Romancing the stone

So help me, I like curling. And I'm not ashamed to admit it.

Yes, I know. Curling is the official punch line of the Winter Olympics, a game played with brooms, a competition so unpopular CBS virtually refused to televise it from Nagano without the mocking presence of David Letterman's mother, a sport considered so tragically unhip that when I once asked a high school student at the Olympic trials whether girls would be impressed if he mentioned he was a curler, he replied, "You might as well say you're a dork."

All that is true, but I don't care. Curling is one of the best, most accessible sports in the Olympics.

What other Olympic sport offers competitors ranging from college students to grandparents and where a father competes alongside his children? Where the national champions had to use their homes as collateral in a fight just to compete in the Olympic trials? And where, most important, the sport's code of conduct instructs competitors to buy their opponents a brew after a game?

And what other sport, I ask, might offer you and your seat-filling rear end a chance to qualify for the Olympics and compete for an honest to God medal just like real athletes?

True, it won't be much of a chance. Most national-caliber curlers not only have curled most of their lives but also their parents did, as well.

But not all of them.

Consider Doug Kauffman, a 32-year-old golf pro from the Seattle area who wound up in the U.S. Olympic Trials last month thanks to that most wondrous of all 20th century inventions -- the remote control. About six years ago, Kauffman was channel surfing from his couch when he came across a Canadian curling broadcast and watched long enough for the sport to suck him in. Learning that Seattle was playing host to the 1997 U.S. championships, he decided to watch it at the city's Granite Curling Club.

"People would come up and ask me who I was there watching. And I would say, 'Well, I'm pretty much watching everybody,' " Kauffman said. "And then they asked, 'Who do you know here?' And I said, 'I didn't know anybody.' And then they paused and looked at me and said, 'Well, what are you doing here?' "

Well, curling is a close-knit community. You get that way when you're the butt of everyone else's jokes.

But it's a welcoming community, as well. Giving curlers the chance to recruit a new member is like calling up a long distance phone carrier and asking if they could please describe their rates to you during dinner. You're not going to leave until you've hurled a stone down the ice, joined a league and signed up for a weekend calling plan.

So it's no surprise that attending the national championships was enough to hook Kauffman. A mere four years after first stepping on the ice, he was competing for a spot in the Olympics with the Larway team from the Granite club.

They didn't make the Olympic team, but still, just think, that could be you in four years.

"Doug was an anomaly, though," teammate Jason Larway is quick to point out, in case you're already wondering whether there will be room in Alberto Tomba's hot tub at the 2006 Olympics. "In his first year he was better than 99 percent of the people out here."

Besides, had Kauffman come across Australian Rules Football on TV that fateful day, he says, he would have watched that instead. Which would have been unfortunate. America would have lost a top curler, although Melbourne might have gained an excellent Aussie football player.

Scotch, golf and brooms
Curling began centuries ago in Scotland, where golf originated, as well. "I'm sure there was some thinking," Kauffman says of the sport's invention, " 'Well, what are we going to do in the winter when it's 20-below?' " Humble origins, perhaps, but the sport is now played around the world with the official Olympic seal of legitimacy.

Curling's hotbed -- if, as a top curler once told me, curling can be said to have a hotbed -- is Canada, where the sport is played by an estimated 750,000 curlers at more than 1,000 venues. The biggest events not only are nationally televised there but they occasionally approach the ratings for Hockey Night in Canada. Wayne Gretzky is a huge fan, writing in the National Post, "You'd be surprised how many National Hockey League players can be found sitting in their hotel rooms in the middle of winter watching (curling) somewhere."

I must admit I had no idea Gretzky was a curling fanatic until reading his article in a packet of clips from the U.S. Curling media representative. Which is interesting of itself. What other sport needs to offer endorsements from other sports' athletes?

