Winter Olympics viewers join in

Olympics viewers get exposure to sports they might not have heard of otherwise. Now some of them are trying the sports out themselves.

Alan Rogers/AP
A member of the Casper (WYO.) Curling Club.

Colorado resident Tim Brock had never heard of the sport of curling until his sister in Alaska started playing. As she explained the basics to him over the phone – sliding a 40-pound disk across a sheet of ice toward a target – Mr. Brock recalled having seen curling on television during the last winter Olympics, but hadn’t paid much attention. “I just didn’t get it,” he says.

For many Americans, the winter Olympics provide a first glimpse of unfamiliar sports such as curling. While Canadians curl with gusto, it is not mainstream enough in the United States to warrant widespread public programs. Biathlon – a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship – is in a similar situation: It is wildly popular in Eastern Europe but virtually unheard of across the pond. Other winter Olympic sports such as luge and speed skating draw more interest but require special facilities not available in most US cities.

But obscurity doesn’t stop people like Brock from giving these sports a try. As one of the newest members of the Denver Curling Club, he’s learning the rules of the sport and mastering the skills required to “deliver the stone,” the term for sliding the granite disk on ice. When the 2014 Winter Olympics get under way in Sochi, Russia, Feb. 3, this time he’ll have firsthand knowledge of curling. “[I]t’s a lot of fun,” Brock says, “kind of like bowling on ice.”

During the last winter Olympics, the number of beginners at the Denver Curling Club nearly tripled. “We were turning people away, and our Learn to Curl program accumulated a wait list that extended into the summer,” says Pam Finch, president of the Denver Curling Club.

Biathlon also sees a spike during Olympic season. According to John Heilig, manager of Nordic Sport at the Whistler Olympic Park in British Columbia, once people see it on television, they’re intrigued with the idea of shooting a .22-caliber rifle while under the extreme exertion of cross-country skiing. “People who’ve never even skied before show up wanting to do biathlon,” he says.

While the majority of people don’t stick with Olympic-inspired sports, some make a longer commitment when it complements their lifestyle. “We get a lot of cyclists and runners who see speed skating and want to start doing it for cross-training,” says Ryan Shimabukuro, one of the head coaches at the Utah Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City.

The Denver Curling Club gained so many members during the past two winter Olympics that it is building a new dedicated facility in Golden, Colo. “The Olympics are our best recruiting tool,” says Ms. Finch.

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