Curling Drifts to the East, Where Rock Stars Are Being Born

BEIJING — In Japan, the curlers of Team Fujisawa, the women’s team, are rock stars. Their cries of “sodanee,” or “OK,” across the curling rink have become a buzzword. Their snacking habits were once national news.

In South Korea, the number of viewers watching curling on television has soared. On Monday night, roughly a fifth of all households in the country, or about four million people, watched the “Garlic Girls,” the South Korean team, compete against Team Fujisawa in a round-robin match at the Winter Games.

And in China, the government has hired a three-time world champion to coach its curling teams. In parts of the country, amateur curlers are pushing high-pressure cooking pots and woks on outdoor ice, sweeping do-it-yourself rocks with regular brooms.

This is what the future of curling could look like, as the sport slowly shifts away from traditional powerhouses such as Canada and Sweden and toward East Asia.

Already, there’s little doubt among curling watchers that the field at the Beijing Olympics is the most competitive in years. A major reason: the strength of Japan, South Korea and China, whose women’s teams are now ranked in the world’s top 10.

Watching China and Sweden play a round-robin women’s curling match at the Beijing Olympics last week. Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The success of these nations reflects the amount of resources and attention being devoted to a sport that many in East Asia had not even heard of a few decades ago. Top foreign coaches are now leading their teams, players are spending eight to 10 hours a day in the rink, and the money — from corporate sponsors and governments — is flowing.

The competition is especially tough among the women’s teams.Japan has advanced to the semifinals and will play Switzerland on Friday night in Beijing. The other two countries in the semifinals are Sweden and Britain.

“This is easily the strongest field that there’s ever been in the Olympics,” said J.D. Lind, the Canadian head coach of Japan’s teams. “It really will come down to a few shots here and there.”

China embraced curling — known there as “ice kettle” — only in the early 1990s, but achieved international success relatively quickly. The women’s team had existed for little more than a decade when it won the 2009 World Championships and the bronze medal in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

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In the past two weeks, the team defeated Canada, South Korea and Britain in round-robin matches but lost to the United States and Denmark.

China’s secret? Long-term training camps and other investments in a sport for which, in most countries, athletes must hold a day job. In 2019, the government hired Peja Lindholm, a three-time world champion from Sweden, to oversee coaching.

Having a top-down sports program also makes it easier to spot talent at a young age. Zhang Lijun, who leads the women’s curling team in China, took it up at 15. A native of the northern city of Qitaihe, Ms. Zhang was initially a short-track speedskater.In 2019, she won first place in the Asia-Pacific Curling Championships.

Curlers say China’s interest in the sport is a boon for all. “If they get a hold of curling, and it becomes super popular there, it helps everyone,” said Paul Webster, the national development coach of Curling Canada. “There’s more people playing, more money in the sport and more ability for athletes to make money.”

Ms. Yoshida during a high-pressure moment as Japan played the Russian team last week. Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Mr. Lind said Japan’s curling landscape had changed dramatically in the past decade. While curling clubs are closing in parts of Canada, they are opening in Japan, he said, “with lots of people wanting to go.”

“There’s a lot of systematic things in Canada that have made it tough for people to continue,” Mr. Lind said. He said there was a lack of funding and no substantial plan to grow the next generation of curlers.

When Mr. Lind arrived in Japan in 2013, Team Fujisawa had won no medals and lacked international experience. He said the biggest cultural difference was seeing how the team played versus how he had learned the game at home.

In Alberta, he said, curlers learned by playing games. But in Japan, they would hone their technical skills by, for example, sliding through cones 100 times. “Even just to get them to play like a fun game against each other, they’re always kind of a little apprehensive,” Mr. Lind said. “They’re like: ‘No, we just want to practice.’”

The team is named after the skip, 30-year-old Satsuki Fujisawa, and is made up of five women, including two sisters. Three of them come from the northern town of Tokoro, widely considered the birthplace of the sport in Japan.

Curling came to Japan in 1980 after Yuji Oguri, a resident of Tokoro, participated in a workshop with curlers from Alberta.

Mr. Oguri and his friends later began crafting stones from two-liter beer kegs and fashioning their own curling shoes, sticking sheets of plywood and leather to their boots. They created their rinks, stamping on snow to flatten out the surface and periodically sprinkling water to keep it frozen.

“It was tough work, but fun in a way, looking back on it now,” said Shinobu Fujiyoshi, 76, a retired farmer who is the oldest curler on his current team. “There was no amusement or place to go in winter, but it was a place we could get together.”

The sport grew quickly. By 1981, there were 14 teams competing in Tokoro. But it only gained national prominence when an indoor curling rink — the largest in Asia — was built in 1988.

Suyuan Fan of Team China. China embraced curling — known there as “ice kettle” — in the early 1990s and achieved international success relatively quickly. Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

Makoto Tsuruga started practicing at the rink when he was 14. He recalled seeing middle-aged people bending their backs on the ice, some of them even sweeping with brooms.It looked so uncool and I never wanted to play it,” he said.

Mr. Tsuruga, now 44, said he struggled at first with the balance and power needed in curling. “It looks easy, but I found it very difficult,” he said.

He eventually represented Japan at the 1998 Winter Olympics, held in the Japanese city of Nagano. Back then, only he and another player wore microphones during the games. Now, all the players are miked up. He says that’s one reason Team Fujisawa has become so popular.

“In baseball or soccer, the audience can never hear what the players are talking about,” Mr. Tsuruga said. “When they hear the players’ conversations, the audience can also think and understand what the players are trying to do. It’s a sport suitable for TV.”

During the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, television broadcasts showed Team Fujisawa munching on strawberries, apples or dried fruit as they discussed strategy during breaks. It was a hit back home and gave rise to a new buzzword — “snack time,” or “mogumogu time.”

Members of Team China greeted spectators after beating Sweden last week.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

In Japan, curling fans will be cheering Team Fujisawa on.

Osamu Mabuchi, 31, a resident of Tokoro, started curling when he was 10. He said he enjoys the sport because it lets him bond with seniors like Mr. Fujiyoshi. Of Team Fujisawa, he said: “They are so adorable and everyone likes them.”

Sui-Lee Wee reported from Beijing and Makiko Inoue from Tokyo. Jin Yu Young contributed reporting from Seoul and Claire Fu contributed research.

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