Out of the Stone Age
I am not a curler. I have never thrown a curling stone in my life, never even attended a match in person. My understanding of curling strategy is rudimentary at best. I am, suffice it to say, an armchair skip, and a cursory one at that.
But I’ve been a casual fan of curling for twenty years—and of the Olympics for even longer—and from this uninvolved distance, perhaps it’s easier for me to read the writing on the wall than it is for some of the players, as well as some of the decorated former champions doing the commentating at this year’s Games.
It’s the dawn of a new era in curling, and I’m not only talking about the sartorial splendour of the Norwegian men, although their argyle-print pants are, one hopes, a hint of the new livelihood being brought to the sport.
The Vancouver 2010 Games have shown us the future. The days of the smoker with a beer gut who can compete at the elite level are over. So too the days of the part-timer, the player who squeezes in practice time during lunch breaks from some full-time job.
This year curling has shown itself to be a true Olympic sport, and like all other sports at this level it’s going to require dedication, strength, stamina, and a lot of hard work:
- Weight training and a diet regimen—fast food is not “the breakfast of champions.”
- Sweepers with the upper-body strength to redeem with vigorous brushing nearly any stone, no matter how off-weight and off-line it might be.
- The mental and physical tenacity not to flinch when, as one is about to release a stone, the crowd erupts into cowbell-ringing chaos over some action two sheets away.
- The stamina to play nine games over an eight-day stretch, even if it means facing top challengers Canada and Sweden in the same day (as Debbie McCormick’s USA women did, losing both games by a combined total of 18–5).
It’s a noisy new era, too. Take the Saturday, 20 February, women’s match between Russia and Sweden. Sweden, led by veteran skip—and defending Olympic champion—Anette Norberg, were bested by a Russian team whose average age is 21 and whose skip is merely 19. The final score was 10–1, with Sweden forced to concede after just seven ends. It was an utter rout.
Norberg, for one, looked distinctly perturbed by the boisterous atmosphere in Vancouver Olympic Centre. Meanwhile the young Russians were reveling in the attention (they are, to put it mildly, quite photogenic), and are likely unfazed by anything with decibel levels not approaching those of a Moscow rave. On top of that, in play they’re willing to take chances that more seasoned teams would not consider.
That game aside, Russia’s women were not contenders this year. Their inexperience leads them to make strategic mistakes—but their youthful audacity often leads to spectacular results.
The World Curling Federation has expressed mixed concerns about the noise level in the Vancouver arena. On one hand, the clamor has proved distracting and intrusive to some players; on the other hand, spectator excitement is an important necessity for the sport’s growth. (Chalk one up for the Scots—er, I mean “Great Britain”—at being such good sports when play was interrupted by the crowd spontaneously breaking into an on-key recital of “O Canada”. GBR skip David Murdoch called it “hilarious,” “great to see,” and “not something you’ll ever see ever again.” He could be wrong about the latter.)
Most of all, now that it’s an Olympic sport, the champions of the past—Scotland, Canada, pretty much all of Scandinavia—have to move forward with the clear understanding that other, upstart countries have begun to take curling very, very seriously. For one, if there’s anything the 2008 Beijing Games demonstrated, it’s that China has only one goal when it comes to all things Olympic: utter world domination.
Curling became an official Olympic sport in 1998. Twelve years is about the right amount of time to start a crash program, develop young talent into well-trained competitors, and hand-pick a decent team.
The 2010 Games in Vancouver are the first in which China has managed to field teams, and though the men narrowly avoided joining John Shuster’s Team USA in the basement, the women are contenders and have qualified for the semi-finals. I would only expect them both to improve substantially in the years to come, and for new challengers to arise as well.
After all, when it comes to the medal count leaderboard, a gold medal in curling is exactly the same as one from the so-called “premier” events like alpine skiing.