A Game of Ice and Granite Adds Gold

Curling is very popular in Canada, where the sport's genteel nature may be threatened by its new Olympic status and sponsorship deals

A NEW sporting controversy is heating up ice rinks in Canada. It's not about professional hockey, but over that strangest of ice sports -- curling, where a fast broom and well-thrown hunk of granite are keys to victory.

Every sport has its defining moments, but very few of these involve the deft use of cleaning implements.

In curling, which looks like a cross between shuffleboard, lawn bowling, and golf, the crucial moment comes soon after a player releases his ''stone,'' when broom-wielding team members are deployed to correct a stone's course.

''Soop [sweep] her up! Soop her up!'' shouts the ''skip'' (team captain), as two teammates shuffle sideways beside the stone, their arms piston-like blurs as they vigorously polish the ice just in front of the 40-pound disk as it glides toward a painted bull's-eye or opponent's stone.

Sweeping glazes the ice, letting a stone slide farther. It also lessens the curve or ''curl'' of a slowly spinning stone. ''Up, Up!'' shouts the skip when he or she wants brooms off the ice because the stone is on target.

Canadians, whose love of ice-bound sports knows no limits, have fallen for curling in a big way. About 1.5 million of Canada's 28 million citizens put stone to ice last year, up from 1.1 million in 1991, according to the Canadian Curling Association (CCA). The number of indoor Canadian curling clubs has grown to around 1,450. It's already big on Canadian cable-TV sports channels and getting bigger.

Perhaps too big, say some who worry that a scramble among top players and the CCA for a share of growing advertising revenues will inject big-money rivalry into a genteel sport whose etiquette includes competitors' shaking hands before and after each match and wishing each other ''good curling.''

'IT does bother me that money is getting into the sport,'' says Ross Ellis, a retired mechanical engineer, pausing from sliding a few stones on a recent Saturday at the Tamheather Country Club in Scarborough, Ontario. ''Right now the players still control the game. But it won't be too long before it will be in the hands of those that pay the money.''

Such worries gained force on Jan. 24, when Canada's top curler, Russ Howard, and 20 others sought an injunction against the CCA. Mr. Howard wants the court to allow him, over the CCA's objections, to wear his own sponsor's insignia during the Brier, the nation's week-long, nationally televised men's curling championship that begins this weekend.

The only advertisements currently visible in tournament play are those of Labatt, a large Canadian brewery given exclusive promotional rights to the tournament by the CCA. Players are required to wear a Labatt insignia, but are not compensated for wearing it.

In Howard's case, the point is moot this year since his team failed to qualify for the Brier. But others among the 20 who signed the court application with him would very much like to see the court act.

''Curling always has been a fairly laid-back sport,'' says Bob Weeks, a historian of the sport and a newspaper columnist. ''For it to come to court is an indication of how big curling has become.''

Top players currently wear their sponsor insignias all year, except during the national championships. They are barred from wearing the logos when television audiences are largest, in effect.

The Scott Tournament of Hearts, the women's championship that was played Feb. 18-26 in Calgary, drew millions of viewers. The Brier, held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, March 4-12, is expected to draw more than 3.5 million television viewers this year.

Mr. Weeks says the outcome of the curling dispute could affect other amateur athletes, including Canada's Olympians, many of whom must make ends meet by doing odd jobs.

More money and interest will flow into Canadian curling in the next few years in the run-up to the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano, Japan, where curling will be a medal sport for the first time. (It was a demonstration sport in Albertville, France, in 1992.)

'THE individual athlete should have the right to go out and get at least one sponsor,'' says Randy Paul, Howard's manager. ''The Brier is a huge marketing opportunity, and the athlete doesn't get compensated at all. It's not fair. These athletes are not asking for anything that other athletes in other sports don't get.''

Of course, that's part of the problem. A good many curlers recoil in horror at the thought that curling could end up being a hard-edged money sport like hockey or baseball. They say they like their super-friendly game the way it is, thank you very much.

Barbara Grierson, who met her future husband at a curling match, says that going to a match is a lot like spending time with family. For her, the easygoing attitudes are a key attraction in a sport that requires good coordination, but only a little bit of exertion.

''You don't have to be super strong to curl,'' she says. ''It takes a lot of balance. By the end of the game, if you've done a lot of sweeping, you can be a bit winded.''

The Scots invented the game and brought it to Canada in the 1700s. Most Americans don't know what to make of the brooms and the jargon, though it enjoys some popularity in the northern United States east of Wisconsin.

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