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McCollum's Column: Why Olympic curlers drop their cigarettes and pick up weights

Posted: February 19, 2014 - 6:54pm

During the 2002 Olympics at Salt Lake City, many in the media center — between the fast-paced morning action and evening developments — got their curling fix.

Curling is easy to watch on television while working on a story or taking a short break — or if you just want a little shut-eye. It is intriguing to watch in person.

You wonder how the inebriated the Scottish folk had to be in ancient days when they invented the sport.

“Mate, I can take these stones here and slide them across the better than you.”

“Why don’t we get big stones?”

“Let’s also go for accuracy. Let’s paint a bullseye in the ice.”

“How about we play by international shuffleboard rules? Maybe, add a few rules that nobody understands.”

“Hey, why don’t we add something with these brooms the wall? We can have a couple of guys sweeping.”

“Winner buys more drinks.”

“What about smokes? Got to have my smokes.”

If you check out the strange sport at the Olympics, the foundation of curling remains the same; the faces and bodies are different.

For years, the world-class curlers looked like world-class golfers in the 1950s and 1960s. Many were overweight and for years, this was the only Olympic event in which one could smoke.

When he won the world championship in 1972, Orest Meleschuk took his final shot with a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth. In those days, multiple ashtrays would be placed alongside the ice so that curlers wouldn’t have to walk too far to flip their cigs.

But curling has undergone the athletic fitness boom similar to what happened to golf after Tiger Woods showed up on the scene.

In 1987, two of the potential world champions could not pass a conditioning test at a pre-Olympic camp in Canada because neither could do a situp. Those world-class curling champs were sent home and instructed to lose 20 pounds each and try again. In other words, the sliders were told to lay off the sliders; do some curls before you curl.

When curling developed, it was customary for the losing team to buy the winning team drinks at a nearby pub. The winner team reciprocated by buying the losing team drinks. Then, the losing team reciprocated. Then, the winning team.

Soon, the legend says, nobody remembered who won and all were happy.

Lagers and ales were the sports drinks of curling.

Now, in this sport has been described as “chess on ice,” curlers are lifting weights, doing yoga. They have personal trainers and water and protein shakes have replaced alcohol as post-competition beverages.

“The people playing look like athletes now,” said American curler John Shuster, 31, who will be competing in his third Olympics. “In the Olympic Village, we used to stick out. Like, ‘Oh, there’s those curlers.’”

The powerful Canadian men’s team is known as the “Buff Boys” and recently posed for a “Men of Curling” calendar that women actually wanted to buy. One of them can bench-press 300 pounds.

Eve Muirhead of Britain, the reigning world women’s champion at 23, has appeared on the New York runway as a fashion model and trains fulltime. Her training routines have been a hit on social media.

“The Muirhead team, oh my gosh,” said American curler Debbie McCormick. “All they tweet about is just pictures in the gym.

“Back in the ‘90s and the early 2000s, you could get away with not being so physically fit, because the people you were competing against weren’t either,” added McCormick, 40, who works out with a personal trainer twice a week. “You have to evolve with your competitors.”

The Norwegians have added a weird touch — with curling pants that are sort of a cross between John Daly golfing outfits and your child’s first watercolor efforts.

But you have guys and gals shooting down the ice furiously pumping brooms.

Maybe an ice dancing flair is needed.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)

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