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Curling's Proponents Look for a Clean Sweep

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 1997; Page B10

 Tom Brooke of U.S. Curling Association
 Tom Brooke on curling: "If you can introduce the game to [Americans], and they recognize the competitiveness of it, you can't believe how it turns them on."
(Dennis Drenner for The Post)
PARKTON, Md. — This is a sport that requires a translation. And perhaps a disclaimer. To people who haven't been exposed to curling, it is difficult to understand and easy to ridicule. The very name itself inspires wise-guy jokes, evidenced by the curling iron the sport's national president once received as a Christmas present.

Even watching the sport doesn't immediately clear up the confusion. Tom Brooke, the U.S. Curling Association president, obliged a photographer's request the other day, using a regulation curling broom to demonstrate the technique of "sweeping" — a highly strategic part of curling.

Brooke executed the procedure on his kitchen floor, and there was no denying it: Armed with his broom, Brooke looked like a determined janitor, attacking with frenzy a particular spot on the linoleum.

"It's a matter of introducing the game, getting people to know about it," Brooke, 72, said later from his living room couch. "Americans are so competitive. If you can introduce the game to them, and they recognize the competitiveness of it, you can't believe how it turns them on."

Curling, a four-person team sport played on ice and dominated by Canada and other cold-weather countries, will be an Olympic medal sport for the first time in February's Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. The United States is merely average in curling and unlikely to win a medal.

Curling is a competition of strategy and concentration that bears some resemblance to many things: shuffleboard, bowling, darts, golf, billiards and bocce. But to equate curling with any of those is as satisfactory as likening a candle's flicker to an inferno.

Brooke "didn't think a whole lot of" curling when first introduced to it by his late first wife. Nor did Bill Gryder, the regional coordinator in Alaska. "I first watched it when I was 13," Gryder said by telephone. "My first impression was: This is hilarious. Why are they doing that?"

Curling involves objects that Americans are unaccustomed to seeing in sports venues. There are no balls; there are 42-pound curling stones. There are no bats or rackets or clubs; there are curling brooms, which in some cases are almost exactly like the implements used for house-cleaning.

Curling requires the shooting (i.e., pushing down the ice) of the curling stones toward a 12-foot target area. As they release the stones, curlers glide on one flat-soled shoe (the other shoe grips the ice with a rubber bottom). Among the strategic maneuvers: Curlers will use their stones to knock opponents' stones out of the scoring area. They will place their stones out of reach, hidden behind other stones.

Brooke almost always wears a U.S. Curling Association pin or some other curling identification for the simple reason that people tend to ask about it.

"At my country club, everybody there knows about curling because I've made a point of them knowing," Brooke said.

In curling, just about anybody can excel. Unlike more traditional and popular U.S. sports, size, speed and strength have no bearing on who curls well and who does not.

"You don't have to have any particular physical or mental attributes to be a curler," Brooke said. "The better you are at self control and concentration, the better curler you will be."

So difficult is it to explain curling, which has been around since the 16th century in Scotland, that it might be more productive to chip away at what curling is not. Several of the sport's highest ranking leaders discussed common misperceptions about it:

"People used to think it's an old man's game, not unlike lawn bowling. That's totally the wrong impression. Most curlers today are young." (Brooke.)

"A lot of people think it doesn't require much effort or that athleticism isn't a benefit. The best curlers are generally excellent athletes." (Gryder)

"People think: That's one of the Canadian sports, so it has to be on skates." (Barry Fish of the Colorado Curling Association)

"People think it's a slow sport that doesn't have much action. People just don't realize the fun and the camaraderie of the game." (D. Clark Higgins, the president-elect of the U.S. Curling Association)

Higgins, who takes over for Brooke next year, will have a substantial job. There are 15,000 to 17,000 curlers in the United States. If that sounds substantial, consider that there are more than 1 million curlers in Canada.

Higgins and Brooke realize curling will be the butt of some jokes at the Olympics. They know it will be fodder for wise-cracking columnists and announcers. But however the sport is viewed, for the first time in the United States, it will actually have a stage. If curling reaches even some people and snags their interest, that will be a small victory for those in curling who haven't seen many victories at all.

"Who in the hell knew anything about luge before it became an Olympic sport?" Brooke said. "But if you ask any sports-minded American, they will tell you luge is sled-racing. That's what's going to happen with curling.

"What we have to do is put on a good show. We've worked hard at that."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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