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ISSUE 121 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/14/2008

Curling grows in popularity

By Matt Everhart
Staff Writer

Friday, March 14, 2008

The first images that spring to mind when one thinks about the Winter Olympics often have to do with the speed of skiing, the competitive energy of hockey or the grace of figure skating. So how does curling, a sport known for its slow-moving strategy rather than its athletic intensity, fit in? Introduced to the Olympic games in 1998, curling isn't what most people think of when they think of the pinnacle of competitive sports. Despite this, it's been a popular sport in Canada and parts of the United States for over 100 years. Originally developed in Scotland in the 16th century, curling is played on a sheet of ice with a target at each end. The goal of the game is to slide a 44-pound granite stone towards the center of one of the targets, thus scoring points for your team. These stones, the best of which come from a tiny island off the coast of Scotland, can be rotated slightly for precision stone placement. Besides the thrower who launches the stone, a team consists of a "skip" who directs where the shot should go, and two "sweepers" who sweep the ice directly in front of the stone to increase the speed. Though it sounds more like a giant, cold version of shuffleboard, the nuances and strategies of the game earned it another nickname: chess on ice. Associate professor of mathematics Steve McKelvey has played this strange sport since he was in elementary school growing up in Stevens, Wis. He played on his high school's curling team, and continues to play today at the Owatonna curling club. The Owatonna club, which plays in the downright quaint 4-H exhibition grounds, is the closest to Northfield, though Burnsville and St. Paul also have clubs. Northern Minnesota and Canada, however, are the real curling bastions of North American, said McKelvey. He added that it's particularly popular in the iron range. "Every little town up there has a curling club," he said. Many of the curling clubs of northern Minnesota date back to the 1940s and 50s, when government subsidies, which were plentiful after World War II, helped build and maintain curling clubs. In fact, Bemidji, Minn., a town of about 12,000 residents, fielded half of the members of the United States curling team at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. Since 1998, McKelvey said there has been an uptick of interest in curling. Curling was shown mainly on NBC's cable affiliates, and became something of a cult hit. "It generated a lot of interest," said McKelvey. He said since then every four years there is an increased number of curious spectators at curling clubs. "A lot of people get hooked when they throw a rock," he said. The curling community has been largely welcoming of this trend, he added, particularly curling club owners whose profits have increased. Curling's strategic complexity becomes evident quickly, said McKelvey. "There's an intellectual component to it," he said, which is one of the main reasons he continues to play. Curling has another appealing component to it that many don't notice: suspense. "It takes so long [for the stone] to get from the hand to the other end of the sheet," he said, adding it can take sometimes 15 to 20 seconds depending on how hard the stone is thrown. There is limited control over the rock once it is played, and every game is unique, he added. "There's a lot of precision involved," he said. The whole team needs to work together to make a successful move, and one mistake can ruin chances of success. Yet another appeal of the sport is that anyone of any age can be competitive. Scott Baird of Bemidji, Minn. became the oldest Winter Olympics competitor in history, and the oldest medal winner, when he helped the U.S. curling team win the bronze medal in 2006. It's not uncommon at a curling club to see a grandparent schooling their grandchild with precise stone placement and careful assessment of the board, rather than brute force. "Young people and old people can be equally competitive," said McKelvey. He added that the Owatonna club has a novice curling night each week, which welcomes all ages. Not to say that there is no physical component in curling. "There is an aerobic element to it, and that's sweeping," said McKelvey. The sweeper has to maintain balance on one shoe that slides (often coated with Teflon) and one shoe that grips while sweeping as the stone moves down the ice&without touching any of the other stones already on the ice. And sweeping itself isn't easy work. "He'll be really huffing and puffing if they're sweeping hard," McKelvey said. There's a potential crisis in the curling world however: material for authentic curling stones is running out. "There is a shortage of curling stones in American," said McKelvey. The Scottish island which produces the unique granite for curling stones is now a wildlife sanctuary; no quarries are in operation today. This has boosted prices of quality stones, up to $1500 in some cases, and forced the Olympics to use stones from a quarry in Wales. McKelvey said this rarity only adds to the charm of curling. "Romance is a big part of the sport in the U.S.," he said conjuring wholesome images of curlers bundled up against a cold Minnesota winter. Besides the athletic legitimacy or esoteric nuances of the sport, McKelvey said there are other, more intangible reasons for enjoying curling. There are traditions in curling which have been around for as long as anyone can remember, he said. "One is buy a drink for the losing team, and the other is the winning team has to clean the ice for the next game," he said. Shaking hands before and after each game is also important, as it is in hockey. "That tradition happens at every level of curling," he said, including the Olympic level. For McKelvey, there are more personal reasons for loving curling. For one, "it's a nice way to get away from St. Olaf in the wintertime," he said, a sentiment to which most of us can relate. But beyond that, McKelvey said there is a "sense of honor about the game" unique to the sport. He said the point of the game is not to win by any means necessary or by foul play, but rather "letting your opponent do the best they can, and hoping that you can do better". In that respect, curling may represent an ideal of what athletic competition should be about, and makes it fit right in at any sports venue, from the Olympics to a 4-H barn in Owatonna.

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