Five-ring Circus

Stone Cold Foxes

The women of curling reveal all their angles.

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Curling: a sultry sport?
Curling: a sultry sport?

With only four medal events on the schedule, Monday was Vancouver’s slowest and dullest day thus far. It was as if the organizers, foreseeing that Russian ice dancers Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin would blow everyone’s mind with their sheer bad taste, built in a day for us to recover from their act.

In any event, last night’s ice dancing finals failed to excite, for the most part, with the down-to-earth music that accompanied Sunday’s original-dance routines—tangos, tarantellas, Johnny Cash—giving way to the cumulatively deadening bombast of Mahler, Phantom of the Opera, and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The Russians settled for bronze. The American team of Meryl Davis (whose long, fine face gives her the look of a Disney princess drawn by Modigliani) and Charlie White (whose hair needs a trim) were beautifully jubilant on accepting the silver. Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir twizzled away with the gold—and yet no sportswriter has been dorky enough to remember Richardson and compose a “Virtue Rewarded” quip.

Ice dancing shared NBC’s prime time with the men’s aerials qualifying competition, and the elegant twirlybirds of freestyle skiing, totally awesome though they were, failed to satisfy, it being their misfortune to follow the rocketmen and -women of last week’s half-pipe snowboarding. Whereas aerialists are as exotic as circus acrobats, snowboarders, being related to skateboarders, deliver the shock of the familiar. Shaun White’s awesomeness derives in part from his proximity to mortals: Who among us, performing even a modest ollie, has not grasped the awesomosity of catching massive air?

And so we were left with CNBC’s broadcast of a listless men’s curling game, China and the U.S. engaging in conduct unbecoming of superpowers. The match was notable only for introducing viewers to Chris Plys, the U.S. team’s alternate as well as its alterna-hottie. A rugged 22-year-old with two earrings, a shaggy emo-boy haircut, and a megawatt smile, Plys already received sex-symbol treatment from MTV, E.W., and the Boston Herald, which reports that he is actively shunning modeling gigs. And as this grungy dreamboat hails from Duluth, Minn., the question must be asked: Feeling Minnesota, ladies?

Plys’ nascent stardom is but one indication that his obscure sport has brushed away the reputation for tedium that has made it such a tired Winter Olympics punch line. Ratings are off the hook. Last Saturday, out at dinner in suburban Washington, D.C., seated beneath many televisions during the Kentucky-Vanderbilt hardwood barnburner, I witnessed the restaurant tuning its most prominent TV set to a women’s game between the United States and Great Britain. Colbert is onboard.

Scales dropping from its eyes, a popular audience has begun to dig curling’s mesmeric pace, soothing rhythms, and alluring intimacy. What other sport allows the home viewer so much time to study players’ unguarded faces as they focus, fret, and scheme? It is possible to appreciate the sport’s charms even while being ignorant of its intricacies, T.S. Eliot having articulated a truth: Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.

Four years ago, discussing the Torino games with me, Seth Stevenson neatly defined  curling’s appeal: “It features the collision physics of billiards mixed with the spin-heavy, long-distance shot-making of golf.” Further, he and I bonded in crushing on its ice princesses. The ranks of the besotted grow daily: NBC has ogled the curling-stone tattoo on Nicole Joraanstad’s lower belly. John Doyle, a TV critic at The Globe and Mail, is taking heat for deeming the women’s game “the sexiest thing at the Olympics.” And then there is the fact that, in the matter of exhibitionism, the curl girls make Lindsey Vonn look like an Amish agoraphobe. Once again, Ana Arce—a photographer and a former member of the Andorran team—has shot a calendar that captures these lovely and talented women in poses ranging from the artistic to the sultry to the very sultry to the not at all safe for work in a Helmut Newton kind of way. Is it self-exploitative? Is it self-empowering? Are those categories mutually exclusive? Isn’t it good for the sport that the curling stone has gathered some gloss?

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