Sean O'Hare is a little nervous as he stares through the windows of the Fort Simpson Curling Club at the action on the ice below. It is clear that he is trying to figure out just what exactly the people are doing with the rocks and brooms. Which is rather surprising considering that O'Hare is the club president. A native of Sault Ste. Marie,

Ont., the 28-year-old moved to the Northwest Territories last summer to teach at the

Fort Simpson high school. Hoping to get involved in his new com munity, he attended a curling club meeting-and ended up in office. "Everyone gets a kick out of the fact thatl don't know anything about the sport I represent," he says. "My first few rocks were dismal-I pretty much wound up on my face." Still, O'Hare says he has found it easier to take up curling in the northern village of 1,200 than he would have in his home town, where most of his friends learned as kids. `The people I knew in the Sault were so competitive that it was n't like I could start curling with them at 20," he adds. But competi tion isn't the point, says Fort Simpson fire chief and curler Pat Rowe. "Curling breaks up the winter, that's for sure," he says. "It's nice to get out at least once a week with a group and complain about the cold and hear from everyone how the community is going." For many curlers, Rowe is no doubt right: cutthroat competition is not the main reason to play-being sociable is. After all, in how many other sports does etiquette suggest teams shake hands before and af ter a match? Or do the winners buy the first round as the teams relive

the game in the clubhouse afterward? Such niceties are part of what makes curling unique-and gives some sports junkies the willies. Curling is just shuffleboard on ice, they jibe, and curlers are hardly athletes. Or so American commentators smirked last month at the Nagano Olympics, where curling made its debut as a medal eventand Canada took home two of them. To the mix of mostly frenetic, high-speed Olympic sports, curling added friendly family fare, with a decidedly Canadian flavor. A bit of irony there: pressure from cor

• • porate sponsors and TV networks, as well as improve I 1~ ments in ice-making technology, have in recent years

made the game slicker and faster-at least by curling standards. And curling officials and fans alike are determined to keep up the momentum being generated by what is arguably the sport's biggest year ever. Just six days after curling ended at the Nagano Games, the Canadian women's championship, the Scott Tournament of Hearts, opened in Regina. This week, the men's championship, the Labatt Brier, is under way in Winnipeg. The winners of those two tournaments will then represent Canada at the sport's next oppor tunity to bask in the international spotlight, the 11-nation Ford world curling championship in Kamloops, B.C., from April 3 to 12. Despite curling's increasing efforts to go global-or at least wher ever there is a patch of ice-itis still predominantly a Canadian game. Although the World Curling Federation (WCF) has 32 member na tions, from Belarus to New Zealand, 90 per cent of the world's curlers live in Canada-some 1.2 million of them. Scotland is second with 20,000, followed by the United States with 15,000-most of them along the Canadian border in Wisconsin and Minnesota. In Canada, curling is more widespread, with members in every province and territory playing at some 1,200 clubs, and with the greatest concentrations in rural areas. One in every 20 Canadians curls at least once a year. That number increases dramatically in the West, where in Saskatchewan, for instance, one in every four residents curls (page 56). Even many Canadians who have never picked up a broom are fans. More than six million watched curling on TV in 1997; the single biggest event was the Brier in Calgary, when 1.44 million Canadians saw the final—more than tuned into the NHL playoffs, which peaked at 1.36 million viewers. Those numbers translate into Canadian dominance of the game. So dominant, in fact, that many Canadians were disappointed when

the Mike Harris team of Toronto had to settle for a silver medal in Nagano, losing out to the Swiss squad. Sandra Schmirler’s rink from Regina did its national duty, winning gold. In other international competition, Canada holds a record 33 world titles. With the odds stacked so heavily towards one country, it is perhaps perplexing that curling ever made it to the Olympics. But several events conspired in the game’s favor. Not only did Canadian officials lobby

the International Olympic Committee, but the WCF got in on the act. From 1990 to 1992, it increased its membership to 28 countries from 17, thus meeting the IOC requirement that a sport be played competitively in 25 nations covering at least three continents.

