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Off the beaten path, curling fans congregate

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2010

VANCOUVER -- Every four years, lesser-known sports get their bit in the Olympic games spotlight, and the niche game holding momentary fascination is curling.

For the unfamiliar, four players on two teams slide a series of well-polished rocks, known as stones, down a narrow sheet of ice, angling to position its stones closest to the center of a target. Curling resembles shuffleboard on ice. The teams get nine turns, called ends, to try and set up their shots and also disrupt their opponent's attempts to score points.

Thanks to some added coverage over the last few Winter Olympics, the sport has developed a small cult following in the United States, although it does have deeper roots in the upper Midwest, particularly in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The sport's fans are turning out in droves in a residential Vancouver neighborhood, where a minor-league baseball facility has been transformed into a white tent structure that's a temporary haven for curling enthusiasts.

What makes attending preliminary curling event so unusual for a casual fan is the fact there are four different games going on simultaneously over four different sheets of ice, all within feet of each other.

This all leads to the unusual setup where eight different groups of fans are cheering - in this case, very loudly - for their teams at different times - totally unconnected to some of the other matches. So while one team lines up for an important shot, another team's fans could be cheering for a good shot.

And the crowds of 5,600 on metal bleachers to check out the action are certainly making their presence -- at $65 CDN a ticket -- known.

"Holy God, the Canadians are loud," Chris Plys, the U.S. men's team alternate told the Calgary Sun. "This place is just a madhouse. I've been out to short track (speed skating) and that's a bigger arena, but this place is second to none. ... I've never heard anything like this before."

The deliberate pace of the game lends itself to fans for a chance to be heard, and they certainly didn't hesitate to support the host nation - several with rather inventive cheers and even electronic noisemakers - although they also were also loud cheers for good shots from one of the other three games going on.

Attending a curling match is a bit like watching four tennis matches simultaneously -- if one game is in a break or a time out, your eye can wander to what's going on in the other matches.