Political controversy intrudes on Denmark's Olympic curling dream team

Updated: February 11, 2006, 11:22 AM ET
Associated Press

PINEROLO, Italy -- After women curlers won Denmark's first ever Winter Olympics medal at Nagano in 1998, Danes would stop team member Dorthe Holm in the streets and interest in the sport soared.

Now, as Holm and four other women try for a medal at the Turin Games, they face a grimmer public spotlight. Angry protests across the Muslim world set off by cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish publication have made them a potential target.

Italian police have beefed up security for the Danes on par with the Israeli and U.S. teams, Danish sports officials said, and international media are begging to interview them.

The controversy is unusual for a slow-moving sport that attracts little publicity. If team members were unnerved, they didn't show it Saturday as they slid the 42-pound curling stones across the ice during an 80-minute practice session at the Pinerolo venue outside Turin. The Danish queen's sister, Princess Benedikta, watched from the press stands.

"They're managing to stay focused," said Jesper Frigast Larsen, the Danish Olympic delegation's chef de mission and one of a phalanx of sports officials trying to shield the curlers from the media. "It would be a shame if anything came in the way of that slim chance for a medal."

But even without the controversy and media glare, the Danish curlers have tread an unusual path to compete for an Olympic medal. The women are the only athletes competing for Denmark in Turin, making them the sole focus of the country's medal hopes, and the silver at Nagano remains the only medal the country has won at a Winter Games.

"The Danish delegation is the curling team," said team spokeswoman Eline Andersen. "We have no skier or anyone else."

Most countries' curling teams are comprised of athletes who have played together on the same local clubs for years, developing a rapport curlers say is crucial in a sport that relies on finesse. The Danes, by contrast, cobbled their team from two clubs, choosing 10 veterans with less experienced curlers in October and paring them to five.

"We've had a short time to learn about each other and know our weaknesses and strong points," Holm, the team's leader, or skip, told reporters in brief remarks following practice. "We do it in other sports like football, handball and whatever, and I think it's a good way to try to build" a team.

Holm, a 33-year-old office manager and a member of the Nagano team, said the challenge of piloting this new dream team drew her from retirement. And the new formula worked: The team won the bronze at the European Championships in December.

Team officials allowed her to speak with reporters under condition she not be asked about the political controversy.

Curling wasn't popular in Denmark until the Nagano victory. Team leader Helena Blach won a promise from a local mayor to build a curling venue in the Copenhagen suburb of Hvidovre and suddenly the number of players nationwide doubled to more than 1,000 from 500, said Niels Larsen, president of the Danish Curling Association.

Holm "was a role model," said Andersen, the spokeswoman. She said two members of the current team, Denise Dupont and Maria Poulsen, took up curling after watching TV broadcasts of Holm and the rest of the Blach team compete in Nagano.

"We don't have celebrities like you do in the States," Andersen said. "But for a period of time people will recognize her on the streets and say, 'Hello, we saw you on TV.' That's what she told me happened after Nagano."

And the curling venue in Hvidovre, a suburb of Copenhagen, has become a Mecca for curling. All team members but Dupont play there, Andersen said.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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