Backyard Olympics: Curling tries to get footing in region
Twelve years ago, curling was the cult classic of the Winter Olympics, the sport broadcast in the wee hours of the morning only to be eclipsed by Alpine skiing or figure skating in the day.
But as the Olympics draw to an end, curling is gaining more attention, even enough to potentially start a league in South Lake Tahoe according to some of the three dozen people who attended a curling clinic to learn about the sport at the South Lake Tahoe Ice Arena earlier this month. That would be a first for a region that once hosted the winter games.
Curling, of course, is the sport that looks like it’s played on an oversized, frozen shuffleboard. Players glide a 42-pound “stone” down a 150-foot-long sheet of ice into a target as two teammates sweep brooms to control its speed.
Besides its popularity in northern states, curling also is one of the most popular in Olympic coverage, garnering the most television ratings than any other Winter Olympic sport, according to the United States Curling Association.
“Where it used to be more of a joke, it’s certainly being taken more seriously now,” said Terry Kolesar, the director of communications of the United States Curling Association. “Every four years it’s always the cult sport, the secret sport everybody always gets excited about.”
Since 2002, the USCA has grown 27 percent, up to nearly 14,000 members who compete in 135 clubs around the country.
But whether the sport popularized in 16th-century Scotland will come to South Lake Tahoe will depend on local support and a willingness to invest enough money to start a club. The largest investment would be the stones, which come in sets of 16 and cost about $500 each. For three sets, curling instructor Eric Hazard said the investment could reach about $18,000 plus other equipment such as brooms.
Then there’s the issue of finding a place to play on a regular basis.
“Part of the problem is curling isn’t as cheap as you’d think it would be,” said Rob Swain, the recreation supervisor of the South Lake Tahoe Ice Arena. Swain said because of the high costs to start a club in South Lake Tahoe, the arena could invest in imitation curling equipment to generate interest in the sport, which could lead to more funding in the future.
“We just can’t afford right now to pony up for it,” he said.
Jerome Larson, who some refer to as the “Johnny Appleseed of curling,” helped organize the curling clinic in South Lake Tahoe. He said it takes a core group of interested people, about six to 10, to start a club and “carry the burden for awhile.”
Larson has promoted curling across the West, most recently starting the Wine Country Curling Club in Vacaville, Calif., following the 2006 winter games in Torino, Italy. He said there are about a dozen curling clubs in California, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and with a new one starting in Scottsdale, Ariz. Despite an attempt to start one in Las Vegas, there is no curling club in Nevada.
“We’ll get people out trying, the growth isn’t as rapid as we would like,” Larson said. “We get a lot of people coming in with cell phone cameras so they can send a photo to Uncle George in Tioga, North Dakota.”
The USCA also offers deferred payment programs, giving nascent clubs a set of curling stones to get started in case interest in the sport doesn’t materialize.
Despite the price, many at the curling clinic said they would be supportive of a curling club in the region.
“It could be a cult favorite in Tahoe,” said Craig Allen, a South Lake Tahoe resident, who has watched the sport on television. “Funds are pretty tight here in town, but it would be something to look into. I think the interest would be here.”
South Lake resident Jay Thomas said he and his friends came to the clinic on Sunday, “thinking about investing into a drinking game.”
Juliette Dao and Henry Wu spent the afternoon listening to Larson give pointers on curling safety and technique as they tried to maintain their balance while holding onto the stones.
“I think it needs to gain more attention for it to have respect,” Dao said of the sport. “We don’t know how to gauge what sort of athlete you need to be for it.”
Still, Dao said she thought the sport could catch on, but in a causal way such as croquet or bocce ball.
Wu’s suggestion: “Curling cheerleaders, tighter outfits.”
Hazard said the sport will continue generating laughs but it does earn respect once people try it out.
“I’ve seen that cycle happen every four years. The interest goes way up and then it wanes,” Hazard said. “Just what we have available in the California area today versus 15 years ago is amazing.”