NAGANO '98

Close, but no sweep

In curling’s Olympic debut, Canadians strike gold and silver

BRUCE WALLACE February 23 1998
NAGANO '98

Close, but no sweep

In curling’s Olympic debut, Canadians strike gold and silver

BRUCE WALLACE February 23 1998

Close, but no sweep

In curling’s Olympic debut, Canadians strike gold and silver

BRUCE WALLACE

Different genders, different styles. A relaxed Canadian men’s curling team skipped by Toronto’s ice-cool Mike Harris whistled their way through the week until it all stopped working for them in the final against Switzerland, and they had to settle for silver. Sandra Schmirler’s Saskatchewan rink, on the other hand, put on a more emotional display of curling, dissolving into hugs and tears after a tense last rock semifinal win over Britain before enjoying a slightly easier slide to gold in the final against Denmark. If Harris operated on cruise control, the women had come to Nagano terrified by the pressure to win. “When you win, you feel elation and gratification,” said fiery second Joan McCusker. “And underneath it all, there’s relief, a feeling of Thank God the weight is off.’ ”

Despite the pressure to bring home double gold, both teams had coasted confidently through the round-robin phase, each losing only once. The initial jitters of playing for curling’s first official Olympic medals—“I had to tell them to calm down,” Harris said of his normally cold-blooded team’s shaky performance in the early ends of Game 1—turned to cool confidence as they started making their shots and the competition wilted through the week. “Let’s hope they play us tough tonight,” Harris told second Collin Mitchell before the round-robin game against Sweden, complaining that he had not faced enough difficult situations. “I need to throw some rocks that have an impact.” But on the whole, the Harris team enjoyed themselves—on and off the ice. The Toronto rink took pride in what they regarded as a soul-mate relationship with the Canadian snowboarders, a kinship forged when they first met during preOlympic preparations in Calgary on Feb.l, and renewed when they whooped it up together under the stands of Nagano’s Olympic stadium before the opening ceremonies. “We’re both rebels, we both like to party,” said George Karrys, the talkative lead, explaining how the representatives of the sport with the beerbelly image hit it off with the disciples of dude-ism.

So much so they had to try the powder themselves. When the Harris rink spotted a snowboarding hill behind the curlers’ Olympic Village—“so small you only take an escalator to the top,” laughed Mitchell—the resulting tumbles left scrapes on the second’s face that lasted through the tournament. Mitchell’s father, Bill, was so upset with the cavalier, off-ice experimentation on the eve of curling’s big Olympic moment that he phoned in his displeasure from Pickering, Ont., just east of Toronto, before flying to Nagano to watch the final. But the personable Mitchell remained unfazed, and his mother, Cathy, fussed more about her 29-year-old son’s finicky eating habits than his face plant on the hill. “Has Collin tried any Japanese food?” she asked Harris one night at dinner in a Texasstyle steak restaurant, where the Japanese staff wore cowboy hats and the menus appealed to the team’s steak and pasta tastes. ‘Yeah,” Harris replied seriously between bites. “Rice.” Such guileless answers were the hallmark of these Canadian curlers and the family members who made up their entire entourage. They were friendly, polite, can-I-buy-ya-a-beer Canadians, mixing easily with Japanese fans and never complaining that theirs was not among the marquee Olympic events. “If you can’t get up for the Olympics, then something’s wrong,” said McCusker, who spoke for the women and men alike in dismissing concerns at the lack of media attention. “The curling here has been great.” Whether or not they understood how good the level was, the Japanese fans who did turn out made a heck of a racket cheering their national teams on. The Japanese drumming and horn-blowing in an arena that the Saskatchewan women described as the coldest they had ever played in had third Jan Betker wishing for a Canadian pipe and drum band to answer back (and may have kept some of the otherwise sleepy Japanese journalists awake). But no other Canadian athletes came to watch. Curling was held in Karuizawa, a gorgeous mountain resort but one 66 km away from the action in Nagano. The media either snubbed the sport or mocked it, and most who did show up were at a loss with its jargon. The Canadians never complained, always explained. “Oh, you mean the double takeout,” a perplexed but patient Schmirler cried out at last when a U.S. reporter asked about her successful “bowling-like split.”

They were friendly, polite, can-I-buy-ya-a-beer Canadians

At least he showed up. CBS television stayed away entirely, an executive having vowed that it would not broadcast “a minute” of the sport to the American audience. That was a blow, since curling desperately needs to boost its popularity—especially in the United States, where curling cognoscenti are confined mostly to Minnesota and Wisconsin—if it is to retain its Olympic status after the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. Next year, the International Olympic Committee will decide whether the sport is in the Games to stay, and curling officials spent the week shuffling IOC members like Britain’s Princess Anne through the rink, explaining the game’s fine points, selling last-rock strategy the way hockey markets body checks.

That is a tough job when so much of what coverage there was had an openly skeptical tone. Is this really a sport? it asked. Are these shuffleboarders-on-ice really athletes? “Curlers argue it amongst themselves, too,” says Mitchell, a muscular, fit plumber who used anti-inflammatory medicine on an injured left knee in order to compete (thereby demonstrating one requirement of an athlete: he played hurt). “There are a lot of curlers who don’t think we’re athletes, a lot of curlers who don’t think we should be in the Olympic Games. Their argument is that we don’t train. But snowboarders don’t train, either,” he says. “They just ski and party. Curling requires the same hand-eye skills as golf,” Mitchell adds emphatically. “So I think we are athletes.”

But while much was made of the CBS dismissal, the network’s real reason for skipping the sport may have had more to do with the particular makeup of the American men’s team. Skip Tim Sommerville has a criminal record for sexual assault and the team’s surliness towards the curling public is matched only by its members’ antagonism towards one another—hardly the sort of heartwarming profile made for prime time. U.S. team officials privately said they didn’t know what worried them more: losing badly in anonymity, or

winning and getting exposure. Similarly, the British team (“Let’s face it, I’m in curling because I was rubbish at football,” explained lead Ronnie Napier) fell back on foul language for motivation when shot-making failed. Red-eared CBC broadcasters finally removed the team’s body microphones.

Canadian curling, by contrast, was a G-rated family affair. The wives and girlfriends of the Harris team joked about sharing hotel rooms with the parents of their mates. And all four members of Schmirler’s rink have infants under age 2 who remained in Canada, a separation that took an emotional toll. On the first day of competition, Schmirler was asked about the stress of combining competitive curling with motherhood, and responded firmly that she has a beautiful daughter, and that’s the most important thing. ” She then slipped off to meet the Canadian entourage, bursting into tears when she saw tiny three-

month-old Joey Hart, son of Margaret and men’s team third Richard Hart. “Having Joey here was good for us,” lead Marcia Gudereit later said. “When-

ever we found ourselves really hurting about missing our kids, we could hold Joey and get our fix.”

The women made some of those sacrifices because, as Schmirler said, “it’s all for the good of our sport.” Whether the curlers convinced the Olympic movement of its merits remains to be seen, but what transpired in Karuizawa last week was a wonderful display of how sport can knit families and communities together. An emotional two-time world champion Dordi Nordby told Schmirler after their game that Nagano marked the first time her parents in Norway had ever seen her play on television. And the TV audiences in Canada will almost certainly be high as usual. “Back in Regina there are tons of good teams and I don’t know why we’ve been chosen to do this,” said Schmirler after her final win. Then she talked about how close she felt to her teammates. Like sisters, she said. “And to play with your best friends is probably the best feeling in the world.” □