The Winter Olympics are on, which means it's time for me to dust off all my two-man luge gags from decades past. Lest you detect a note of maple supremacism in the weeks ahead, let's start by revisiting a moment of Olympic humiliation in Canada's other national sport. In February 2002, The Sunday Telegraph in London needed someone to write on the stunning British victory in curling, and I was the only guy on the payroll who'd heard of the sport:
By anybody's standards, these Winter Olympics have been a splendid testament to international sportsmanship and fair play. The Russian team threatened to pull out of the games. An Italian skater is being investigated by the FBI after saying "We should use a rifle" on his American rival, Apolo Ohno. South Korea is suing one of the judges in a US court for disqualifying their speed skater, Kim Dong-sung, who hurled his flag to the ground and stomped off the ice.
Dong-sung blue, everybody knows one, as Neil Diamond so sagely observed. But, in the midst of all this viciousness, how pleasing to see Britain's victory in the women's curling, the stiff upper lip of your stiff upper skip as she wielded her shedding brush doing credit to all. Instead of the usual walk-outs, internal inquiries, lawsuits and FBI investigations, the Ayrshire ladies' triumph was universally greeted by their fellow athletes with a stunned "Britain's in the Winter Olympics? Since when?"
So, five years after the Prime Minister inaugurated "Cool Britannia", Britain is once again on the cutting edge of something, even if it is a 12th-century leisure activity. Yet, even in the hour of glory, with the entire country united in curling fever, gripped by the thwack of bristle on granite, there are discordant voices. Scottish nationalists bristled like a shedding brush in an extra end at the sight of an all-Scots team having to stand for "God Save The Queen" rather than "Flower Of Lanark" or "Thistle Of Central Region" or whatever it is. The usual gloom-mongers are saying that Britain risks losing the next generation of curlers unless the Government provides a massive injection of resources into the country's curling infrastructure.
And already the cultural significance of Britain's Gold Medal is being hotly contested. On the one hand, there's the "Broom At The Top" crowd arguing that curling is the new rock'n'roll. On the other, there's The Daily Telegraph romancing the stone, hailing Britain's new national sport because "the curling Ayrshire housewife with the dodgy knee" embodies "the amateur ideal". Now that hunting's gone in Scotland, here's a sport every Telegraph reader can get behind - and, unlike banana transactions in Sunderland, it's measured in stones. For the moment.
If curling is the new rock'n'roll, it's one of those impenetrable, LSD-fuelled triple concept albums from the late Sixties that only make sense if you play them backwards. Some years ago in Canada (the curling capital of the world until last Thursday), I filled in for a sports-announcer friend of mine and discovered that, despite having seen it on television innumerable times and even played it on occasion in a knockabout sort of way, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Obviously I grasped the basics - takeouts, tee lines, four-foot rings, all hog-line violated stones shall be repositioned, left-handed players shall play from the hack on the right - but there's so much more than that: "Brushes may be exchanged between players on the same team during the course of a game but a corn-broom may not be exchanged." Does that include shedding brushes?
For years, curling was one of those things that, as the late Mordecai Richler used to say, was "world-famous in Canada". It's on television more or less non-stop north of the border, but down south Americans always regarded it as too nerdy for any country that wasn't totally frozen six months of the year. Only two weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal began its Olympic editorial with Olympian disdain: "Be honest: Do you really care who takes home the gold in curling?" Its influence on the arts is limited to the new movie, Men with Brooms, starring Leslie (Naked Gun) Nielsen. Boxing movies get Will Smith, baseball movies get Kevin Costner, even pool gets Paul Newman. When your sport gets Leslie Nielsen, you know you've got an image problem.
Curling was eventually admitted to the Olympics in 1998 mainly to give out-of-shape 43-year-old guys a chance to win gold medals and/or meet hot 17-year-old Eastern European figure skaters. Men's curling is played by middle-aged fellows with beer guts. They're the only Olympic athletes you ever see smoke. The team captain is called a skip because, generally speaking, that's where he looks as if he's been sleeping the past week. In Utah, the curling took place 25 miles away from anything else, presumably because otherwise the skaters and lugers would have been at risk from second-hand smoke.
This Olympics, though, something was different. After the trials, the Canadian women's skip, Kelley Law, and her trio of cuties hooked up with a showbiz agent who represents rockers like Bryan Adams. He figured he could turn them into the world's first curling superstars, he got them a big sponsorship deal with a restaurant, and they arrived in Utah with rather blonder, flippier hair than they left British Columbia. The American team looks straight off the farm, the Continentals are frankly rather grim, but the Canadians have the sheen of celebrity. They're the faces with personality, the ones the NBC cameras instinctively cut to: as their agent figured, Kelley's more than just a fabulous set of bristles. Tickets for the curling were the least sought after of the Olympics, so generally the place was filled with guys who'd hoped to get into the two-man luge or the moguls, but found themselves having to make do with whetever-the-hell this was. It's the only sport where the crowd had to be reprimanded for using mobile phones during the "action". Insofar as the audience ever roused itself it was for the occasional cry of "Go, Canuck hotties!"
And then they lost - to the Ayrshire housewives without the agent, the restaurant deal or the Charlie's Angels hair. The Canucks had succumbed to Kournikova Syndrome. In the newspapers, letter writers complained that Kelley's rink had been too busy flouncing from one television interview to another to concentrate on their sport. A post-Brit humiliation picture of her was captioned "The queen of preen".
Will the same wretched fate befall the British skip Rhona Martin? I hope not. But consider the increasingly fraught "Blair project". Since he took office in 1997, Britain's queen of preen has replaced the hereditary House of Lords with an Ottawa-style senate of pliant has-beens; he's introduced Qu├ęb├ęcois "assymetrical federalism" to the Celtic regions; he's toyed with a new flag and introduced a rock arrangement of the national anthem, part of his unceasing Canadianesque demand that ancient institutions and symbols "modernise" themselves for the needs of a multicultural society. And now, in the most telling example of the remorseless Canadianisation of Britain, he's seen to it that you've taken up Canada's national sport. Maybe the EU isn't the bogeyman after all. As Thursday's victory surely confirms, Cool Britannia is cool mainly in the sense that permafrost in Labrador is.
~from The Sunday Telegraph, February 24th 2002.
For more on the 2002 games, "Axels of Evil", Mark's piece on the politics of post-9/11 Winter Olympic skating, is collected in his book The Face Of The Tiger, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available at the SteynOnline bookstore (and which go to prop up his end of the upcoming Mann vs Steyn trial of the century). If you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, don't forget to enter your special promo code at checkout to enjoy special member pricing.
Please join us over the weekend for a pre-Valentine edition of The Mark Steyn Weekend Show. As always, Steyn Club members who've got the stones should feel free to take the shedding brush to him in the comments section - but please do stay on topic and be respectful of your fellow members; disrespect and outright contempt should be reserved for Mark. For more on The Mark Steyn Club, please click here - and don't forget our limited-time Gift Membership, complete with a handsome hardback or CD set personally autographed by Mark.