When it comes to the Winter Olympics, most of the events aren’t the type that just anybody can pick up and try on a whim.
Ski jump, luge, bobsled, speed skating and even Alpine skiing all take a great deal of skill, courage and time to perfect.
But there’s one game that anybody can try, and it’s quickly becoming one of the most popular Winter Olympic sports in the world.
Despite its odd appearance, slow pace and anonymous superstars, curling has become one of the fastest-growing Winter Olympic sports in the country, and it’s largely because of NBC’s increased dedication to showing it on television during the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy.
Curling was the only Winter Olympic sport that had an increase in television ratings from the 2002 Olympics to 2006 and, because of that, NBC plans to air more than 100 hours of live curling action during this year’s Olympics in Vancouver, which open Friday.
That extra exposure only figures to help the growth of the sport in cities around the country.
“During the Olympics, it really takes off,” said Ian Wolfe, president of the Kansas City Curling Club, which is in its seventh year of existence. “Four years ago we just had piles of people who wanted to learn how to get started, and we’ll probably see that again this time around.”
Curling’s first go-around with the Olympics came as a demonstration sport in the 1920s. But back then the games took all day, and few countries fielded teams. The game’s official debut as an Olympic sport came in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, but its origins date back to 16th-century Scotland.
Sometimes referred to as “chess on ice,” curling actually more resembles the game of shuffleboard that’s popular in both retirement communities in Florida and bars and pubs, which is all the more appropriate considering that Wolfe said one of the most important parts of curling was the camaraderie, on and off the ice.
“Curling is a game of respect and etiquette,” Wolfe said. “But it’s also a very social game. A lot of curlers learn how to curl in an hour, and then they’re ready to go. After that it’s just a matter of honing their skills and learning how to drink a lot more beer.”
Games — broken down into “ends” — consist of four-person teams rolling 45-pound granite stones down the ice toward a target known as the “house.” The objective is to land your stones as close as possible to the center of the house, known as the “button.” One point is awarded for every stone in the house that is closer than your opponent’s best try.
The rules of curling are not hard to follow, and the game is not difficult to play.
“It’s kind of like the every-day person’s sport,” Wolfe said. “The unique part is that some of the best curlers in the world still have full-time jobs. So it’s not that they’re dedicated to curling from the time they’re 5 years old and never stop. You can curl at any age. You don’t necessarily peak when you’re 22 years old. Some of the best curlers in the world are actually in their 50s.”
One of the most challenging parts — especially in Kansas — is finding a place to play.
“Because of the unique conditions and the cost involved, it really is a hard sport to get started in,” said Bill McBride, the K.C. Curling Club’s communications director.
McBride said the start-up costs for curling in equipment alone can exceed $10,000, and for those enthusiasts without their own ice, renting rink time can also prove costly. The Pepsi Ice Midwest rink in Overland Park, which the K.C. club calls home, charges $450 for a two-hour session. On a typical day, the club puts 15-25 curlers onto the ice. The larger number helps offset the cost, but McBride and Wolfe said the club always is looking for more members.
“Our main goal as a club is to continue to get the exposure out there, to get people to try it and hopefully to hook them so that when we make the big jump to getting our own facility, we can start to really think about developing Olympic athletes,” McBride said.
In the United States there are 15,000 registered curlers. That number is 25 percent larger than it was when the Kansas City Curling Club first formed in 2003. While guys like Wolfe and McBride are encouraged by the sport’s growth in this country, they realize the U.S. has a long way to go before being mentioned in the same breath with other curling-crazy countries like Canada.
“There are over a million curlers up there,” McBride said. “It’s televised like crazy, and people watch it like baseball up there. It’s just part of their culture.”
The Vancouver 2010 curling competitions begin Tuesday and will run for 11 consecutive days. The United States, which surprised everyone by winning bronze in 2006, is not among the favorites at this year’s Games.