Another Winter Olympics season, another reason for the return of Winter Olympics Buffy (yours truly) and her obsessive sports rants.
While everyone is flipping out over the ballerinas of figure skating, the blood-lust of hockey and the daredevils of the slopes, I watch breathlessly as the curling stones head toward their icy bull’s eye. OK, I’ll be the first to admit that curling is no Prom Queen of the Winter Olympics. Traditionally played by paunchy middle-aged men and soccer mom types, it’s been relegated to the back row of the Winter Games, used for the occasional Olympic punch line, but largely ignored. And really, this has been the great challenge for the World of Curling (yes, there is one). It has recently caused a sea-change for the sport, which is at once fascinating and yet utterly heart-breaking to observe.
You might be saying at this point, “W.O. Buffy, you had me lost at curling.” So before I regale you with the tale of a dying era, as witnessed through this multifaceted game, I will give you some background on curling.
Here is the beauty of curling. It was invented by janitors working the midnight shift, who were obviously drinking at the time. Some of the most spectacular inventions have come out of tipsy late night tomfoolery, and this sport is one of them. Also, it was invented in Scotland, so of course they were drinking and dicking around!
The game involves two teams taking turns sending heavy kettle-like stones down the ice toward a bull’s eye of sorts. The opposing team then attempts to knock their opponents’ stone out of the ring, hopefully replacing it with one of their own. As the stone hurls toward its intended destination, two teammates either rough up or smooth out the ice ahead of it to manipulate its course. The athletes wear one teflon-soled, slidy shoe and one rough-soled shoe, which makes them wobble like cute little drunk penguins while walking, but allows for genius maneuvering as they rush down the icy lane. There are typically 10 rounds in a game. At the end of each round, whichever team has a stone inside the inner ring, or, failing that, the most stones within the larger ring, wins the round, counting up the number of stones. The loser counts nothing, because they lose! So, imagine the three great beer-drinkers’ sports – Billiards, Darts and Bowling – on ice, and you’ve got curling. You really can’t get more British than this.
And what Great Sport would be complete without its own hero, a champion poster boy who is at once endearing and complex, who embodies the soul of the game, as well as its heartbreak. Oh, and he should be cute, too! Winter Olympics Buffy couldn’t have it any other way. Speed skating has its Apolo Ohno and curling has David Murdoch…
Poised, steady, graceful, a tour-de-force of tactical calculation, he rarely cracks a smile. But watch closely and you’ll see the emotional drama of the sport play out upon his brow. Um, swoon, he’s also Scottish.
There’s little we know about the mysterious Mr. Murdoch (frankly, W.O. Buffy’s quite miffed that there isn’t a fan site dedicated to him yet). He’s apparently an avid cyclist and a Lance Armstrong fan. He’s also a farmer. I don’t know what exactly that means, but it sure sounds dreamy. What we do know is that he was pretty much born on the ice, playing the sport since he was a wee lad. One of the top curlers on the planet, Davey led Team Scotland and Team UK to various World Championship wins, mopping the ice with Team Canada on more than one occasion.
As I watched Team UK’s curling saga unfold in Vancouver this past week, I witnessed the true British spirit unfurl, as if in slow motion, before my eyes. Mild-mannered, genteel and gentle, the curlers send their stones hurtling forth, and gradually a storm of focused rage erupts upon their faces. Their cheeks flush red as their roars intensify, screaming orders to their sweepers – yea, yea, yea, no, no, yea, go, GO, GO! Harder! And then I realize, this Jekyll & Hyde transformation, this drama of extremes, happens nightly in Britain’s pubs! Like drinking, curling gives one the excuse to shed that prim and proper exterior, if only for a moment. Curling is Great Britain, no matter what nation is playing it.
But sadly, just like the Great Empire that once held the world in its hands, Team UK’s supremacy over curling is on the wane. They came to Vancouver confident and hopeful, having become World Champions since leaving Turin empty-handed 4 years ago. They had even kicked the butts of Canada, that big Goliath, before the Winter Games! And I watched them over the past few days, struggling, losing their morale, committing crucial errors. Dave’s knitted brows told volumes. Something has been taking the fire out of them. So what happened? To answer this question, we must look closer at the teams competing in Vancouver, we must consider how the sport is changing, and why it is changing. We must also think about the essence of Britishness – the things that make these people so great, and at once so vulnerable.
First, let’s examine the changing “face” of curling. Curling commentator Jennifer Jones could not have summed it up better in her unsurprisingly vapid Yahoo! Sports clip:
We’re gonna find out if curlers are beer-guzzling broom-pushers, or the new model for an Olympic athlete!
Models indeed. We have the tall, spray-tanned lotharios of Norway, the cocky, equally tall pretty boys of Sweden. Canada’s big jock behemoths, currently unstoppable in their claim for the curling Gold, are boasting about their big pecks and off-season training rituals. There’s Team USA, young, callous, brazen, whose head-held-high loss against Team UK only served to show how little they have to lose. What do they care? They got contracts for another few seasons on the CW to return to! Are you following Chris Plys’ Twitter yet?? OMG!
And don’t get me started on the girls. Well, if you insist… Even if you’ve never watched the sport, you may have heard of the Women of Curling Calendar. Times are a-changin indeed. Here’s another little nugget:
That’s Denmark’s Madeleine Dupont, who is part of an International Campaign to “Raise” Awareness for Curling. And you think I’m kidding! Between all the nudie pix and the checkered trousers debacle; it’s plain to see where this is all headed.
So this is what Team UK has stepped into. The carnival of flash and ratings that is the Olympics. The sudden O Canada audience singalongs that are so disruptive they have to pause the game. The CHECKERED PANTS! Just look at these boys. They’re just a bunch of blokes; they wanna put in a game and go to the pub. They have love handles, receding hairlines, they’re simple salt of the earth. In the off-season they do un-Olympicky things like vacations with families! Like farming! Sure, they’re cunning strategists. And they goddamn love curling. But at the Olympics, this is not enough. Great Britain itself is doing just that – slowly losing its worldly “Great”ness. It seems, for one reason or another, they just lose their steam. How is it that this once-kingdom of inventors and financial stalwarts can’t keep up with the rest of Europe in renewable energy infrastructure? How can this once-Empire be brought to its knees by a little snow storm? That British confidence has given way to insecurity. Who knows if it’s a phase, or if it’s here for good. Only time, and the 2014 Olympics, will tell.
So here is darling Davey and his mates, barely missing their chance at a medal in Vancouver 2010, just as they had in Turin 2006. Heading home to Ol’ Blighty empty-handed yet again. And you know what? I’m fairly confident that they’ll go back to kicking some butt in national, European and World competitions yet again. Because they own this sport, they love it, but they love it like real men, not like Olympic mutants or PR junkies. And outside of those Rainbow Rings, it seems that’s good enough.
So let’s go have a pint, guys.