Stoned on Ice

Our man in Japan learns to love curling, the Monty Python of spectator sports.

By Gary Kamiya
Published February 12, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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It snowed heavily all night. All the power lines and concrete and vacant lots are covered in soft white blankets, trees are crystalline silhouettes. The place has gone from an urban wasteland to a Hokusai woodblock in 12 hours. We left our surreal nowheresville burg Saku -- which I have been abusing so much, I really want to explore it sometime if I ever get my finger out of the Olympic socket -- and took the 9:32 Shinkansen train for the set-your-watch-by-it 23-minute ride to Nagano. We were planning to make the long trip up the mountain to see the downhill part of the men's combined race. First, however, we made our usual cheesy visit to a swanky hotel right next to the station, called Tokyo Metropolitan or something. The place is a godsend. Our routine is to walk in -- I keep waiting for hotel security to kick us out, but so far they haven't -- check out their bulletin board to see if events have been canceled, use their luxurious bathroom, lounge on their comfortable sofas, look at the figure skating on their ridiculously high-resolution TV and read the papers to see what is happening in the Olympics.

I have no idea -- I'm here in Nagano and I have seen much less of these Games than I have of the last four. It's all I can do to make it to at least part of the two or three far-flung events I have tickets for, hastily slurping a bowl of everlasting noodles (Japanese culinary conservatism makes the Italians look adventurous and cosmopolitan), try to remember what "icing" is in hockey and look at my train schedule 30 times a day.


There are some rather major logistical problems here. The most serious is transportation -- just how serious I found out after the downhill was canceled Saturday and I stood in the snow with more than a thousand other people for close to three hours waiting for shuttle buses. "There's no transportation problem here," said a big guy from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., with what sounded like a South African accent, whom we met waiting for a taxi outside the Aqua Ring arena after the second period of the U.S.-China women's hockey game. The guy was one of those battle-scarred Olympic junkies you see frequently here, wearing hats loaded with dozens of Olympic pins from past Games. "It's simple -- there's no transportation! No problem!" He and his friend had to leave the game early because otherwise they'd miss the bus up to Hakuba, the scene of my downhill debacle. "Look -- Hakuba is a major event site. There are a lot of people staying there. And there are no buses. I've never seen it like this at any other Olympics."

For our part, we left the game early because otherwise we'd miss the last bullet train to Saku, and there's no other way to get there short of an hour-and-a-half local bus or taxi that would probably cost $200. Taxis here are the most expensive I've ever seen anywhere in the world, double the price in San Francisco. The drop charge is a cool $5.50; the ride from Nagano Station to the Big Hat hockey arena, an easy 20-minute walk, costs $12. Since Saku is about 35 miles away, this doesn't seem like an option. Miss the last Shinkansen to Saku by 10 seconds, spend the night on a bench -- in Nagano, it's the law.


And don't try to find a hotel room, either. The city fathers handed most of them over months ago to -- who else but the media, those seigneurs with the laminated passes dangling in phallic ostentation from their necks who are probably sampling the fleshpots of Nagano even as I write these words.

Another guy I met had a different complaint: money. "They charge for everything. I'm from Atlanta, and when we had the Games, if you had a ticket to an event, all the transportation was free. When we went up to the downhill, they charged us for the chair lift -- then charged us again for the next chair lift!"

Actually, with the exception of the downhill fiasco, and the last-train problem (the Shinkansen is not allowed to run after midnight because of its noise), we don't have that many complaints: You just have to budget plenty of time to get where you want to go. A lot of the problem is simply that the events are so far away from each other.


Kirsty Hay of Great Britain sends her stone off in a match against Japan at the Kazakoshi Park Arena during the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.

Anyway, we found out that the combined downhill had indeed been postponed. But that opened the door to -- curling, the first Olympic event for non-athletes, the Monty Python of winter spectator sports: an event, it is darkly whispered, that was added to fill the lovable buffoon role, necessary in every Olympics, of Eddie the Eagle, the Jamaican bobsled team and (leaving out the lovable part) Tonya Harding's hit man, Shane Stant. We were stoked. Who needs to see guys rocketing down a mountain when you can watch women who look like they work at 7-Eleven sweeping ice furiously with plump, undersized witch brooms? We took the train back down to Karuizawa, a half-hour ride away, caught a bus and managed to walk into the arena just as the first 42-pound stone went sliding down the ice. And we proceeded to have a fine and entertaining time for the next two and a half hours.


Four women's matches were taking place simultaneously: U.S.-Germany, Great Britain-Norway, Japan-Canada and Sweden-Denmark. We paid most attention to the U.S. match because it was closest to us, but the Japan-Canada one was the crowd-pleaser. Canada is the best team in the world, Japan is a newcomer -- but Nippon took an early lead, to the frenzied, high-school-basketball-fan-squealing delight of the 100 or so Japanese fans (there were maybe 400 fans total, including large contingents from Sweden, the U.S. and Canada), who waved banners and flags, blew horns, shrieked and generally went wild over the 3 mph progress of granite stones. Even when Canada inevitably pulled away, the crowd continued to cheer their heroes, just as they did in women's ice hockey: They have an ingenuous loyalty that is endearing.

Curling is like shuffleboard or bocce ball, only it uses big, smooth stones that are propelled with incredible accuracy down a 146-foot-long sheet of ice. Teams have four members; the game consists of 10 innings, or ends. Whichever team leaves a stone closer to the center of the target, a big bull's eye, gets a point.

I was, I confess, prepared to snicker a bit. I'd seen curling on old "Wide World of Sports" shows, and I remember chortling at the ludicrous earnestness of the sweepers as they engaged in what I was convinced was a completely bogus activity -- how could sweeping the ice with a broom, for Christ's sake, actually do anything? You don't see people sweeping the track in front of runners. Certainly whatever microscopic effect the act of sweeping might have on the stone was outweighed by the humiliation of having to do it.


But my derision vanished quickly, replaced by respect for the skill of the players and the fascination of the game itself. It is a fiercely strategic contest -- stones are placed both to score and to block enemy stones, and whatever team goes last in an end has a major advantage -- and it possessed, in addition to its undeniable silliness, its own odd beauty. There is something delightful in the remarkable absence of friction, something fascinating in how unexpectedly far the stone will slide, moving at a snail's pace. And the games were tense (the U.S. won, 7-5, by the way), filled with brilliant shots and audacious maneuvers and the odd calls of the players. ("Hurry! Hurry!" they shout to the sweepers to make them speed up -- and yes, the sweeping really does have a major effect on the movement of the stone.) Even the sweepers, I realized, have to use some pretty nifty footwork as they scamper down the ice keeping up with the stone.

Should curling have been made an Olympic sport? I can't get too worked up over it one way or the other, but I don't think so -- you might as well elevate lawn bowling to the heights of Parnassus. I still believe the Olympics are about athletics, and curling, for all the enormous skill it requires, just isn't a full-body workout (which was evident from the less-than-buffed physiques of the contestants). But it's a great game, and we left vowing to get stoned ourselves as soon as possible.

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Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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