Cartoon character Homer Simpson is set to become the world’s most famous curler in a special episode of the animated series — an unlikely torchbearer for a sport craving respect at the Winter Olympics.
The beer-swilling, doughnut-gobbling character will pursue his Olympic dream in the episode of the popular, long-running series being aired days before the Feb. 12 opening ceremony of the Vancouver Games.
Curlers, once touchy about their sport being lampooned, say they are delighted, having learned to laugh at themselves, and will celebrate their place in the television spotlight with beer-and-doughnut parties across the US.
“It brings attention to the sport,” Rick Patzke, the chief operating officer for USA Curling, said. “I think it is a great thing.”
“We tend to take things more good-naturedly now. In fact we’re encouraging clubs to hold beer-and-doughnut parties,” he said. “We don’t take it personal. Really, Homer and Marge are the quintessential curlers. They are able to laugh at themselves, drink beer and eat doughnuts.”
Curling, first played in medieval times on Scotland’s frozen lochs, is an ancient game struggling to find its place in a modern sporting world.
Since becoming part of the Olympic program at the 1998 Nagano Games, the sport has worked hard to shed its reputation as a game played at weekends by unfit men and women.
While top curlers compete with the same intensity as sprinter Usain Bolt or swimmer Michael Phelps, their good-natured approach to competition is another hallmark of a sport mocked for its image.
“I would say attitudes have changed since 1998,” Patzke said. “Back then the attitude was: ‘Hey, they are making fun of our sport, don’t even bother talking to the media.’ There’s been a lot of education done on both sides and now both have embraced it.”
Though it is still very much a niche sport, the world has become increasingly intrigued by curling.
It attracted significant audiences during the past two Winter Games, topping television ratings for all Winter Olympic sports, USA Curling said, while cultivating a surprisingly hip following.
US country singer Toby Keith is a confirmed fan and Patzke says he has it on good authority that rockers Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi have on occasion rented ice time and picked up the brooms.
Plans have been developed for a curling-based reality show called Rockstars with the winner getting a chance to represent the US at a future Olympics.
The US curling teams even have their own “Hurry Hard” condoms, a brand name inspired by the screams that can be heard at any curling rink as skips urge sweepers to clean the ice in front of the rock with shouts of: “Hurry, hurry, hard.”
Canada has had a long love affair with the sport and, with nearly 1 million registered curlers, has more people playing the game than the rest of the world combined.
Among Canadians, curling enjoys mainstream status with events attracting sold-out crowds and top television ratings.
Record low temperatures of minus 46°C failed to deter 16,000 curling fans from nearly filling Rexall Place in Edmonton last month to watch Kevin Martin defeat Glenn Howard for the right to represent Canada at the Vancouver Games.
In Canada, the best curlers compete on a professional circuit, their sweaters covered with as many sponsors’ logos as a Formula One car.