Friday, February 17, 2006

In Praise of Curling

I've really been enjoying the Winter Olympics, a sentiment that would put me far out of the mainstream if you're paying attention to the reviews the Games are getting. Every time the Olympics come around, it's standard for the sports columnists to scoff at the them, especially the Winter Games, as not being real sports. The implicit criticism is that Americans don't care about these sports because are too European--a gripe that will kick into high gear when the World Cup starts--and are not masculine enough, as if a sport is defined by how closely it resembles American football.

The Olympics are also written off because the TV ratings don't match what they once did. That's doubly true for the Torino Olympics because it follows the Salt Lake City Games, which saw a ratings boost due to being on U.S. soil. Isn't it funny how 23 million viewers translates into "nobody's watching"?

Since NBC's primetime coverage is not live and the results are on the front page of the network's Olympics site--this is the place for the TV schedule without spoilers--a DVR provides the perfect way to view the most Games in the least time. NBC's coverage has been pretty good. They've gone light on the syrupy human interest packages in favor of showing more athletic competition. How novel. A broad range of sports are getting substantial TV time on the NBC family of networks. Much to my pleasure, curling has been a showcase sport.

Previous Olympics have piqued my interest in the sport, but I don't recall it ever being shown much to get a sense of how the game is played. Now that I've had the chance to watch entire matches once or twice a day, I can say that curling is a lot of fun to watch. It's a game of strategy and precision rather than power. Like baseball, the action may not be fast, but it can be very exciting.

The U.S. men turned things around with a dramatic win over Sweden yesterday. Pete Fenson and team are a fun bunch to watch. Plus, how cool is it that the skip (curling jargon for captain) owns and runs two pizza shops?

The U.S. women's heartbreaking loss to Sweden was as thrilling as any close sporting event I've seen recently. This morning I couldn't believe how they pulled out a miracle in the 10th end to tie Russia. To my chagrin, the U.S. women's hockey game was due to start when the extra end began, so I had to keep refreshing the results page to learn that the curl girls dropped another tough one. The loss pretty much seals their elimination from medal contention.

I'm not sure what led NBC to give curling as much air time as it's getting. (It's not that well known, is it?) Both teams were considered medal contenders, so it's likely that factored into the equation. Sisters Cassie and Jamie Johnson are cute as buttons, so I imagine that didn't hurt either. Whatever the reasons, I'm glad NBC has chosen to showcase a sport that is so fun to watch that I'm tempted to give it a try myself.

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