Ancient sport of curling may gain popularity via Olympic showcase

If you mention you are a curler to most people in the southern half of the United States they'll probably think you work in a beauty parlor or lift weights. But for about 20,000 Americans, curling is a sport that involves skill, strategy, and precision - and next week curlers from nine countries will be competing for the gold in Calgary. For the first time since 1924 and 1932, curling, a kind of shuffleboard on ice, will be a demonstration sport at the Winter Olympics - this time for women as well as men.

In the US, curling is pretty much confined to the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, and Alaska, but aficionados believe Olympic recognition will increase the game's popularity.

``We're hoping it will take off to where more people become interested and where people know you're not curling hair or pumping iron,'' Lori Mountford, a US women's team member, says.

Often described as a game of finesse, curling is one of the most popular participant sports in Canada, where it is as common to switch on the TV and see a curling match as it is to watch Saturday bowling in the US.

What is curling and how is it played?

As Ben Wellington, a curler at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., describes it: ``The strategy is akin to chess, the exercise is like two hours of tennis, and the real playing of the game involves the finesse of golf.''

Perhaps the most unusual part about this traditional 400-year-old game is the equipment - 42-pound stones, with handles, that are hurled down the ice, and brooms that are used to sweep away any debris in front of a moving stone.

And as in every sport, becoming familiar with the jargon helps. A game or match is a bonspiel (Scottish for good play); a team of four players is called a rink; and the captain, who acts as team strategist, is the skip. The game is divided into ``ends,'' sort of like innings in baseball, and is played on a sheet of ice that resembles a long, wide bowling lane.

Each player delivers two stones to a 12-foot circle known as the goal, or house. He uses a ``hack,'' or brace, for his foot, which is fastened to the ice to keep him from slipping as he swings the stone. A twist of the handle on release makes the stone curl. The object is to get the stone closest to the house or to bump another rock away. After each end of 16 stones, the score is tallied. Games are usually 10 ends, and last from 2 to 2 hours.

Sweeping is the real test of the curler's physical ability and stamina. When the skip gives the signal to ``sweep,'' the other two members of the rink spring into action, using their brooms to vigorously brush the ice so that a slow-moving stone can glide faster along the polished surface to its desired goal. One must be in shape to endure such a workout and fast on one's feet to avoid being hit by the stone. Curlers contend that good sweeping is an art - needing a keen eye and quick judgment of the skip who controls when and when not to sweep.

Begun in Scotland in the early 1600s, curling was played on frozen lochs and was nothing more than a pastime for farmers during the hard winter months. When Scottish immigrants moved to North America in the 18th century, they brought the game with them, and it spread across Canada, until it finally crept across the border to Michigan and the New England states around 1830. Curling clubs flourished in major cities like New York and Detroit by 1855.

Curlers say part of the sport's appeal is its social aspect and unique camaraderie. Also, it is a competitive sport that people of all ages and professions can take part in. ``I liken it to a guitar,'' says Wellington. ``It's very easy to play a few chords. Curling is very easy for a beginner to be adequate at and just have a great time. But like anything else, it takes a lot of practice.''

Moreover, little strength is needed to make the stones slide down the ice. ``At the club level, an 18-year-old and an 80-year-old can curl equally,'' says Coco Wellington, Ben's wife.

Even at a competitive level, the US Olympic teams have proved that curling is not limited to one age group. The women, all from Wisconsin, range from Erica Brown, at 14 years old the youngest Olympic curler ever, to Carla Casper, a 41-year-old mother of four.

The men's team, with an average age of 44, is about 10 years older than that of most world-class curling teams. ``We opened a lot of eyes winning the Olympic trials since our ages are getting up there,'' says team member Bob Nichols. All four are former national and world champions, and cite experience as their strength.

In Calgary, curling will be contested at the highest of the three demonstration-sport levels - demonstration-competiton. As such it will have full round-robin tournaments with gold, silver, and bronze medals - not official Olympic medals but special ones put out by the organizing committee. The eight-team men's field is made up of Canada, the United States, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, West Germany, and Scotland, while the women will represent the first seven countries plus France.

A demonstration sport is one that is being considered by the International Olympic Committee for inclusion in the regular program. Curling is slated to be one again in 1992 in Albertville, France, and curlers are hopeful it will achieve full medal status by the next Games.

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