Day Five: Hurry Hard (but Hurry Up)
February 17, 2010
On Sunday night, I watched my first new episode of The Simpsons in a very long time, a show I used to love a great deal (and which I own eleven seasons of on DVD). The allure of curling, it appears, was too much for me, and there I was watching Homer and Marge travel to Vancouver. I’ve got all sorts of thoughts about the episode’s presentation (or lack thereof) of that Canadian city which I’ll save for a later date, but the episode got all sorts of things wrong: no, I won’t complain about Marge pulling off various sweeping feats impossible in real life considering that it’s a cartoon, but the rocks were all the same colour, and the rocks didn’t rotate, and…well, you get the picture.
I don’t actually curl in real life, nor do I organize my entire life around broadcasts of curling bonspiels or tournaments, but yet the sport holds a particular place in my heart. It is a game of pure strategy and execution, where centimetres matter at various different intervals (where you place the broom to guide the throw, where the throw actually goes, where the stones end up, etc.) and where momentum can shift instantly. And so while I appreciate the excitement of the sudden death races like Maelle Ricker’s tense Snowboard Cross victory, and always appreciate the non-stop action of a game of hockey (although preferably in games a little closer than Canada’s 8-0 routing of Norway), there’s something about curling that truly captures my attention.
So long as I have an hour-long buffer on the DVR, anyways.
Yes, I’ll admit that the sport of curling doesn’t make particularly compelling television on a consistent basis when it’s still in the round robin stage of the competition. There were some exciting ends of curling in the opening games for Canada’s Kevin Martin and Cheryl Bernard, but there were also a lot of blanks (ends where no one scores any points). There is value to watching ends play out, but there are times when the strategies are so transparent that there’s no need to really watch each shot go down the ice in real time. The DVR is perfect for the sport in that it allows you to skip over those ends while paying close attention to the ends where shots truly matter, where mistakes can completely change the game rather than making the blank easier.
When I wasn’t skipping over the boring parts (I don’t pretend that curling isn’t very, very capable of being boring), I quite enjoyed the coverage. One of my favourite things about curling is the way that the teams will make decisions that are completely confounding to the commentators, especially those teams which don’t communicate in English: the Norwegian team earlier in the day, in their ridiculous loud pants (which are apparently the talk of Vancouver, a claim I consider a likely overstatement), were flipping wildly between offensive and defensive strategies, failing to capitalize on a key Canadian mistake that should have made the game winnable for the experienced, but nonetheless disadvantaged, underdogs. But their strategy as incomprehensible for reasons which went beyond language, with shot decisions that made Kevin Martin’s life a lot easier despite a fairly shaky start.
While the individual games might not be particularly interesting for some readers (all of whom have probably stopped reading by this point), the sport also offers some interesting long term (or lack of long term) narratives. For Canada’s Kevin Martin, this is about redemption: dominant on both the national and international stages, Martin had a shot to win Gold in Salt Lake City but chose a riskier draw as opposed to a hit, going long and handing the gold medal to Norway. So when Martin, in the extra end of his game against Norway, had a draw to the four foot, it was not only a chance to salvage what should have been an easy victory in a fashion more dramatic than expected, it was also a draw not unlike the one he missed eight years ago.
For Cheryl Bernard, meanwhile, the story is entirely different: she has very little international experience, and while she is a force on the national circuit she has never played most of these competitors, or performed in this kind of environment. However, Bernard is actually more comfortable than some of her competitors with the sorts of big audiences that are watching these matches in Vancouver, and she proved at the Olympic Trials that she was capable of handling the pressure. She, like Martin, had a high-pressure draw on her final stone, and while she struggled with the ice all game (especially in underestimating the curl) she had the weight to give herself an early victory over the silver medallist from Turin.
The expectations on both teams are pretty high, in that Canada is considered a de facto favourite when it comes to curling. But the sport is full of a lot of stories, competitors who have bested Canada at World Championships (China on the Women’s side, Great Britain on the Men’s side) and teams that have had considerable success in the past. Bernard is interesting in that this is in some ways her “coming out” party, while for Martin this is the one jewel he was never able to add to his crown. They’re two very different stories, and yet Canada is rooting for (and to some degree expects) them to have the same ending, which puts a lot of pressure on people throwing rocks at other rocks. Canada just barely kept on track, with both Martin and Bernard limping to close victories, but other countries (including the Americans, and defending world champion David Murdoch from Great Britain) struggled as well, implying that the field is pretty open.
And believe it or not, curling is a sport full of surprises, even if they’re a little slower to materialize than you might be used to. And thus far, the curling coverage has been pretty comprehensive, with TSN’s flagship commentators (Vic, Linda and Ray) proving familiar and comforting while the B-team features 2006 Gold Medallist Russ Howard offering some valuable commentary of his own. I’m not sure how curling is being treated in markets like the U.S. where the sport is less well-known, but it’s no shock that Canadian broadcasters are doing a distinctively Canadian sport a service at locally held games.
- Not to be all conspiratorial, but when Maelle Ricker won Gold, they said that her medal ceremony was going to be held late that night: however, by the time the primetime coverage kicked into high gear, it was announced that the Victory Ceremony would be held tonight instead. I posited before that there was potentially some network influence involved, and while that is a bit far-fetched I have to presume someone moved this ceremony in particular because of a Canadian stepping to the top of the podium.
- I talk about flipping through ends, but there was a great moment in the final end of Canada’s matchup with Switzerland on the Women’s side when Canada completed a triple takeout somewhat unexpectedly, which led to a stone spilling away from the button hitting Cheryl Bernard’s foot and stopping on the edge of the four foot. Under the rules, the other team has a choice of either leaving the rock where it ended up after being “burned” or moving it to where they felt it would end up. While my money was on the stone being removed entirely, Mirjam Ott chose to move the rock to a less advantageous place to better reflect its likely position, a classy and sportsmanlike move that says a lot about the sport and its competitors.
- Men’s Figure Skating is shaping up to be quite the competition, but Evgeni Plushenko easily had the moment of the night when he gave a sporadic yet forceful interview where he said that those who don’t do a Quadruple jump in their program are not men, effectively. And to be fair to Canada’s Patrick Chan, who doesn’t have a quad that he’s comfortable enough to work into programs at this point in his career, he’s only 19, so his struggles (which have put him out of the medals barring the performance of his life and some pretty epic collapses at the top of the leaderboard) are that of a young man still growing as a skater at the end of the day. Plushenko is great with the mind games, though, and it certainly helps up the drama for Thursday’s Free Skate.