when onlookers see 42-pound granite stones that look like teapots being slid down the ice toward a 12-foot target, assisted in their travels by athletes rapidly sweeping brooms to speed and direct the journeys.
If the sport is ever to move from novelty to fan ecstasy, Don Duquid, analyst for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in curling-mad Canada (it has 1.2 million of the world's 1.5 million curlers), says the burden is on the Americans: "There are great hopes riding on the US because if the game is going to grow, then it has to grow in the US,'' There are only about 15,000 curlers in the States, most in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
In the sport's maiden Olympic slide, the US women played poorly, ending with a 2-5 match mark, which was only better than Germany in the eight-team competition.
However, the US men righted themselves after a bunch of losing early on, winning two sudden-death games to get into the four-team medal round. The US finished fourth, losing badly to silver medalist Canada. Switzerland took the gold.
CBS offended curling by saying it had no intention of inflicting the sport on its viewers. Yet, the snub may be justified. It's hard to picture Homer in Dubuque saying, "Hey, Mable, any curling on tonight?'' Two things that might un-snub curling in TV minds would be for the stoic US team to change character and become peopled with flamboyant characters - and become gold contenders instead of gold pretenders.
The US populace will take to curling if the athletes start winning. Eric Heiden, after all, hooked us on speed skating in 1980 when we didn't know we could care.
There are snide tongues uncharitable enough to equate curling with watching grass grow and paint dry and wind blow. And everyone involved in the game hates the comparisons to shuffleboard - although describing curling as shuffleboard on ice provides an initial understanding. "We are nothing like shuffleboard,'' fumes Schoeneberg. "There's so much more to what we do.''
She's right. A charm of curling is that it provides the best of four sports: There's the finesse, which is like the short game in golf; there are the angles so central to billiards; there's the highly cerebral aspect so common to chess; and there's the sliding of objects to a target, common to you know what played a lot in Florida by you know who. But watching can put you on doze control.
Asked if curling truly belongs here, Schoeneberg reacts defensively, "If snowboarding belongs, we belong.'' Curling does provide a nice counterpoint. Curling is for the disciplined and not-so-hip. Indeed, the oldest member of the US Olympic team is Schoeneberg, just over 40. "It's a number. It doesn't mean anything to me,'' she says.
The oldest male representing the US is curler John Gordon, nearly 40. He, too, is not pleased to have the topic brought up: "I'm at the peak of my career right now. In 2002, I hope to be back."