Curling Achieves Cult Status at 2002 Winter Games

Her name is Rhona Martin of Dunlop, Scotland. On ice, she barks orders like a gunnery sergeant, and slings stones like a giant killer. She lists her occupation as housewife, and her hobbies - when not crushing the gold medal hopes of Kelley Law's dream team - as swimming and working out.

Her name is Rhona Martin of Dunlop, Scotland. On ice, she barks orders like a gunnery sergeant, and slings stones like a giant killer. She lists her occupation as housewife, and her hobbies - when not crushing the gold medal hopes of Kelley Law's dream team - as swimming and working out. Asked to describe her upset Olympic win over Canada, the skip of Great Britain's team recalled past defeats against Law. She offered a tight smile and a terse reply: "Sweet revenge."

Aye, it's a blood sport, curling is. It's also fodder for caustic columnists, late-night TV comics and mightily puzzled Olympic sports fans. When Utahns call it dull, you are dealing with a huge image problem. "Did you see the curling today," Jay Leno asked his insomniac audience the other night. "Pretty exciting. The gold medal ended up going to a Brazilian cleaning team."

Curling was the cult favourite of these Games, thanks to a thousand bad jokes, and to an unprecedented 50 hours of NBC coverage. The fine points of the sport - yes, dammit, Mr. and Mrs. America, it's a sport - are lost on the audience. But it's Canadian, and Canadians in Salt Lake are much beloved these Games, for their class, their style, and their generous refusal to take a fair share of Olympic medals.

Let the record show that the Brazilians did not win gold. That honour went to Great Britain, which beat Switzerland hours after Law's rink stormed back to win bronze against the U.S. women's team. As for the men, Kevin Martin's Edmonton-based rink failed on the final stone in the gold-medal game against Norway, settling for an agonizing silver.

From their relaxed on-ice demeanour for most of the Games, Martin and his teammates - Don Walchuk, Carter Rycroft and Don Bartlett - looked as if they were entered in a beer and potluck bonspiel in Red Deer. Far from it. Martin, a gifted strategist with a sure read of the ice, was determined to prove himself after a decade of bad luck on the world stage. "First things first, was to get something to hang on the mantle - we've done that and that's really big," he said after a solid win against Sweden guaranteed at least a silver. "The pressure you feel out there is so extreme because you're trying to help your country out. It's not your own team dealing with your own team matters. There's a bigger picture here that's very important."

Martin admitted to the jitters, and perhaps ultimately succumbed to them - an experience that Law's heavily favoured New Westminster, B.C., rink would readily understand. Law and teammates Julie Skinner, Georgina Wheatcroft and Diane Nelson looked tense and tight from the first end against the unforgiving Scots. Where many of Canada's million-plus recreational curlers are known to take a calming nip in trying times, Law employed a sports psychologist. This raised concerns among veteran Canadian sportswriters that curling has strayed too far from its Scottish roots.

The loss to Great Britain, only their second in nine games this Olympics, left the team stunned. "We're probably a little bit in shock," said a subdued Law. "We have passion for the game," added Wheatcroft, fighting tears, "and it's very disappointing." The subsequent win was greeted with more relief than enthusiasm. Gold was the goal, said Law. "Unfortunately it didn't work out for us, so we regrouped last night and said the bronze would be pretty sweet."

More than national pride was at stake. Before the Olympics, Law's telegenic team cut a management deal with Vancouver agent Bruce Allen, whose clients include rocker Bryan Adams. While Law's rink was curling for gold, Allen was in Vancouver hoping to turn their Olympic TV face time into lucrative corporate sponsorships. He'd sensed their potential in December while watching on his office TV their Olympic qualifying games in Regina. He was struck by a PG-rated sport with an R-rated patter. "The girls in my office," he recalled, "are listening to 'harder, harder, faster, faster', and wondering what's going on in the room." His conclusion: "You know, those girls can be marketed."

He nailed a deal with Vancouver-based Sandman Hotels, and decked out Team Law in black leather for a pre-Games publicity shoot. After managing rock stars, stone throwers aren't much of a stretch. "You've got four great-looking girls, you've got a sport with Olympic television potential - this I can understand," he said. "Closest one to a button gets the point. That's a lot easier than the music business." Allen didn't hide his disappointment at the lost gold, or his relief that they recovered to win bronze. "We move on," he said from Vancouver. "We're in a country that's only going to win about a dozen medals. I guess we're one of them."

The team will promote the upcoming release of Men With Brooms, Paul Gross's comic ode to curling. Then there's the lucky fact that the entire bronze game against the U.S. women's team was carried on MSNBC. "Kelley Law all of a sudden got a hell of a lot of exposure on American television," Allen says, "and that can only be good for her and good for the game."

The game, to put it kindly, is in its formative stages in the U.S. By the end of two weeks of Olympic play at the Ice Sheet, a temporarily transformed hockey arena in the suburban Ogden, American fans were finally learning to applaud the right shots. Teachers and students cycled through the venue, clutching primers of curling rules and vocabulary, as though on an anthropology field trip to observe the rock-hurling rituals of a lost tribe.

The Ogden Curling Club, which wrestles two hours of playing time a week away from hockey players and skaters, has done its best to keep the sport alive. It's even attempted to generate interest by holding contests, using frozen wrapped hams as both curling stone and ultimate prize. The attention, when it comes, is not always kind. Curling, noted Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry after a visit to Ogden, "is one of the very few sports that combine the excitement of a heavy piece of granite sliding slowly across the ice with the excitement of chunky broom-wielding people in bowling attire sweeping furiously in the stone's path, like janitors on speed."

The ridicule doesn't upset Canadian curlers. Most have heard it all before from their own countrymen, said Canadian third Don Walchuk. "That's what curling needed was to get some notoriety south of the border," he said. "Hell, lots of people think golf's boring." Besides, there's nothing like a medal to give you the last laugh.

Maclean's March 4, 2002