The Olympics, the quadrennial exercise of combining athleticism and jingoism, is one of the most awesome things on earth. Every two years, the world's attention turns to one location to watch incredible feats of sport that don't get the time of day at any other time. Hopes and dreams are fulfilled and dashed on a stage that so far surpasses any other (for most of the sports involved) it might as well be in a different galaxy. Nobody cares who can run 100 meters the fastest in odd numbered years, but when the Olympics come around, its all anybody can talk about.
Combine all these factors into one, and you are left with the single most intense competition in the world. Athletes who devote their entire waking life to a single event, and have only one, maybe two if they are lucky, opportunities to pull through. The pressure is incredible, and unlike the similarly timed World Cup, the highest level performers don't have a wealthy lifestyle and high profile domestic leagues and competitions to return to. For some, the Olympics represent an opportunity to vault into the public spotlight. For others, the opportunity is simply to be written into the history books, or be forgotten forever. Either way, the Olympics provides you the rare opportunity to watch people have a single opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream. In success, and in failure, these moments are incredible.
Yahoo! has asked us to share our favorite Olympic moments with you. There are tons of amazing ones to choose from. Just off the top of my head, I can name three moments (Kerry Strug's vault, the 2008 4 x 100M Men's medley relay, Usain Bolt's record setting 100m) which are in my personal top 5 sports moments ever, and that doesn't even delve into a history of iconic moments that yours truly was too young to experience. But you fine folks deserve something better, something more unique, something ... well, something quirkier.
The year is 2006. The XX Winter Games are being held in Turin, Italy, and all the talk is of a ridiculous sport that is making its debut at the games. That sport is curling.
Curling appears at first to be one of the stupidest activities one could possibly take part in. Here's how it works: Teams take turns sliding big heavy rocks (called stones) down a long sheet of ice, trying to aim them towards the center of a huge bulls-eye at the far end. Think of this as ice shuffleboard, if you will. If you stop right there, the sport doesn't sound ridiculous. In fact, it sounds rather mundane. One might wonder why this sport is even included in something as prestigious as the Olympics.
But curling doesn't stop right there.
Instead, curling introduces the most bizarre concept possible. In order to give stones their pinpoint accuracy and spin, there are two other teammates who run in front of the stone with miniature brooms, sweeping the ice to remove friction and allow the stone to slide further. But that's not all, you see, because the sweepers have no idea how much, or how little, they need to affect the speed of the stone. Only the thrower knows that. So it's the thrower's job to tell his teammates when to sweep. How does the thrower do this? By yelling "HARD", or his country's language equivalent, at the top of his lungs. When you put all the pieces together, watching grown men use dollhouse brooms to sweep ice in front of a slow moving stone as they are berated with the same word over and over again in eight different languages, it is one of the most surreal experiences to watch in all of sports.
This snapshot of activity led to curling being the easy punchline of the Olympics. Which is completely fair, because curling is ridiculous. There's absolutely no way to think of it as anything other than a ludicrous activity to participate in.
You know what else curling is? Absolutely, positively, fascinating.
The first time I watched curling, I was there for the spectacle. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, wanted to laugh at the curlers as everybody else was doing. And it was worth the experience. I probably spent the first fifteen minutes or so laughing. I probably would have turned it off in boredom at that point, but the US just happened to be winning the match I was watching, so I stuck around because that's the kind of jingoist I am. I will watch the USA win anything.
I came to laugh. Then I became intrigued by all the planning. In between throws, the teams will take as much time as possible discussing their next move. Surely the concept can't be that hard. Just throw stones down and knock your opponents out, why all the discussion? Because the strategy behind curling is unlike anything else at the Olympics.
There are eight stones thrown by each team in a round, or end. And of the first four or so stones from each side, hardly any of them are even aimed at the target. That's because the first four stones are considered the "free guard zone", which means that, as long as those stones aren't in the scoring area, they can't be removed by an opponent's play. So the teams use these stones to protect their position in the scoring area. This concept allows for the spin and touch of the later stones to be pivotal in assigning the scoring, and it makes the strategy of placing the first four stones pivotal.
And that, my friends, is the beauty of curling. The positioning of the guards, the touch and spin of the final stones, and the crazy foreign yelling and sweeping add up to a beautifully strategic game. It's like watching chess on ice. And when you see a well executed triple takeout with the hammer shot to prevent any scoring, it ends up being a pretty amazing feat of sport, insomuch as you consider incredible skill to be sport (also see: golf).
The US men's team ended up going on a dream run in the 2006 Olympics, ending up with a bronze medal in a sport Americans are considered to be terrible at. And from the moment I first laid eyes on the sport, I couldn't take them away. Curling is ridiculous. It deserves every single bit of mocking, every two-bit late-night punchline that it receives. It is also one of the most entertaining and compelling sports I have ever had the privilege of watching.
For that, the 2006 Bronze Medal Run of the US Mens Curling Team is my favorite Olympic moment.
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