Then in 1988, the IOC expanded the Winter Games to 16 days from 12—and opened up considerably more time in its TV schedule. Curling admittedly does not have the cool panache of snowboarding or the raw aggression of hockey, but it does have one major factor in its favor: it is TV friendly. “The camera can get some very tight shots, making it a game of faces—and people identify with faces,” says Warren Hansen, Vancouver-based director of competitions for the Canadian Curling Association (CCA) who has worked with CBC and TSN on their coverage of the sport. “Second, the players are miked, and you can hear all they say as they discuss strategy. That makes the person at home in their living room part of what’s going on.”

Such arguments proved persuasive. After appearing as a demonstration sport in Calgary in 1988 and in Albertville, France, in 1992, the IOC voted to award curling medal status—and Japanese officials

volunteered to introduce it at Nagano. “That’s four years earlier than we expected,” says Roy Saintclair, Edinburgh-based vice-president of the WCF, noting curling would otherwise have made its debut as a medal sport at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002. Now, curling, like all Olympic sports, is subject to periodic review.

The Olympic exposure can only help the sport—more than 80 countries carried curling on TV. They apparently liked what they saw in Denmark. Before Helena Blach Lavrsen’s team won the women’s silver—Denmark’s first Winter Olympic medal ever—the nation’s 550 curlers had only one sheet of ice and played most of their games on hockey rinks. Now, officials plan to build two four-sheet curling rinks in the greater Copenhagen area, including one in Hvidovre, home of the Lavrsen rink. “Since we returned from Japan, nearly all the clubs have had 100 to 150 calls from people wanting to try curling,” says Niels Larsen, a member of the WCF executive committee. That’s not all. Two major TV stations, one state and one private, are vying to broadcast the world championships—a first for Danish TV. Says Larsen: “It’s marvellous to be a curler in Denmark right now.”

Even in Canada, the Olympics have helped move curling more into the limelight. Bernadette McIntyre, president of the host committee of the 1998 Scott Tournament of Hearts in Regina, says people had bought tickets to see Schmirler, the reigning world champion, even before her team won in Nagano. “Enthusiasm skyrocketed after that,” adds McIntyre. Schmirler’s opening draw on Feb. 22 against Cathy Tro well in an all-Regina matchup drew 7,346 spectators—the largest crowd ever to witness a game at the women’s championship. And even though a tired Schmirler team lost in the semifinals, the tournament set attendance records all week. By the time Alberta’s Cathy Borst beat Ontario’s Anne Merklinger 7-6 in the March 1 final, 154,688 spectators had passed through the Agridome’s doors.

Hosting such an event is a lot of work for the 850 volunteers who put in thousands of hours on everything from arena decor to transporting the players. But there is a payoff. McIntyre says proceeds will

Capitalizing on its Olympic coming-out, curling is on the move

be divided six ways: one share will go to each of the four clubs on the host committee, another will go to the local curling association, and the sixth share will go to a charitable fund, which was started after the tournament was last held in Regina in 1982, and promotes curling in the city. Curlers are not the only ones who benefit when a bonspiel slides into town. The tournament spun off some $7 million into the local economy, as fans from Alberta to Manitoba checked into Regina hotels, ate in restaurants and bought souvenirs.

Some of the excitement of the Olympics has also trickled down to the club level. In Nova Scotia, for instance, the venerable Halifax Curling Club had fallen on hard times, so last fall it stepped up its recruitment of new members. It supplemented the traditional October open house with one in December timed to coincide with the televised Olympic curling trials in Brandon; a final open house last week capitalized on the interest generated by the Olympics, as well as this week’s Brier. Active curling membership at the Halifax club has doubled to over 300—and general manager Rob Krepps says the Olympic image helped. “The recognition and acceptance of curling as a sport was a major factor,” Krepps said. “Some people had questioned that in the past, but when you participate in the Olympics, you are a sport.”

The Olympics, however, are just the latest chapter in curling’s nearly 500-year history. There is still argument about whether the game originated on the frozen ponds and rivers of the low countries of Europe or in Scotland. The language of curling can be traced back to dialects spoken by the Flemish peoples of what is now Belgium. Rocks, for instance, were originally called “kuting stones,”