Skip to main content

Since it does so much wrong, one supposes you have to congratulate the International Olympic Committee when it gets something right.

"Sports climbing" in the Olympics? Wrong.

Surfing? Even more wrong.

Story continues below advertisement

Skateboarding? Wrongest.

But mixed-doubles curling? That's just right.

The Olympic debut of that iteration of curling – a sort of bowdlerized speed curling – kicked off the event proper on Thursday morning in Pyeongchang.

The venue put you in mind of Sochi – an arena of nearly identical proportions. But the audience was markedly different.

In Russia, it was a Russian crowd there for the Russian team and no other. Though they had no idea what was going on, they screamed like maniacs the whole time, creating an aural obstacle course for every other rink on the ice.

In South Korea, it's a South Korean crowd who is there for South Korea, and anyone else who happens to be out there.

It was young and old, nearly evenly women and men. Several fans did some serious curling cos-play – pennants, flags, streamers and flashing neon headgear that looked like mouse ears. That last bit was especially popular with the over-65 set.

Story continues below advertisement

When it became apparent that the light show might disturb curlers, they voluntarily moved their seats about to get the brightest bulbs out of the line of sight.

They cheered their own team, but only in the right spots and never when it might interfere with other play. Eventually, they settled into a quiet, baffled attentiveness.

"It was great," said Canadian curler Kaitlyn Lawes. "I mean, the louder the better, so I encourage them to try to be a little more rowdy out there. But it's an early morning draw so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. But it was fun to see the support for Korea."

"A million thanks to the Korean audience. They were amazing. We came on the ice with an open mind," said Finnish curler Tomi Rantamaeki, who played against the home nation and did it the favour of losing. Canada vs. South Korea vs. Finland in an Olympic bout of duelling politeness. That would be a tough one to handicap.

(Canada vs Norway in mixed-doubles curling did not go quite so well. Lawes and her partner, John Morris, lost their opening match, 9-6.)

The real love in the room was saved for the Olympic mascot, Soohorang.

Story continues below advertisement

When Soohorang showed up in the prelims, things began to froth over. Owing to its swollen head, Soohorang appears to be functionally blind. At all times, the furry was being led about awkwardly by a minder, slamming into bannisters and waving in the slightly panicked way one does when one knows one is about to face-plant onto a curling rock.

When it became clear that this crowd could not contemplate two things at the same time – a large, clumsy doll on a suicide mission or Olympic competition – Soohorang was escorted out.

That allowed the game to dominate proceedings.

Putting the genders aside, the real difference in mixed-doubles curling is how quickly it moves. Players are on a clock. Because there are only two of them, the one curling has to do his/her own sweeping. The number of rocks and ends has been compacted. You are spared the ritual of watching a bunch of people leaning their chins on brooms waiting for something to happen.

This is transparently a way to make curling more appealing to TV audiences who do not understand it. And in this case – a little like Twenty20 cricket or rugby sevens – it works.

You still get the best of the game – the strategy – without all the bumpf required to fill time before it gets serious.

Story continues below advertisement

It's as though basketball were reduced to the fourth quarter – which, come to think of it, is not a terrible idea.

Lawes and Morris are both Olympic champions in the traditional version of the sport, but that hasn't spared them some side-eye from purists. You could feel that sensitivity when the obvious question of 'Why add this sport to the Games?' was put to them earlier in the week.

This should have been an easy one – 'Because it's great! To grow the game! Something something positivity!' Instead, their coach, Jeff Stoughton, jumped in to take the question.

"Why backstroke in swimming?" Stoughton said, bristling. "Why the front crawl? It's just something different we do on the same sheet of ice."

That analogy doesn't hold, and why so touchy? If you weren't wondering about the viability of the sport beforehand, you were certainly left in that position after Stoughton's answer.

The ultimate blame here falls, as ever, on the IOC. It is trying to turn the Olympics into the X-Games, and making everyone else twitchy as it does it.

Story continues below advertisement

"With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us," IOC president Thomas Bach said two years ago as he put surfing et al on the Tokyo 2020 ticket.

Eventually, Bach will start doing pressers in board shorts and a backward baseball cap, and somehow still look like a Swiss mortgage broker.

Bach and his cabal are engaged in the ultimate Olympic competition – chasing dollars. Mixed-doubles curling may make up a (very small) portion of that plan, but it isn't part of the problem.

More sports could use this sort of radical trimming – baseball jumps right to mind. Elite curlers ought to be applauded for making their sport more accessible, as well as more watchable.

The South Koreans were the ones doing the applauding on Thursday.

That was another difference from the crowds in Sochi. Back in Russia, when the Russians finished, everyone left. In South Korea, long after their own team had won, the South Koreans stayed on politely until everyone else had finished.

Story continues below advertisement

It was easier to do with a new game that takes half as long as the old one.

Kaitlyn Lawes says it feels “surreal” to be representing Canada in mixed doubles curling at the Pyeongchang Olympics. John Morris says he and Lawes had a “steep learning curve” at the trials after not playing together for five years. The Canadian Press
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons or for abuse. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Cannabis pro newsletter