Curling Sweeps Its Way to Acceptance

On historic 25th Street in this old West rail town, the signs are everywhere. Hand-painted pictures of curlers and curling stones decorate merchants' windows. A large "Welcome Curlers" sign ushers hungry visitors into Karen's Cafe.

Local residents are obsessed with Olympic curling, which is being played in their town. One woman says she "loves" that curlers are in Ogden. Her husband agrees. "It will put us on the map," he said. "That's good for the state, the county, and the city. We could not be happier."

Ogden could use the help. This northern suburb of Salt Lake City, which lies at the foot of a majestic range of mountains, was once a bustling town. No longer. Today, its Union Station is more of a museum than an active rail station, though Union Pacific freight trains still pass through the working-class town. So, anything new, including curling, is welcomed by residents.

"It's really great having all of these matches played here," said a local insurance salesman wearing a baseball cap with Canada emblazoned across the front.

His 10-year-old daughter, who wore a Team USA beret, agreed and then proceeded to succinctly explain this most misunderstood of all Olympic games. "They have 10 rocks and when it's their turn, they just slide them into the center spot. And they can block them, too," she said. Minus a few other details, she had it.

Kevin Martin, the captain (in curling terminology, "skip") of the men's Canadian Olympic team, said he's pleased with the reception curling is receiving in Ogden. "Man, we're loving it, " he said. "The crowd's really into it!"

Canada is leading the curling competition and as of this writing, had lost only one match out of eight. The American men's team did not make the top five, though the American women's team finished the round-robin portion of the event with a 6-3 record and won the final four games. Canada's women's team will play the fourth seed in the semifinal round.

Fans Find New Image for Sport

Most fans in Ogden are well aware of curling's image in this country. "It's somewhere between bar league and non-existent," one young woman said as she left the Olympic ice sheet the other day. "But," she quickly pointed out, "the Europeans and Canadians are in much better shape and kinda' cute."

Yes, she and several other women said they actually found the sport "sexy." Curling must be growing up. Martin confirmed the sport's image change by stressing the athleticism now required. "Yeah, we still enjoy a drink after a match and it's true curling was once a 'drinking' game, but you can't be foggy when you play at this level so we work out and stay in good shape."

In Canada, where one and a half million people play the sport, curling is so popular it is regularly televised. There are large cash prizes. Curlers are celebrities.

In the U.S., only about 15,000 people play the sport, mostly in small towns along the border with Canada. With the exception of the American skip who is appearing in an Office Depot television commercial, there is little celebrity status attached to the sport. A new movie — Men With Brooms — may help, but even then, star Leslie Nielsen is Canadian.

None of this discourages the people of Ogden, who have their own curling club, teach curling in school, and hold periodic public demonstrations. Still, the money is a little tight. Instead of spending $600 apiece for the polished granite stones that are used in the game, Ogden curlers use a frozen ham.

"It doesn't slide quite as well," said a local merchant, "but, it gets the job done."