Curling to hit the airwaves again

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Curling — a curiosity in the U.S. but a pastime here in Canada — is about to begin at the Vancouver Games.

Since returning to the official Olympic program in 1998, the sport has endeared itself to Americans, who tune in every four years even if they don’t entirely understand what they’re watching.

The U.S. team won bronze at the 2006 Games in Turin and will try for another at the Vancouver Olympic Center in front of what could be some of the most spirited crowds at these Olympics.

“This place holds twice as many people as Turin did,” said John Shuster of the U.S. team. “I’m venturing to say it’ll probably be pretty full.”

Curling starts Tuesday and will be aired on MSNBC, CNBC and USA throughout the games. Viewers can get to know the quirky sport again while marveling at the atmosphere inside the 5,600-seat venue. There are about a million curlers in Canada, where the game is nearly as popular as hockey.

It’s been a while since Turin, so here’s a brief review: Two four-person teams face off in matches that are 10 ends (or innings) long. They take turns sliding 42-pound granite stones down a sheet of ice toward a set of scoring circles.

Points are scored based on how close the stones are to the center of the scoring area, called the button. Competitors sweep the ice in front of the stone while it’s traveling to change its speed or direction to make it “curl.”

It’s like shuffleboard, but on ice, and the quality of the surface is always crucial. Switzerland’s Ralph Stoeckli praised the ice after practicing Sunday.

“If it stays like that, it’s going to be a great event,” he said. “We can’t blame the ice. Usually there are good ice conditions over here.”

Curling medals were awarded in 1924, then not again until 1998. It was a demonstration sport the last time the Winter Games were held in Canada, in Calgary in 1988.

Shuster is the American skip, or captain, and he’s the only member of the team who was in the bronze-winning group in 2006. The women’s team is entirely different four years after the American “Curl Girls” became minor celebrities in Turin but didn’t win a medal.

Debbie McCormick, the women’s skip, is back for her third Olympics after missing in 2006.

Canada took the gold in men’s curling in Turin, and its women won the bronze. Sweden won the women’s title. Canadian skip Kevin Martin expects his team’s toughest competition this year to come from Great Britain, led by Scottish skip David Murdoch.

NBC will televise the pairs figure skating final in prime time today, as well as American Shani Davis’ bid for gold in 500-meter speedskating.

The network also hopes to feature the men’s downhill — if the race is run. It’s already been delayed once because of weather that’s been too warm and too wet.