February sweeps: Curling to hit the airwaves again
AP Sports Writer
VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Every four years, Americans tune in to check out Olympic curling – even if they don’t quite understand what they’re watching.
The quirky sport with the sweeping is back on the air starting Tuesday, when the men’s and women’s tournaments begin at the Vancouver Games. A curiosity in the U.S. but a pastime here in Canada, the event figures to draw some spirited crowds to its 5,600-seat arena in a quiet residential part of town.
“This place holds twice as many people as Turin did,” said John Shuster of the U.S. team. “I’m venturing to say it’ll probably be pretty full.”
There are about a million curlers in Canada, where the game is nearly as popular as hockey.
The U.S. men won bronze at the 2006 Games in Turin and will try for another medal at the Vancouver Olympic Centre. Curling will be aired on MSNBC, CNBC and USA throughout the games, so viewers will have plenty of chances to get to know the sport again.
It’s been a while since Turin, so here’s a brief review: Two four-person teams face off in matches that are 10 ends (or innings) long. They take turns sliding 42-pound granite stones down a sheet of ice toward a set of scoring circles.
Points are scored based on how close the stones are to the center of the scoring area, called the button. Competitors sweep the ice in front of the stone while it’s traveling to change its speed or direction to make it “curl.”
It’s like shuffleboard, but on ice, and the quality of the surface is always crucial. Switzerland’s Ralph Stoeckli praised the ice after practicing Sunday.
“If it stays like that, it’s going to be a great event,” he said. “We can’t blame the ice. Usually there are good ice conditions over here.”
Curling medals were awarded in 1924, then not again until 1998. It was a demonstration sport the last time the Winter Games were held in Canada, in Calgary in 1988.
Shuster is the American skip, or captain, and he’s the only member of the team who was in the bronze-winning group in 2006. The women’s team is entirely different four years after the American “Curl Girls” became minor celebrities in Turin but didn’t win a medal.
Debbie McCormick, the women’s skip, is back for her third Olympics after missing in 2006.
Canada took the gold in men’s curling in Turin, and its women won the bronze. Sweden won the women’s title.
Kevin Martin, this year’s Canadian skip, expects his team’s toughest competition to come from Great Britain, led by Scottish skip David Murdoch.
Although there’s now a nice rivalry between the teams, Murdoch expects a sophisticated reception in Canada.
“We’ve had great success here,” he said. “The Canadian crowd is great with us. They cheer good shots and they enjoy good shot making.”
NBC will televise the pairs figure skating final in prime time Monday, as well as American Shani Davis’ bid for gold in 500-meter speedskating.
The network also hopes to feature the men’s downhill – if the race is run. It’s already been delayed once because of weather that’s been too warm and too wet.
Contrast that with the scene at the indoor curling venue, where competition is set to start on time Tuesday morning amid plenty of fanfare.
“I think it’s great,” Canadian skip Cheryl Bernard said. “Normally we just have family. Now we’ll have 30 million fans or whatever the population of Canada is” – more than 33 million, in fact.
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.