- Associated Press - Saturday, February 22, 2014

SOCHI, Russia (AP) - China is rising. The traditional hotbeds of Scotland and Scandinavia are still going strong. The likes of South America and Kuwait are starting to get interested.

But there’s no doubt where the balance of power lies in curling after the Sochi Olympics.

Canada added a fresh chapter to its storied curling history by becoming the first country to win the gold medals in the men’s and women’s tournaments at the same Olympics.

That continued the nation’s record of winning a medal of some color in both the men’s and women’s events at every Winter Games since curling returned to the program in 1998 - the only perfect conversion rate in the Canadian sports community.

“Curling is Canadian sport,” Canada men’s skip Brad Jacobs said, “and it goes to show we are still at the top.”

They won’t be easy to budge, either.

Nowhere is curling taken more seriously than Canada. The country has around 1 million registered curlers - way more than the rest of the world combined - and the sport is embedded in Canada’s culture, with its players treated like celebrities. TV ratings are always high, the big tournaments are usually sold out. Competition in national trials is so deep and fierce, pushing each team to get the best out of itself.

Many rival countries - Britain, China and Russia, to name three - dedicate all their funding to one full-time team. In Canada, the curlers are part-timers - Jacobs is an account manager at a bank and gold medal-winning women’s skip Jennifer Jones is a lawyer - but they have still proved to be too strong.

Will they remain the dominant force through to Pyeongchang Games in South Korea in 2018? Definitely. But other countries will be snapping at their heels.

The Asian countries could soon be the biggest threat. China, the world’s most populous nation, reached the men’s semifinals here and had the best-performing male player in Sochi in skip Liu Rui. The country’s recent tradition of hiring Canadian coaches to add some tactics and expertise to their players’ already-sound technique is paying off.

“They have been knocking on the door for a while now,” Canada curler Ryan Harnden said. “To see them make it through is good for curling.”

Japan didn’t get out of the women’s round-robin stage but World Curling Federation president Kate Caithness says more than half of the population have been watching curling these Olympics.

Caithness isn’t concerned about Canada’s domination in Sochi.

“They have played so beautifully here, but at this moment in time the men’s world champions are Sweden and our women’s world champions are Scotland,” she said. “So (the Canadians) don’t sweep the boards.

“I mean look at China - that was a huge thing. For me, that’s been the biggest surprise. They have played so, so well and they are team to be reckoned with in the future.”

Caithness says she has had up to 14 countries contacting her during the Sochi Games asking her how they can become part of curling fraternity. She acknowledges there needs to be more facilities around the world for the sport to keep the momentum it has built up from its exposure these last two weeks but is confident it is the “fastest-growing winter sport.”

So, curling - a sport that fascinates, hypnotizes and boggles the mind in equal measure - slips out of the Olympic spotlight for another four years.

When it returns, expect Canada to still be on top.

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