How dare they call curling "weird" when the supposedly hot new sport is ... pickleball?
I think I’ve just set a new Olympic record and don’t reckon I’m alone. As in, the fewest number of hours spent watching a Games. I’m not proud of that, obviously, and as Team GB conduct a post-mortem on the failure to reach our medal target for Beijing, I’m asking myself why.
Was it the fact this Winter edition was being hosted by an oppressive regime? The fact another oppressive regime was preparing for war? This new gloom fusing with the darkness of Covid, not yet lifted? The quality of the TV coverage, or pretty much non-coverage if you restricted yourself to the BBC and couldn’t justify the Discovery+ subscription during a cost-of-living crisis?
Probably it was all of these things. I mean, let’s face it, we’re a nation – and here I mean the UK – whose biggest city has hardly ever seen snow, whose transport network can be paralysed by light flurries of snow, which can’t drive in snow, which doesn’t know how to fit snow chains on tyres and whose contribution to the great roll-call of classic movies set in snow is Love Actually.
But hang on. I go all the way back to Jean-Claude Killy in Grenoble. I stayed up for John Curry. I was still there at 4am when Robin Cousins won gold. So what’s gone wrong?
I refuse to join the clamour of cynicism which has it that the Winter Olympics are just plain silly. I was quickly bored of Eddie the Eagle and his glorious failures. From Eddie it was a short hop – he could only manage short hops – to presenters guffawing when luge racers came flying off their tea trays. This was Sochi in 2014 when the Beeb had coverage of the Games all to themselves.
Why do we have to diminish sports when we’re not very good – correction: absolutely bloody useless – at them? It smacks of postcolonialism and that’s not a good look, especially right now. But – another thing – why do we have to diminish sports when we’re brilliant at them?
Last week, the Daily Telegraph called curling “weird”. So did the Times, another metropolitan newspaper where they’ve never seen snow, apart from the teensy flake which fell on Keira Knightley’s cutesy nose in Love Actually, although at least their columnist had the good grace to admit that just about every sport, when studied dispassionately, has some weirdness about it.
Curling, for those who watched even less of Beijing than I did, brought us our only gold medal. It was all I did watch, and possibly the fact I’d once spent a fascinating hour with the triumphant skip Eve Muirhead had something to do with this, but I’d like to think I would have tuned in anyway because her sport is a beautifully simple game – quite nerdy or speccy as we used to say, though not any more – but the last thing it could be called is weird.
My interview with Muirhead was prior to the last Olympics in Pyeongchang which turned into something of a disaster for her. Four years ago I was impressed by how normal, funny and driven she was (only the driven bit I’d expected). Last weekend I was impressed by her balls in coming back from deep disappointment after a fair degree of hype. (Do curlers – lady curlers – have balls? Ach, you know what I mean. Stones, then).
In advance of these Games I interviewed Bruce Mouat, skip to the men’s team who came home with a silver medal. Mouat is gay and spoke of the doubts he had about coming out and the warmth shown him by his sport when he did. He bigged up the innate and irresistible sociability of curling, which can be enjoyed by kids and grannies, so how on earth’s that weird?
I’ve not yet mentioned curling’s Scottish origins and how Robert the Bruce challenged William Wallace to skimming the great muckle shiny rocks across a loch before moving onto ice. Or something like that, anyway. But I’m not saying there isn’t humour in the Winter Olympics. After all, I only wanted to become a journalist because Clive James was once the TV critic for the Observer, the funniest of his despatches involving the Davids, Coleman and Vine, Alan Weeks and Harry Carpenter and the great sporting events they strove to describe while battling dead air, tricky pronunciations and the risks of jingoistic self-combustion.
How about this from my hero on Robin Cousins’ rival, Jan Hoffmann from the old East Germany: “ … a mouth like a mako shark and the kind of top lip which, even after he has shaved it, still looks as if it is adorned with a moustache. Also it has by now become obvious that the only way he will ever get his hands on a good-looking costume is to defect.”
The Telegraph writer tries to make a claim for curling being much inferior to bowling because it’s only bowls which, during their journey, curl. That’s rubbish, isn’t it? There’s gossamer delicacy in the stones being sent on their way. Curling is not Rollerball (a great film, by the way, the James Caan original). Then there’s the brushing, a mystical art. And finally - maybe the most exciting bit - when the outcome is too tight for the naked eye and it’s time for the giant wing compass divider to settle the issue.
Weird? I’ll tell you what’s a weird sport: pickleball. Have you seen the stories about this bastardised version of tennis “sweeping America”? It’s got George Clooney cachet so doubtless the trendies in London will be playing it soon. A bid for Olympics inclusion is currently being prepared. If it comes to pass that might be me and the Games finished for good.
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