The Olympics: Time to curl up with a good rock

The Sochi Olympics are but days away, which means that people who care passionately about curling are about to have their one moment in time. The same is true for cartographers, since before this month there were not a lot of people in the U.S. who could have found Sochi on a map. A month from now? We’ll all know that Stalin once had a dacha there. We’ll be calling it the Russian Riviera around the water cooler. We’ll be discussing that unbelievably tense curling game between Denmark and China.

Okay, maybe that’s hyperbole. The Rutland Rocks Curling Club might be talking about that game. So might the Green Mountain Curling Club. But the rest of us will be debating ice hockey, figure skating, and freestyle skiing. That’s not to diminish the incredible spectator appeal of watching people push rocks the size of car tires across the ice; curling just hasn’t quite caught on yet.

“Curling is pretty quirky,” agreed Nancy Murphy, retired banker, grandmother, and co-founder of the Rutland Rocks Curling Club. “We get very excited about the Olympics. It’s really fun to watch people who know what they’re doing.”

In any case, the Olympics are nearing. What makes them so commendable is the way they expand our horizons. I don’t buy into the feel-good notion that they break down international borders and make us less nationalistic; as a matter of fact, I think they make us more nationalistic. We all count the medals by country, we all pull for our hometown folks. We all know where we were when the U.S. Men’s curling team came out of nowhere to defeat the vaunted curling pros from the Soviet Union in Lake Placid.

Sorry, that was hockey. A different miracle on ice. But you see my point.

Nevertheless, we do learn about other countries and we do glimpse other cultures. My late mother-in-law loved the Olympics for precisely this reason. She could watch figure skating on television for hours, and not just the women’s figure skating that guys watch, hoping desperately for a wardrobe malfunction. She even watched the men. And the couples. But she also loved the travelogues between the events. She savored the back-stories about the athletes that showed small towns in Germany or villages in South Korea. She was riveted by the images of places on the other side of the globe from her perch in Manhattan. And, yes, she would learn a bit about sports that otherwise fly under the radar – sports like curling. Until she died in 2011, she wore a winter parka with her patches from the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

Of course, she may also have worn that parka for three decades because she was unbelievably frugal. This was a woman who used to have her daughter – my wife – hand-deliver her monthly electricity payment to Con Ed so she could save a stamp, even though it was a 20-block walk in often stifling summer heat. Still, she loved the Olympics.

I’m a little bit like her in that regard. The Olympics, I mean. I don’t ask my wife to hand-deliver our bills. I’ll watch the Opening Ceremony. I’ll nod at the dedication of the parents of the athletes. I’ll get a little dewy-eyed at the Proctor & Gamble commercials showing young athletes and their parents working together to someday make it to the slopes or the ice.

The truth is that as jaded as we are, as nationalistic as we are, as tired as we are of commercial exploitation of the games, we still feel a sense of wonder when we watch a figure skater perform a triple lutz. Or when we watch the remarkable work of a snowboarder on an Olympic halfpipe. Or even, just maybe, when we finally give curling a chance, learn the complex strategies involved, and watch from the edge of our couches as a 42-pound rock rolls across the ice.

I won’t be in Sochi next month. But I’ll be watching. And now I can find it on a map.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on January 26, 2014. Chris’s next novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives on July 8.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.