Like Anne Murray, the sport has failed to gain much of a popular hold south of the 48th parallel. Although Seattle's Granite club has produced more national champions than any other since 1961, interest in the game is generally limited to the Upper Midwest, with six of the 13 teams at the U.S. trials from Wisconsin, five from Minnesota. Nine curlers, in fact, hail from the city of Bemidji, Minn.

Even in the Upper Midwest, however, it's not very popular. Kevin Garnett has written no stories about his fascination with the sport.

A quick curling primer
There are four curlers on a team, including the captain, who is known as the skip. The object is to slide 42-pound stones along a 146-foot sheet of pebbled ice, placing as many as close to the target (or house) as possible. The players sweep the ice with brooms to create the friction that keeps the stone gliding toward its target. A game has 10 ends (like innings in baseball) and lasts two to three hours, much of it spent by competitors consulting with teammates over what shot to take.

It's ideal for those who find baseball and golf a little too fast-paced.

But what curling lacks in high-speed action and violence, it makes up for in strategy and dramatic reversals of fortune. With all the techniques and strategies, there are similarities to billiards, chess, golf and even the board game Aggravation.When a well-placed stone takes out a competitor's stone and the game turns around completely, it can be downright exciting.

You're just going to have to trust me on that.

The sport is harder than it looks to play -- you try sliding a 42-pound object some 100 feet on ice with any degree of accuracy -- but undemanding enough that virtually anyone can play it.

In few other sports is there such a wide range of age and backgrounds. Among the teams at the Olympic trials were several 20-year-old college students, a 34-year-old teacher who underwent a kidney transplant four years ago, a 37-year-old pharmacist, a 43-year-old grandfather and a 50-year-old insurance agent, along with his son and daughter (Scott Baird, whose son, Randy, plays with him, and whose daughter, Nikki, competes on a women's team).

They are people like the rest of us. They have families and mortgages and, in many cases, abs that they would rather not show off in public. Though there was that Canadian curler who delighted reporters in Nagano by dropping his pants and showing off a Maple Leaf tattooed on his butt.

"It's the people that make the sport special to me," said Amy Wright, the skip for her Duluth, Minn., team competing in the trials. "I've been doing this since I was a young kid. I met my husband through curling. All my best friends are in curling. My kids curl; my whole family is in curling.

"You find all different ages and sizes and backgrounds. In some areas, curling is blue collar and in North Dakota, there are a lot of farmers. But you get into Illinois and the East Coast and its very country club."

Curling is known as such a gentlemen's sport that there is even an official etiquette guide, instructing curlers to shake hands and introduce each other before competitions and to gather together afterward, when "the winning curlers traditionally offer their counterparts a refreshment. In turn, your opponent should reciprocate."

I tell you, David Wells is in the wrong sport.

The etiquette also covers behavior on the ice, with curlers expected to behave in a civil manner rarely seen in 21st century sport.

"It's a very self-policing sport, a very honorable sport," Kauffman says. "Other than golf, it's the only sport where you call your own foul."

Indeed, this unusual civility led to the historic moment that is to curling what Bill Buckner's error is to baseball.

At the 1972 world championships, North Dakota's Bob LaBonte jumped to celebrate apparent victory after the final end, only to slip and accidentally kick one of his opponent's stones. His Canadian opponent protested to considerable controversy -- the proper curling response would have been to concede and congratulate LaBonte on a well-earned victory. The Canadian team won a tainted championship and when no Canadians won the world championship again for eight years, the country was said to be victims of "The LaBonte Curse."

Of course, this etiquette goes only so far. Exhibit A: Tim Somerville, the skip for the U.S. Olympic team.

Somerville's father, Bud, is a past world champion and a beloved figure in the sport. Tim, on the other hand, is a notorious, dreaded and disliked curler who curses and glares and snarls on and off the ice. Mention his name at rinks around the country and curlers shake their heads and tell tales about his profanity, fights with his own team and run-ins with the law. When his team qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in 1998, officials quickly pulled them aside and warned the curlers to be on their best behavior in Nagano.

