There are no fistfights or benchclearing brawls, no victory fireworks, no speed to speak of, no towering legends of the game. The players are not noticeably athletic and, while they can make thousands of dollars in prizes and endorsements, they are a long way from the huge paydays of pro sports. If they are rich, they got that way by selling cars, practising law or building houses—not by heaving a 44-lb. stone along a 40-m rink in hopes of hitting a bull’s-eye at the other end, which is the essence of the sport of curling. Last week, men’s and women’s teams from 13 countries gathered for the World Curling Championships in the Manitoba university city of Brandon, already in a party mood following the Wheat Kings victory in the Western Hockey League’s eastern semifinal. But for the curlers, the community had support to spare—the 5,600-seat Keystone Centre was jammed, further evidence that while hockey is Canada’s most popular ice sport, curling—
driven by the fanaticism of 1.5 million addicts—is growing fast. “I’ve been to 13 world championships,” said spectator Dorothy Waters, “and, by far, this one is the best yet.” For Canadian fans, the event became even better when both the country’s entries made it to the finals. The women’s team, skipped by Connie Laliberte, lost to Sweden in the gold-medal game; the men’s, skipped by Kerry Burtnyk, was preparing to play on Sunday. And for the game itself, which traces its roots to 16th-centuiy Scotland, the prospects have never been brighter. The International Olympic Committee has voted to make curling a medal sport, beginning at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. And Ross Tousaw, the administrative vice-president for the world championships next March in Hamilton, said Olympic acceptance is already drawing more children into the game. “The fact that curling has been given medal status,” Tousaw said, “means that young people feel there’s still an opportunity for them
to get into the Olympics, even if they don’t figure skate or play hockey.” While curling has long prospered in Scotland, Canada and the northern United States, its supporters elsewhere have faced an uphill struggle. “In Switzerland, the media always says curling is a second-class sport,” said Jurg Haas, a commentator for DRS Swiss radio who will also be chairman of the organizing committee for the world championships in Berne in 1997. And achieving Olympic status, added Haas, may not help all that much. “Some people have told me there are also second-class Olympic sports,” he said. That attitude is shared by many Norwegians whose wintertime passions are for more physical pursuits, such as cross-country and downhill skiing. Dordi Nordby, skip of the Norwegian curling team, said she had been frustrated by public indifference to the game, which Olympic acceptance should help to diminish. “It will change in Norway and in the whole of Europe, and there are countries that don’t play at all that will
have a look at it,” she said. “In Norway, if a sport becomes an Olympic sport, they’ll try it.” There is nothing tentative, however, in the reaction of Canadians to a sport once played with melted-down cannon balls on the frozen St. Lawrence by Scottish troops outside Que-
bec City. By the weekend, thousands of fans had thronged into Brandon. Merchants put up signs reading “Go Canada Go” and “Good luck, Kerry and Connie.” The province gave bars permission to sell drinks on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, a concession almost
unheard-of in the conservative region around Brandon. In the huge Country Rock Saloon, a bank of TVs kept patrons abreast of the action. One woman wore a large Canadian flag; her male companion had a maple leaf painted on his face.
When they were not on the ice, Burtnyk and his crew played with a computerized golf game. “We’re all big sports fanatics,” said the 36-year-old Burtnyk, a Winnipeg investment counsellor. “Last weekend, we watched the Masters and now we’re checking out hockey scores.” Added teammate Jeff Ryan: ‘We never practise. It doesn’t do me any good because I get bored really quick.” The women’s team appeared equally at ease. Janet Arnott, who played with Laliberte when they won the world title in 1984, said that during a game with Norway members of both teams “were laughing about a couple of things—you’re out to win but you want to keep the friendships.”
Not everyone was in the party mood. Amid the commercial displays, four Russians set up a booth and said the money they made selling trinkets would go towards building their country’s first curling rink. Two Japanese observers said that because of its teamwork, strategy and technique, interest in curling was growing in Japan. “And after the game,” said Akinori Kashiwagi, 47, “you go drink!”
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