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    Tuesday, February 10, 1998

    Curlers sweep into heart of Olympics

     KARUIZAWA, Japan -- It is no happy accident, I think, that the most fabulous venue of the Winter Olympics, in a most beauteous mountain town, is reserved for the curlers of the world.
     It is only fair. It is only just. Right. Almost, you could say, "a perfect miracle," as the Lucky Box souvenir one of my colleagues bought here for his family back home is described by its maker in what we have all come to know and love as "Japlish," that enchanting combination of English, Japanese and advertising slogan.
     Japlish? You want Japlish? I'll give you Japlish, baby. What follows, word for cunning word, is what is written on the Nagano Air Cushions which sell in these parts for about $5 US a pop:
     "Remark. Hit the centre of bags. The cushion is expanded. In case of expansion again, please do that after water-washing. Harmless to body, but it is sticking a little bit hot liquid. Not going well. Expansion of air bags. You shake it. Then air is smoothy come out.
     "Take care. Not into hands and mouth of children."
     I would guess bloody not.
     But I digress; what I meant to tell you (Remark! Remark!) was that the curlers deserve Karuizawa, which, in addition to being exceptionally attractive, is also a party town, and curlers are, in addition to being exceptionally attractive, party people. Oh, not all of them, sure, but enough of them so that it is hard to miss that this is one unusual group of elite athletes.
     Here at the Olympics, for instance, athletes and journalists usually interact only in formal "mixed zones," which are narrow holding pens laid out according to the modern media caste system (host broadcaster, rights holders, radio, wandering television crews, anyone with a video camera and a cell phone, convicted criminals, dung beetles and the pigs of the written press) and they're about as conducive to yielding sensitive, smart interviews as the instructions on the Nagano Air Cushions are to the intelligent assembling of the silly things.
     But the curlers, somehow, manage to turn this area into a living room. This, of course, is because curlers, being generally older and therefore more firmly rooted in real life than most Olympians, have something to say. Even ordinary questions bring forth wonderful answers, as Sandra Schmirler, the skip of Canada's champion women's team, showed recently when she was asked, for the millionth time, about the difficulty of balancing a new baby and motherhood with the demands of her sport. "In this world," she said briskly, "women do what they have to do. I think women have become really good at that." How else would a young woman from Biggar, Sask., talk but just like that, direct, truthful and wise?
     In most mixed zones, the chat is of training, diet, aches and pains, performance; in the curling mixed zone the other day, the talk was of a missing bottle of Schenley's and who was going to stop by the Brier Patch (the post-game bar where Japlish is king), where, it turned out, the magnificent Joseph, the beautiful baby son of third Richard Hart, was holding court on one of the long tables, lying on his back, his giddy parents and grandparents at his side, kicking and giggling.
     George Karrys, the charming, elastic-faced lead of the Canadian men, meanwhile, was reminiscing warmly about the day that Paul Gowsell, the redhaired fellow who introduced push brooms to the game, once ordered a pizza for his opponents -- while they were still on the ice -- and Paul Savage, a famous Canuck curler who is here as an alternate and a sort of eminence grise for the team, was describing how the Scottish side here has been so foul-mouthed the network had to de-microphone them. "They had the mikes pulled off after one end," Savage said, grinning madly; he was clearly thrilled.
     He, of course, is the man who dropped his drawers at a formal press conference last week to display an Olympic rings tattoo. Who, I ask you, could not love this man, and, in turn, whatever game he loves? His bride, I am sad to report, has beseeched him in an e-mail from home to keep his clothes on for the rest of the Games.
     The point is these are wonderful folks, who live real, full lives most of us would recognize, and they came to the Olympics with all their baggage intact -- bad habits, penchant for fun, babies, parents, the whole shebang. They deserve Karuizawa, which is a snazzy resort town with a mystical active volcano (Mt. Asama), monkeys who can allegedly be seen in town on orange-stealing missions, an Elvis Oldies House, a British pub, dozens of lovely little restaurants and some of the snappiest souvenirs about.
     My friend bought the aforementioned Lucky Box; a couple of us snared cans of Child Hornets. We thought at first the name was an exaggeration, and that the cans would contain honey, but no, reliable sources inform us the cans contain young hornets in soy sauce, and that many people eat them.
     This brings me, I suppose, to another reason why I adore curlers and am now their publicity slave. In the Karuizawa Tourist Guidebook, the No. 1 phrase in the Useful Phrases section is, "Do you have something longer?" I know that curlers would enjoy this as much as I do. I know, too, that they would believe the proper answer to the question is the No. 3 Useful Phrase, "A gentle horse, please."
     As another of my colleagues, the beloved Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun, said this week, "Curling is the best sport in the world from the point of not having to watch it." Strangely, I knew what he meant. I even agreed. No matter how fine the darned game is, it can't hold a candle to the people who play it.