He's sort of the Lawrence Phillips of curling -- only without the big contract.

And yet, Somerville also is a past national champion and a two-time Olympian, a dedicated curler who fights through an arthritic back to continue in the sport that is generally ridiculed by the people who give it any thought at all.

Why doesn't curling get much respect? After all, there are a lot of bizarre sports out there
-- when you get right down to it, the pole vault is about as goofy as it gets -- so why pick on curling?

"It's one of the few sports where the object that is moving is actually slower than you can travel," Kauffman said. "All other sports deal with running or trying to catch up with something that is thrown or hit. In curling, for the most part, it's a walking activity. I think that's one of the problems."

Plus, there's that whole broom thing.

"Yeah, it could be the broom thing."

Men and women with brooms
Is curling ready to come out of the closet? There is a new movie in production, "Men With Brooms," complete with music by the Tragically Hip and starring Leslie Nielsen. The film tells the tale of four curlers who gather one last time to compete for the world championship. Director/actor Paul Gross told the Toronto Sun that when he mentioned to people he was filming a movie about curling, "It was as though I had farted. They didn't know where to look."

So, OK, movie or not, curling has a bit of an image problem. I still remember the U.S. Trials for Nagano when I asked two high school curlers whether wearing an Olympic curling jacket would be impressive at school. One said no, it would be the equivalent of wearing a band jacket. The other shook his head. "It would be worse than a band jacket," he said, "because you'd have to explain what it is."

Still, the sport is doing its best to attract younger participants and there were two teams of women students in their early 20s at the trials. Joel Larway said that when curling became an Olympic medal sport in 1998, it significantly boosted its reputation and increased participation at the club level. After receiving no event coverage from CBS in 1998, MSNBC announced plans to cover some curling live from Salt Lake. (Fox may have to counter with Australian Rules Football.)

And people in the sport care deeply about it. Enough so that when the Larway team was unable to compete in the qualifying tournament for the Olympic trials last spring because they were at the world championships in Switzerland, they went to arbitration and hired lawyers to fight for the right to go to the trials. The Larways even took out lines of credit on their mortgages to cover the team's $45,000 legal fees -- try explaining that one to the loan office. Jason Larway even quit a good job as an accountant right after Sept. 11 just so that he could concentrate on the Olympic trials.

"I wanted it to be one of those things where if we didn't win, I didn't want to wonder, 'What if,' " Jason Larway said. "What if I had done more? What if I hadn't had a stressful week at the office before?"

Imagine that. Right after the terrorist attacks, when the country was reeling and heading deeper into a recession that would see one million layoffs in the next several weeks, Larway gave up his job to devote himself to a sport that requires a broom and pays nothing.

Do you think Randy Moss would do that to play football?

"It's one of the very pure amateur sports," Joel Larway said. "Some guys won't play a sport unless they get paid, which for us is hard to fathom. We spend a lot of money to play our sport and sacrifice a lot in our lives and careers.

"On the one hand, it would be great if there were big contracts and stuff like that. But on the other hand, it's better because it remains a pure sport," he said. "Only purists play it. People play because they enjoy it. Money is not a factor. Greed is not a factor."

So there are no agents who see dollar signs instead of sequins while they stalk 14-year-old figure skaters. There are no millionaire hockey players trashing their rooms. There are no swoosh-laden apparel reps offering six-figure endorsement packages.

There are, however, friends, family, the spirit of competition and a love of sport. That's why Wright kept returning to the game whenever she took years off to pursue kick-boxing or tae kwan do. That's why Mike Peplinksi competed in the Nagano Winter Olympics even though he was so sick he needed a kidney transplant soon after the Games. That's why the Larway team risked a small fortune just for the chance to pursue their Olympic dream.

Curling a punchline of a sport unworthy of the Olympics? Far from it. Curling is what the Olympics should be all about, but seldom are.

Besides, curlers clean up after themselves. They have brooms, remember.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com