- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2006

PINEROLO, Italy — Determining just what makes curling an attraction — not to mention a legitimate sport — at the Winter Olympics requires a fact-finding mission to this picturesque town about 45 minutes from Turin, an open mind and a willingness to learn.

Mission unaccomplished.

In a refurbished skating arena not even half full, stones slid down the 146-foot long, 15-foot, 7-inch wide sheet of ice. Brooms worked furiously. There were biters and take-outs, in-turns and out-turns, all kinds of other technical stuff. Italy, the host nation, got blown out yet again, albeit in a different sport.

Yet in the end, it was a lot of sliding and sweeping.

And when that got a bit too frenzied, there was just enough standing around to make sure no one overextended him- or herself.

Curling, which started in Scotland in the 16th century, was an Olympics sport in 1924, then was a demonstration sport three times before it achieved medal status again in 1998. The object is to slide, with just the right touch, a big round “stone” made of polished granite into a bull’s-eye area known as “the house” as sweepers try to alter the stone’s speed and direction. The stones closest to the center score points.

This was the first day of the women’s round-robin competition, four games at once. The U.S. women, specifically Jamie and Cassie Johnson, sisters and first-time Olympians, have been creating a buzz.

Some people think they are twins, but Jamie, 25, is actually 15 months older, although they do look and sound alike. They seem like nice people, and no one connected with the sport has been shy about pointing out that they are blonde and attractive.

But mainly, the Johnsons are accomplished curlers. They come from the town of Bemidji, Minn., which, according to legend, is the birthplace of the giant woodsman, Paul Bunyan. But that’s another story, and it might not be true. It is a fact, however, that curling is big in Bemidji. The Johnsons are fourth-generation curlers.

According to another legend, which is true, their mom, Liz, was five months pregnant with Jamie when she and her husband, Tim, won a national curling tournament.

And therein lies part of the problem. What kind of sport is it, really, when you can do it four months from giving birth?

“It’s a welcoming sport,” Kim Lockhart said. “People who aren’t necessarily athletically inclined can take it up.”

No further questions.

Lockhart is an editor at the Toronto Star and a 15-year curler. For the next few weeks, he is doubling as “press information specialist” for the Olympic News Service. In other words, he is helping spread the word about curling.

Here’s what else he has to say about it: “It’s a good TV sport. I think the modern person is multitasking, anyway, and with curling on TV, you can talk on the telephone or read a newspaper. It’s a good thing to have on the screen. And, hey, pretty girls sometimes, eh?”

He also said, “The trouble people have with curling is it doesn’t require hand-eye coordination.”

This guy can sell, eh? At least he left out strength, speed and agility, too.

It was noted, with some irony, that a banner hung by some Denmark supporters in the arena bore the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger.”

Sorry, not here.

Where other Olympic athletes are falling and crashing, literally risking life and limb, a tweaked hamstring is the worst that can happen in curling.

It does require concentration, touch and technique. Curlers, without question, are dedicated and committed. They train hard, invest their time and sacrifice their personal lives to their sport — a sport that often is enjoyed even more when accompanied by a frosty beverage.

Whoops. That crossed the line.

“The old stereotype of the beer belly, forget that,” Lockhart said. “They look like they just came from the gym. They’re muscle-toned athletes. They take it very seriously.”

The U.S. men started well by beating Norway, the defending gold medalists, 11-5 yesterday but then lost 4-3 to Finland. The more publicized women — the Johnsons, Jessica Schultz, Maureen Brunt and Courtney George — slipped when they let a 4-1 lead melt away and lost to Norway 11-6. Still, there’s a long way to go. “Fast ice” was cited as one problem, but Cassie and Jamie both said the team will adjust.

And at least the Americans finished. Italy, whose 16-0 defeat to Canada in women’s hockey the other day was the worst in Olympics history, quit after falling behind 11-4 to powerhouse Switzerland. You’re allowed to quit in curling? Well, yes.

The Johnsons were good sports after the loss. They fielded all questions with grace and aplomb, even those from no-nothings and doubters who wanted to know why they should pay attention to curling.

“You don’t have to be old,” Jamie said. “You can be young. Any age, basically. You have to have good balance, and you have to be mentally prepared.” Cassie talked about strategy and “the uniqueness of the sport.”

You decide. Meanwhile, as long as they are here, wish them well.

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